Book Reviews: The Way Of The Lion, Or Dictator’s Dictionary

August 30, 2018

[vc_row][vc_column width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]By BRUCE DENNILL, NIGEL WILLIS


Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes                                                     6

The Way I See It by Jürgen Schadeberg                                               7.5

NIV Dictionary Of The Bible by JD Douglas & Merrill C Tenney        6

Dictator by Robert Harris                                                                      7


Green Lion achieves an unsettling, possibly unique balance, being at once a slightly claustrophobic human drama, a comment on conservation and the inter-connectedness of species and a mildly dystopian look at a potential future Cape Town. Henrietta Rose-Innes’ protagonist Con is, frankly, a bit of a loser, drawing vicariously on the experiences of those around him while never quite getting it together enough to make real progress in any area in his own right. After his childhood friend Mark is mauled by a captive lioness in a conservation centre on the slopes of Table Mountain, Con reluctantly steps into his now estranged pal’s shoes, trying to discover the essence of what made (or makes) Mark so much more comfortable in his skin than Con has ever been able to be. The enigmatic lioness Sekhmet is the physical manifestation of the amorphous quality that Con seeks, and as she has her own adventures, so his sceptically spiritual journey develops. Con’s personality and modus operandi make him a difficult character to like, which is a significant obstacle to emotional investment in the narrative. It may be part of the point of the story that a dull everyman can achieve something profound given the right set of circumstances, but some of the spark of the tale is doused by Con’s nature. The Cape Town he lives in has lost much of the gloss it enjoys now, and that and the spectre of extinction – of the lions specifically, but also as a concept in general – that lurks throughout the book make this a vaguely unsettling read, beautifully written but tough to engage with fully. – BD


Jürgen Schadeberg took the iconic photograph of Nelson Mandela looking out from his former prison cell on Robben Island shortly before the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994. Over several decades, Schadeberg took many  of the famous photographs that are part of ‘Struggle’ history. The Way I See It is his autobiography. Born in Germany in 1931, Schadeberg spent most of his childhood living in a small flat in Berlin’s famous and fashionable Kurfürstendamm. His mother was a single parent, an actress of sorts. He was there both at the zenith and nadir of Nazi power. Many of us have read social histories of the Third Reich but the stories are, unavoidably, second-hand. Schadeberg’s account  of living in Berlin from 1941 until the end of the Second World War may be unique. Written in fluent English, the story is first-hand by someone who was young enough not to be complicit in any collusion with Nazism but old enough to remember what he saw all around him. The banality of evil the leaps from every page of that narrative. Schadeberg drifted into photography as a teenager after the end of the war. Penniless and with no educational opportunities in sight, this seemed to him to be a reasonable way of making a living. In 1950, Schadeberg followed his mother and her then newly wedded husband to South Africa. His mother had married a British officer. South Africa was thought to be a place in which this relationship would attract less controversy than elsewhere. After about a year of struggling to find gainful employment in Johannesburg, Schadeberg took up a position as  a photographer for Drum magazine. At the time, it was known as African Drum. Colleagues warned him off the job: the magazine was ‘all about natives’ and he would be ‘working with natives’ for ‘next to no money’. He was to be paid ten shillings per published photograph. It was in this position that Schadeberg took so many of the now legendary photographs of the persons, places and events that defined resistance to apartheid: the young, slightly overweight, cigarette-smoking lawyer that was Mandela, the arrest of Yusuf Cachalia, the Defiance Campaign,  the women’s march led by Helen Joseph,  the funeral after Sharpeville,  the forced removals at Sophiatown, the famous photographs of the young Miriam Makeba, Henry Nxumalo,  Ruth First, Hugh Masekela  and Zeke Mphahlele. There were also the photographs of ordinary township, city and rural life. Great photographers have a special kind of perceptiveness. They see big stories captured in a fleeting moment of time. Through his work as a photographer working for Drum, Schadeberg got to know many of the great anti-apartheid personalities of the 1950s and 1960s, a period of deep political pain and repression. His unlaboured observations constitute a valuable historical record. The homosexuality of Anthony Sampson, the editor of Drum who went on to become the author of several illustrious, best-selling, politically analytical books is dealt with in a way that not only makes one understand Sampson better but which also makes one sad that he was a young man at a time that was so much more repressive than our own when it comes to such issues. Schadeberg’s account of an incident at a beach and in an hotel may rank as classics of a straight but non-homophobic man’s bewilderment that one man could be sexually attracted to another. Harassed by the security police, Schadeberg left South Africa in 1964. After working in Europe for almost a decade, he undertook a photographic trip through Africa, starting in early 1973. It lasted about five years. The travel was gruelling and many of the places he visited remote but his love for the continent radiates through his account of his travels. In the early 1980s, Schadeberg returned to South Africa to collect negatives of photographs he had taken while working here previously. He detected that political change was in the air. He and his wife Claudia ended up deciding to stay – for over 20 years. This led to new careers in publishing and film-making, in addition to continuing that in photography. In 2007, the couple left South Africa for France, Germany and Spain, where they now live. Schadeberg is cryptic as to his reasons for these moves in recent years. Perhaps growing up as boy in Nazi Germany during the war years left him with a sense of insecurity, in a state of permanent restlessness. Nevertheless, The Way I See It is a highly readable contribution to an understanding of a politically dreadful but vibrant and heroic time in South African history. It helps us to see our country at the time through the lens of a decent and compassionate human being, who beats no ideological drums. – NW (Willis is a judge of the Supreme Court of Appeal. He writes in his personal capacity)


It’s much more common nowadays for scholars to hop online to find additional information when studying a particular text. But there remains a certain charm and, once a printed resource is well used, an easy familiarity when having a dog-eared tome at your elbow. NIV Dictionary Of The Bible is such a book, a 650-page labour of love by seasoned theologians JD Douglas and Merrill C Tenney, which offers insights into the Bible in the form of an overarching look at biblical history and culture, studies of a number of larger topics as well as brief dictionary entries on thousands of smaller bits of information. If you have the time and desire to work your way through the Bible with this open simultaneously, the Dictionary will certainly enrich the experience and expand its users’ knowledge base. – BD


Politician, orator, author, philosopher and teacher Marcus Tullius Cicero has been a favourite character of historical fiction novelist Robert Harris for many years. Dictator begins with the great man in his twilight years, and as literary send-offs go a protagonist could hardly ask for better. This book covers a tremendously volatile period when Julius Caesar, Pompey, Mark Antony and Octavian, all hugely powerful figures who Cicero was involved with as advisor, friend, political adversary (or instrument) and bitter enemy – depending on the circumstances – were active. Harris does well, via his usual meticulous research, to paint a clear picture of a man whose motives are often anything but clear. There is no doubt – and this is true of the many historically accurate achievements included in the text here – that Cicero was possessed of an intellect almost without equal in the Roman Empire, but he was also an incredibly fickle man, largely based on being sensitive and not wanting to hurt or be hurt, but also because of an equal and opposite force in the form of his political nous, which could make him ruthless and unlikeable. One of the overwhelming impressions the book leaves you with is a hopelessness about politics ever serving communities in a sustainably positive way. As you read about the back-stabbing (literally, in Caesar’s case), the false promises, the lack of service delivery and the hatred fomented in different factions of the population as a result, it’s impossible to ignore the similarities to the front page of your local newspaper – wherever you are in the world. Thousands of years have passed and an equal number of mistakes have been made, but we appear to have learned nothing. Dictator encourages that sort of insight through its blend of action, information and, for the most part, good pacing. – BD[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_widget_sidebar sidebar_id=”default_sidebar”][/vc_column][/vc_row]