Book review: Thirteen Hours

Published May 13, 2010


Thirteen Hours

by Deon Meyer

He keeps wanting to introduce himself thus: "My name is Bennie Griessel and I am an alcoholic", but usually manages to stop in time. Sometimes, though - even when questioning a suspect - it just seems the right way to begin. Mat Joubert, meanwhile, thinks of Bennie - and indeed, of himself - as the "dinosaurs of the SAPS... an endangered, dying breed".

He's realistic: "Political global warming and racial climate change should have taken their toll long ago, but here they were still, two old carnivores in the jungle, limbs stiff, teeth blunt, but still not completely ineffective."

As author Deon Meyer tells it, Cape Town is a jungle. Its beasts of prey sometimes kill because they must, and sometimes for pleasure. Others kill for revenge: "...he said Africa took everything he had... Africa tore out his heart. Why couldn't he do that to Africa?"

Take a young American backpacker, one early morning on Lion's Head. But she's not there to admire the view or "the impressive beauty of the city in the rising sun's soft light". She's there because she's running for her life. Running, then hiding, lest a knife slash across her throat. If it could happen to her companion, it can happen to her.

What's young Rachel Anderson's life-and-death connection with the withered ghost of a singer who once lived for the adulation of her audiences, but who now cares so little for appearances that she leaves her hair its natural blonde and silver? How old she looks now, this alcoholic with her still deep, rich voice who drinks from 11am until passing-out time.

Meyer weaves their stories over 13 hours that will pass in a flash for the reader. For some of the characters, damaged physically or psychologically, there'll be a hint of a future. It's Meyer's talent to show, without labouring the point, that life is far more than an episode; that even as a bullet strikes home and consciousness ebbs there can be curiosity mixed with the inevitable, momentary regret.

He also does bloody-mindedness rather well. Take the one "dinosaur" describing his frustration: "I've been with the Provincial Task Force for four months now, and I still don't have a portfolio," said Joubert. "No people, no job description. They don't know what to do with me. John Afrika has told me I have to accept that I will not be promoted - that is simply the way it is now. That wouldn't bother me so much, but just sitting around... I'm also getting too old for all the s***, Benny, the National Commissioner's monkey business, the disbanding of the Scorpions, the racial quotas that change every year; everything is politicised. And if Zuma becomes President, the Xhosas will be out and the Zulus will be in and everything will change again - a new hierarchy, new agenda, new troubles."

Just an old guard whinge at the winds of change, then? Not so; Meyer dissects them all. Take the not-very-popular Inspector Mbali Kaleni: she's abrasive, somewhat self-righteous, not shy to speak her mind or show her disapproval of weakness or immorality. She's also way overweight and trails a perpetual miasma of fried chicken.

A "pain in the gat", according to Inspector Fransman Dekker. "She has the moerse irritating habit of appearing out of nowhere, like a f****** bad omen. She sneaks up, quiet as a wet dream, on those little feet, and all of a sudden there she is..."

She's also analytical, capable of sitting down on her rather broad behind and working through what she knew, what she suspected, and why the two didn't always add up. With the right mentoring, she'll be a terrific detective. (Mentoring's what Griessel's all about now, what with the booze, let alone his pale male status, seemingly closing off the avenues of promotion. That's his most useful contribution, at least until the messy stuff hits the fan.)

Kaleni has a few sharp chirps of her own. As in, sometimes she just "didn't understand it. A person had to eat. It was lunchtime and here was a table and chairs. That was the problem with this country, she thought, all these little cultural differences. A Zulu eats when she must eat; it was normal, natural, and no big deal. She wasn't bothering anyone; she had no issue with how and what and when brown people or white people ate. If they wanted to eat their tasteless white sandwiches behind closed office doors or somewhere in a claustrophobic little kitchen, that was their problem. She didn't judge them."

Meyer has passed beyond being a "mere" thriller writer, though that's not a skill to be downplayed. He can take us through the stages by which someone of great talent becomes an alcoholic, without being in the least didactic and so that we understand from the inside out, as it were, rather than as an observer.

In the same way that he lays bare such an individual he can open up a whole industry, with never a hint - apart from in his generous Acknowledgments - of the mountain of research undertaken, then sifted for relevance.

Local readers will be painfully familiar with the horrors of officialdom's delaying tactics so well depicted; what may surprise is the way one arm of government will be so wearyingly dedicated to dragging out the minutiae of minimal co-operation with the representatives of another arm of government.

There are also some choice insights. Take the "old man with too much time on his hands and a doctor son in Canada who emails me and tells me to keep busy, as I still have a lot to give". He's writing one last book. "It's about the rebuilding of South Africa after the Boer War. I'm writing it for my people, the Afrikaner, so they can see they have been through the same thing as the black people are going through now. They were also oppressed, they were also very poor, landless, beaten down. But through affirmative action they got up again. Also economic empowerment. There are very great parallels. The English also complained about service delivery at the municipalities which was suddenly not as good any more, because incompetent Afrikaners had taken over..."

You can put this thriller down, after you've raced to the end, and still have that old man's thought nagging at the back of your mind, from whatever racial perspective you care to approach it. Just how valid is it, just how close are the parallels? Do they even exist, or is this mere special pleading?

In Meyer we have more than a writer who entertains, and also more than a novelist who educates us about Kaleni's "little cultural differences": his greatest attribute is that he sets us thinking about ourselves and our country and our future. Painlessly.

- Thirteen Hours is published by Hodder & Stoughton at R185.

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