South African Crucible for Courage

THE POWER OF ONE by Bryce Courtenay, New York: Random House, 524 pp., $19.95

SOME 150 miles to the east of Johannesburg, the mile-high heartland of South Africa falls away abruptly in an escarpment of grand and rugged beauty to a land of roving baboons and of leopards; of cactus blossoms and alloes; of the flaming kaffirboom tree and the brilliant flowering red-hot poker.

Against this exotic backdrop, Bryce Courtenay has written a compelling tale of a young boy's refusal to be demoralized by fearful racial torment; of the discovery that the elements of loyalty, strength, and courage can be fused into the ``power of one'' so that nothing worthy of achievement lies beyond his grasp.

The work is an epic, flowing from the imagination of a highly talented new fiction writer. But in part, the experiences of the young hero, Peekay, are those of Courtenay himself.

A leading figure in the Australian advertising industry, the author was born and raised in South Africa. Like his fictional hero, Courtenay would have experienced the divisions the turbulent war years produced, including the rise of Hitlerism among a segment of Afrikaners, who saw in the Nazi leader a savior who would rid them of the English yoke. Later he would have watched the changing of the guard as English political dominance passed into Afrikaner hands. Also like his hero, Courtenay spent a year in the copper mines of Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, before going on to Oxford University.

Perhaps because of the great bond between the little boy and his Zulu nanny during his early years, Peekay effortlessly sees the absurdities of a system based solely on white privilege, not from any high sense of moral purpose, but because he is naturally drawn to people for what rather than who they are.

Peekay's friends and mentors are drawn from Afrikaners as well as English-speakers. They also include the twins, Dum and Dee, from the Shona tribe; his beloved Doc, the German professor of music; and Morrie, who in his own words, is ``the token Jew'' at the exclusive boarding school they attend in Johannesburg. Then there is Geel Piet, the mixed-race lag (prisoner) at the Barberton jail, who showed him how dancing feet and a moving head could make a small man the equal of a more powerful one in the boxing ring.

Significantly, too, Peekay is able to impersonalize the brutality he witnessed as an outsider at the Barberton jail:

``We saw,'' he says of himself and Doc, incarcerated as an enemy alien for the duration of the war, ``the brutality around us, not as a matter of taking an emotional side or of good versus evil, but the nature of evil itself....''

The pace never falters as the author's well-chosen words parade a steady flow of clearly drawn images: from a wizened witch doctor's kindly rapport with a troubled little white boy as they squat facing each other over a circle drawn in the sand, to the frozen moment when a deadly mamba's swaying head and flicking tongue come to within inches of the now young man's face, and on to a fight scene in the copper mines of central Africa, where skills nurtured from childhood triumph over brute force and bestiality and a personal hatred is finally dissipated.

Consider the way the author introduces the reader to the five-year-old's arrival at boarding school:

``Then began a time of yellow wedges of pumpkin, burnt black and bitter at the edges; mashed potato with glassy lumps; meat aproned with grissle and grey gravy; diced carrots; warm, wet, flatulent cabbage; beds that wet themselves in the morning; and an entirely new sensation called loneliness.''

A reader can only ache for the little boy at this stage. But though periods of trial, even humiliation, follow, they all build the character, determination, and muscle needed for ultimate triumph and a clear road to Oxford.

While the day-to-day events in the book accurately represent the South Africa of the time, the work remains a fictional exaggeration that includes a touch of African mysticism. It is too much to expect that so many highly charged events would enter the life of one child, and readers may question the sustained quality of the conversations between Peekay and Morrie at high school, brilliant students though they both are. But, that aside, this is a cracking tale, as inspiring as it is entertaining.

A steady stream of South Africans, frustrated by a government unwilling to reform its race practices, has emigrated to other parts of the English-speaking world in recent decades. Some have gone to England, a few to the United States, and many more to Canada. But a majority have been drawn to Australia and New Zealand. Courtenay is among the latter group, and in this instance Australia's gain is a significant loss to South Africa's literary community.

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