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Review: Tales of the Metric System

Published Mar 25, 2015

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by Imraan Coovadia, Umuzi, R250

Who would have thought a struggle story could be so brilliantly original?

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In his fifth novel, Tales of the Metric System, Imraan Coovadia explores 10 days in the lives of a motley crew of characters, spread across four decades, from 1970 to 2010. Each story can be read independently, but they all have the backdrop of the South African political scene.

It sounds simple until you tumble to the fact that people (real and fictional) are drifting in and out of the narratives, their stories intersecting.

Some figures are named, others are travelling incognito.

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The first tale, set in Durban in 1970, grabbed me.

It introduces intellectual anti-apartheid activists, Ann and Neil Hunter, part of the cloak-and-dagger world of communists, undercover agents and informants, tapped phones and police raids, where the danger of assassination or “falling” from a 10th floor window is never far away.

We return to the heart of the revolution and meet Ann again in 1985 at a gathering of ANC exiles at the Soviet Embassy in London.

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“You think we’ll go home in our lifetime?” asks one wistfully.

Ann is now with Sebastian, a writer of Cold War spy novels, and once more the atmosphere of fear and suspicion is tangible. Among this contingent of comrades, Sebastian offers his take on South Africa’s future.

“Despite all this talk of socialism and communism, you might end up as the most capitalistic country in the world,” he predicts.

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But before that, in 1973, we meet Victor Moloi and Mr Shabangu in a tale of a missing pass book.

We bump into Shabangu again, in 1990, in The Necklace, a harrowing story of a young township thief. Pilferers and criminals abound. In 2010, in a yarn titled Vuvuzela, we encounter a bizarre gang of cellphone thieves.

One of them drives a GTI “with gold hubcaps and a tinted windshield, slouching low, black as a packet of John Player Specials”. Can’t you just see it?

In 1979 we meet Yash, a guitarist from Phoenix who plays in a surf ‘n’ turf restaurant in uMhlanga.

The author has an amazing eye for detail and the ability to create a sense of time and place in each of these eras.

As the lives of the various individuals – random but inter-connected – unfold, key events and situations are explored: the rugby and soccer world cups, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Aids denialism, the infamous arms deal

.

Any author who can transform the oft-repeated account of the struggle and all that followed into an enjoyable, readable and entertaining series of tales, deserves to have his books flying off the shelves.

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