Book Reviews: Recovering Country, Or Dead Democracy

November 1, 2015



No Country by Kalyan Ray                                                                         6

The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy                                                          7

Rough Diamond by Tshidi Gule                                                                9

Recovering Democracy in South Africa by Raymond Suttner               7


No Country follows the families of two Irish migrants, Brendan, a political refugee who who escapes to India, and Padraig, who survives the Potato Famine and sails to America. Brendan establishes a flourishing business in Calcutta, but remains deeply conscious of his homeland and the woman he left behind, but is unaware that she has borne his child and has died in childbirth. Brendan, his great friend, takes the orphaned child to Canada, enduring a journey of extraordinary sorrow and hardship. The novel winds its way through successive generations, recounting appalling human tragedies, including the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in the Indian city of Aritsar, the fire in the Triangle Shirtwaste factory in New York, the partitioning of the Raj, and also intimate accounts of migrants seeking to establish a foothold in new countries. This is in many ways a novel about the early stages of globalisation. The novel is not well structured. There are too many personalities speaking with too many voices. At times the social history become too dominant, too intentional. It does disservice to the quality of the novel. As regards the characters, the good are too good and the bad have no redeeming features. The novel begins and ends with a murder. Fatalism underlies much of the writing. Nevertheless it is a worthwhile read. The prose if clear and often excellent. There are moments when the reader will be totally immersed in the drama of some episode or deeply moved by courage and suffering. Good but not brilliant.  – RH


Journeys into the future offer endless possibilities for creative plot imagery.  Remember Soylent Green’s over-population scenario, The Time Machine, taking us to an idyllic community with evil lurking in the dark? On The Beach and Nineteen Eighty Four? My own book The Big Lie, about to be published, is a time travel from Homo Sapiens to Homo Spiritualensis, mankind’s final phase in evolution. The Dead Lands is more horrific than any of those.  The story takes us to a fortified community in a walled-in sanctuary to protect itself against a deadly virus that has wiped out most people on earth.  A global nuclear onslaught has furthermore destroyed and poisoned whatever remained alive into grotesque and dangerous mutations.  The last human remnant is what the sanctuary folk think they are but then a messenger arrives at the gate.  This book is a fascinating portrayal of a totalitarian society under siege that takes deadly measures to isolate itself from the outside world.  A small party escapes, guided by the messenger to find a place where, it is told, life continues normally.  They start the trek from east to west through the land  that once was America.  Percy writes on the borderline between the plausible and the implausable, introduces magic which enriches the text (if science fiction is acceptable, so should magic fiction be – thanks Harry), forever urging the reader onward to follow these characters on their trek.  The story is allegorical of the danger that threatens civilization and stirs the mind to ponder. Isn’t that what novel writing is about?  – DB


How to polish a diamond to a sparkle is what this book is about – an autobiography that tells a story about a woman who had a dream and made it come true by self-assured perseverance with the help of mentors showing the way. Her first encounter with a mentor, Basetsana Kumalo,  1994’s Miss South Africa, made her realise that mentor assistance would be a great benefit travelling the rocky road to success in a predominantly male environment. As a qualified medical doctor, she had proved her capabilities but dreamed of setting up a chain of health clinics. In a number of “lessons” Tshidi leads the reader to important stepping stones and shows the pitfalls of establishing a successful business. This book is a great entrepreneurial guide but it is more. Her lessons show that the true substance of life is caring and being cared for, the carry-over of human spirit in its most wonderful richness. She pleads for a sisterhood in which young girls are guided to make them aware of their spiritual power, to achieve, to experience values, to accept a challenge. In that sense, Rough Diamond is more than a business/entrepreneurial guide. One can extrapolate this story and relate Dr G ‘s (as she is affectionately known) experience to manage one’s life, find fulfillment. Why do I think this is a great book? It carries good news in hard times; one gets to know good people and the message is passed on in a style of writing that does not even remotely reminded me of classroom lecturing.  – DB


Recovering Democracy in South Africa comprises a series of essays and editorials principally from the years 2010 to 2014, but with some from earlier dates. It is a moving collection, written by a man passionate about democracy in South Africa and deeply distressed by the developments of the Zuma era. It is also a challenging book, because Suttner in his shrewd analysis of South African politics show possible ways forward. The title  is a rallying cry. The first of the seven groupings of essays is specifically about the Jacob Zuma era. His scalpel dissects the Zuma persona, the betrayal of moral standards, the politics of patronage and the significance of Nkandla. Indeed he sees Nkandla as  signifying our effective disenfranchisement. The second deals with the attacks by ANC stalwarts on legality and constitutionalism. He is particularly concerned about the state of policing and the ANC’s proclivity for either conniving at or encouraging violence, even at community level. Suttner envisages some sort of pact between a broad range of sectors which have never worked together before, workers’ movements, non-working-class sectors, religious bodies, professionals and big capital, building unity in the defence of clean government and constitutionalism. The third grouping of essays covers gender and sexuality. “Hyper-patriarchy ”is seen to permeate public discourse. The President himself in his personal life takes the lead, indulging in a series of sexual relationships intrinsically unequal by virtue of his wealth and status. Suttner is equally concerned about the police force’s lack of will to bring bring to book cases of gender-based violence. This series of essays is disturbing, clear-thinking and important. “Culture, customs and identities” has some valuable things to say. It is however more about race than about issues of culture. He is on home ground when discussing leaders, leadership and ethics. He is an insider, with scholarship, acumen and experience. We are treated to discussions on Albert Luthuli, Bram Fischer, and Walter and Albertina Sisulu. Here is a real challenge to those who create folksy or convenient figures out of extraordinary people. It is a pity that Suttner’s insights may not have the broad impact they deserve. The ANC history is set out and explained in the sixth section. The seventh section is forward-looking. Here are direct challenges and careful proposals for achieving good goals. The rise of the EFF is put in context and treated sensibly. The most important suggestions centre round popularising democracy: making sure that there are ways of enabling ordinary citizens to participate in their own governance. The belief that somehow the ANC and its centralist structures could be regarded as embodying the popular will, must be discarded. Rural people must be released from the power of traditional leaders. The newly urbanised must be given means of gaining their own space without the need for violent protests. This volume is sometimes repetitive, given the nature and dating of the pieces which make it up. The only mention of the DA in this book is with reference to the compact between that party and shack-dwellers in Kwa-Zulu Natal. This Suttner views with approval but also some suspicion! This is a good book. By the way, many of the written essays are backed up by videos which can easily be accessed. – RH