The Power of One

A long time ago, I put Ken in charge of my opinions. For a while, I found it incredibly amusing to whenever someone asked me a question, look at him and say "what do I think about that?". Yes, yes, I can see all of you rolling around on the floor laughing right now - so maybe you had to be there or more likely, I'm telling it wrong. Trust me: it was hilarious. However, when it comes to books, Ken can be my arbiter of literary obsessions any time. Last year, he told me about Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and about three weeks ago, he told me to read The Power of One. I’d looked at the book prior to Ken's recommendation, but the mention of boxing had turned me off - I don't like the sport, I don't see the point in two grown people pummeling each other into a bloody mess while hordes of rapid fans scream themselves hoarse with bloodlust. However, Ken hasn't been wrong yet, so I humbly obeyed and am so very glad I did.

The Power of One takes place in South Africa between 1939 and the early 50s. It is an fictiona;ized autobiography, in the sense that the author, Bryce Courtenay, says that the book is about things that happened to him, but larger than life. We meet Peekay when he is sent to boarding school at the age of five (poor little mite) and follow him until he is approximately 18 years old. It is the story of a boy that becomes the story of a country, as we see the development of the official policy of apartheid, which has its basis in a horrific treatment of the South African blacks, both by the English and by the Boers, although many of the latter have an edge in terms of being particularly abominable.

And yet, sometimes, they don't. Throughout the book, we meet adults who take Peekay under their wing. Many of these are Boers who are at once horribly racist and yet, beyond kind to a small boy and it reminded me that although it is easy to decide that bigotry is bad, individual bigots may still be good people (at least to people of the same background). That we are products of our environment. Anyway, back to the plot. Peekay's mentors help him find education and support him in his goal of becoming the welterweight champion of the world. Which brings us to the boxing. There's quite a bit of it in the book, but it wasn't a turnoff for me - on the contrary, I found myself getting caught up in the training and the fights. As a result, although I am still not a huge fan of the sport, I can now see that it is indeed a sport and understand more about it that I did before. In fact, I learned so much about it, that I was able to critique a challenge in last week’s Survivor based on what I learned from Peekay and his friends!

It took me two weeks to read the book and during that time, I spoke about it constantly to friends and family, positively strong-arming them into getting the book. It is a deceptively simple story, told in a language that becomes increasingly complex as Peekay ages, peppered with sentences and descriptions of such transcendent beauty that I quite lost my breath at times. It is a bildungsroman, a story of personal development and there are literary and social themes that I undoubtedly could spend hours analyzing, but mostly, I focused on the fact that it is a ripping good yarn.

I also learned a lot, although I can't quite put my finger on why or how. Somehow, this book seems to have nudged me a bit further down my own path, helping me come to terms with some things, find peace in others. It is a kind of book that I want to read again - in fact, I had barely begun the third section of the book when I started talking about how much I was looking forward to reading it again. And I will, only not quite yet. I think I have to chew on this one for a little while longer. Oh, and read the sequel! Which, and I can't believe my luck, is also read by the same narrator, Humphrey Bower, who does an absolutely phenomenal job not only in telling the story, imbuing the words with the appropriate sentiments, but also does accents better then almost anyone I've heard and considering that this book has a vast cast of characters, ranging in background from British, to Zulu, Afrikaans, German, Russian and more, that's saying something.

One last funny… It’s changed my speech. One of my favourite characters in the book, a very enthusiastic and charming German professor, has a tendency to say absolutle! (rhymes with strudel) and for the past week, whenever I say ‘absolutely’, well… it doesn’t come out that way.

If you haven’t read this – and given it’s been out for years, I may be the last person to discover it - go get it. Run, do not walk.

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