Book Reviews: Broken Odyssey, Or A Restless Spy In Corinth

November 4, 2021

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By ROB HOFMEYR, KATE DENNILL, DRIES BRUNT

Broke And Broken by Lucas Ledwaba and Leon Sadiki

The Undoing Of Saint Silvanus by Beth Moore

Odyssey Of An African Opera Singer by Musa Ngqungwana

A Spy In Time by Imraan Coovadia

Thief Of Corinth by Tessa Afshar

The Restless Sea by Vanessa de Haan

 

Broke And Broken is a tough and uncompromising account of the migrant labour system that has kept our mining industry and iconic gold-mines going. It concentrates on the Eastern Cape as a source of migrant labour, but much is applicable to all the areas from which cheap labour was drawn. The first section consists of the stories of individuals who have gone home broken and diseased to waste away and eventually die. These are the men who have received the dreaded discharge letters and now eke out a living in their home territories. Some are from families with long traditions of mining. Others were young men seeking cash and adventure and regarding this as a rite of passage. There are many who survived and will survive, but here we have the harrowing stories of those who have died or are dying. From these stories emerges a picture of harsh greed and indifference to human costs. While there has gradually been a change in regulations and a growing awareness of social responsibility, this has all been too gradual and too late. Slow deaths in beautiful surroundings, indigent families and despair and hate are the elements of the narratives. The second section tells of the legal battle that is being waged. Research comparatively recently published shows that the mining houses knowingly sent workers underground without adequate safety measures. The Glen Grey Act was passed in 1894, a cynical measure to force the men of the Eastern Cape into the migrant labour system. This was a startling act of collusion between governments and capitalists. It was only the beginning of a long history of the same. In 1984, the incoming ANC government compromised and has continued to compromise in many areas. There has been progress in the prevention of, treatment for and compensation for silicosis. A series of court judgements have been eclipsed by a Constitutional Court ruling in 2011, which affirmed injured workers’ rights to sue for fair compensation. The authors include a good review of court proceedings and the arguments being raised by both mining houses and miners. It is an ongoing story and well documented. The account proceeds to the last chapters, which deal with gold and contemporary politics and with the ongoing struggle for fair treatment for those who paid an exorbitant price for the prosperity of share-holders. An overview of Marikana features in this section. It is an interesting and important read, taking us beneath the somewhat simplistic views of many economic journalists. There is a great deal more to read in this field. Looking into the future, Eddie Webster’s work is extremely important, though it is possibly outside the scope of this book. – RH

 

Beth Moore has become a household name by virtue of an unassailable intersection of passion and untiring devotion to Scripture, manifesting in deeply worthwhile Bible studies that have fed and taught women and men all around the globe. The Undoing Of Saint Silvanus by Beth Moore is a departure from her usual mode in that she has crafted a novel for the first time. True to type though, the book has strong themes running through dealing with the characters’ faith journeys, as well as the eternal themes of good versus evil. Set in colourful New Orleans, with lovable, quirky characters, the story unfolds and draws the reader in by appealing to all the senses. An enjoyable first attempt in this genre. – KD

 

From childhood years till achieving world fame as an opera singer, Musa tells it all in Odyssey Of An African Opera Singer. As a child, he and his family suffered the hardship and indignity of life in apartheid, and the cruelty of suppression is brought home. Then his talent as a singer is recognised in choir practice and he reaches the top, being acknowledged as one of the great talents in the highly contested world of opera singing. I read symbolism where I can. For his first audition, Musa sang the High Priest aria O’Isis und Osiris in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. The first line goes, “Within these holy portals, revenge remains unknown.” Did that line steer Musa’s life?  He created his own future looking forward, not backward, reaching a sublime height – also the theme of that opera. It’s a great book and one with an encouraging message for all. – DB

 

A Spy In Time is science-fiction of a high order, set principally in Johannesburg, which is the only city to have survived a collision with a supernova, thanks to its maze of mining tunnels. Enver is in the service of the Historical Agency, a benign body that has established itself in the ruins of science and technology to ensure the survival of the remnants of the world. S Natanson is the mythical messiah scientist whose work is the foundation of the Agency. Enver must move between the past, the future and the “present”, in whatever way that may be defined. He needs to change the past to ensure the survival of the future, and he must do so at huge personal risk. His immediate supervisor, Shanumi Six, dies on his first mission which is to Marrakech, leaving him isolated and threatened and ultimately having to be rescued from the grave in which he entombs himself. But this is not the end of Shanumi Six, since her demise is n another era. Other missions take him to outer space and to far-flung parts of the world. He is contending with a sinister figure, Dr Muller, who threatens the work of the Agency and the fragile order within the world and whose ultimate confession sets out the strange connection between the injustices of history and the disorder of existence. There are other strands to the web: Enver must prove that he is not a double-agent, he must ensure that he is not white, since white skin is a sign of degradation and treachery. There is contention between robotic creatures and human thinking and volition. The book has extraordinary and vivid characters, wonderful reconstructions of life in historic cities, wonderful depictions of apocalyptic battles. It builds to a gripping, frightening climax. Not my normal choice of topic, but it was hugely enjoyable. – RH

 

Poetic licence is one thing, but when an author holds an MDiv from Yale and enters into First Century Greece with startling authenticity and plausibility, it delivers sheer pleasure to the reader. Ably weaving the story of a headstrong young heroine called Ariadne into the complex history of Corinth and Athens under Roman rule, Afshar then also entwines the influence of early Christianity, partly through the inclusion of the Apostle Paul as a character. Although the events of Thief Of Corinth are not taken from scripture, the powerful themes of gospel grace, forgiveness and transformation are provided via sanctified imagination. Wrestling with the still relevant concepts of a young woman’s role in a patriarchal society, the complexities of adoption, and the effects of divorce in a family, this is a gripping and highly enjoyable novel. – KD

 

The Restless Sea is a first novel by Vanessa de Haan and what an excellent read it is. Let me begin with one negative, though: the storyline depends perhaps too much on an almost impossible coincidence of characters. We are in London in the years leading up to the Second World War, and Jack is the son of a merchant seaman and a member of a gang of petty thieves, but he’s seeking to establish his independence while playing guardian to his younger sister. When war breaks out, he joins the merchant navy. Charlie enters the way at a different level: he is a brilliant young pilot from a well-connected family, assigned to a naval squadron and operating off aircraft carriers. He falls in love with the beautiful Olivia. All expectations are that they will marry. Olivia is the protected daughter of an army family, sent to Scotland to spend the war years away from the dangers of London. The possibilities afforded by life in the wild countryside and the need for self-sufficiency transform her. This is a novel about the romance between Jack and Olivia, and the interplay of Olivia, Jack, his sister and Charlie. But it is far more than the tenuous threads of love and friendships, of gallantry and remorse. The substance of the book is in the fields of war in which each is immersed. It is a gripping account of the jeopardies of the merchant navy, the extraordinary bravery and resourcefulness of men who received little recognition and often little consideration; of the dangers of U-boat attacks; the near-suicidal convoys sent to support the Russians; and the fortitude of men marooned on ice-bound coasts. It gives insight into the camaraderie of flight crews, the tensions between naval men and pilots, the hazards of their missions. Throughout the book we are aware of excellent research, delving into archives, personal correspondence and every possible other source. De Haan does not parade the information. She uses it to write a completely plausible account of those tough years, of the suffering and the destruction, of the fortitude and resourcefulness and the personal drama of wartime life. The huge social changes that came with waging this war are graphically and dramatically presented. This is a book to read with interest and to enjoy because of the quality of the writing. – RH

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