Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Review of "The Power of One" by Bryce Courtenay

Peekay epitomizes the underdog. As a “rooinek” (of British blood), the other students in his largely Afrikaans boarding school hate him. They mock Peekay for speaking English, “the infected tongue that had spread like a plague into the sacred land and contaminated the pure, sweet waters of Afrikanerdom.” As a white kid in 1940s South Africa with a soul untainted by racism, he doesn’t fit in with the white supremacist crowd. As a boxer, he is small and stringy, nowhere near as big as Boers he fights in the ring. His name itself is a derivative of the nickname his elementary schoolmates gave him: Pisskopf. Yeah, it’s fair to say Peekay is an outcast.

The first 100 pages of this boxing story deal very little with actual boxing. Byrce Courtenay instead takes readers through Peekay’s struggles as a bedwetting screw-up in an Afrikaner boarding school for elementary students. Peekay is brutalized by his peers, forced by his superiors to sleep in his own piss. His only friend is a chicken named Granpa Chook, but even the chicken doesn’t stick around long. Peekay develops a bleak and cynical view of the world during these formative years. (“One thing is certain in life, just when things are going well, soon afterward they are certain to go wrong.” “All children are flotsam driven by the ebb and flow of adult lives.”)

Young Peekay’s narration is lovely, and considering this novel tops 500 pages, a solid narrator is a necessity. Peekay does offer a disclaimer to his own narration: “You may ask how a six-year-old could think like this. I can only answer that one did.” Peekay’s narration, language and personal understanding grow and develop with time and pages. By the end of the book, Peekay speaks as a young man who has garnered a whole lot of life experience.

The first mention of boxing comes while Peekay is on a train from his boarding school to home. Here young Peekay meets Hoppie, a railroad worker and amateur welterweight. Peekay is changed after watching Hoppie defeat a light heavyweight with a couple dozen extra pounds. It’s Peekay’s first introduction to boxing, and it has a profound impact on the impressionable boy. The fight, to Peekay, is “a perfectly wrought plan where small defeats big. First with the head and then with the heart.” Seeing Hoppie knock out a much bigger man gives Peekay hope. “ I had witnessed small triumph over big. I was not powerless.” It is Hoppie who helps Peekay realize his life-long goal: to become welterweight champion of the world. “You see,” Peekay explains when he decides to start training, “I’ve got to start boxing because I have to become the welterweight champion of the world.”

Peekay first laces his up gloves in a South African prison a few miles from his house. The guards allow him in at 5:30 each morning to train with some of the inmates. It’s in this harsh environment that Peekay learns the fundamentals of boxing. An imnate named Geel Piet agrees to teach Peekay, telling him, “I will help you to be a great boxer.” Peekay narrates, “And that was how it all got started.”

The narration is so raw and pure that I feel like I’m there with Peekay as he learns the Liverpool Kiss, a headbutting move Geel Piet teaches him to use in a dirty fight. Peekay soaks up all the life lessons boxing has to offer, and he is able to describe these revelations in a manner that is free of boxing clichés. (“More fights are lost by underestimating your opponent than by any other way.” “The mind is the athlete.” “Manipulation can be an important weapon in the armory of the small and weak.”) In his first ring fight, he is seen as the underdog even by his coach, who tells him, “You’re going to get your head knocked in, but it will do you good.” Of course, Peekay gets no such head injury. He goes on to win, and win again, each time against bigger fighters.

The latter half of this fat book is a broad and expansive journey through the chaos of South Africa. It’s incredible how hard World War II hits South African, considering most of the bombs and bullets are exploding thousands of miles away. Peekay befriends a German professor, musician and botanist, just in time for the South African authorities to send him to a concentration camp, even after all charges of espionage against him are proven false. Doc is ordered to be detained for the duration of the war just because he’s a German, a Nazi-hating German as well. Doc and Geel Piet are held in the same prison where Peekay trains. Here, they give Peekay the support and friendship that a developing boxer needs. “In teaching me independence of thought, they had given me the greatest gift an adult can give to a child besides love, and they had given me that also.”

Peekay follows his dream of welterweight title glory with unflinching determination. He amasses 116 amateur fights. Through his business schemes with Moorie, a Jewish schoolmate who becomes his manager, Peekay is able to hire the best trainer in South Africa: Solly Goldman. “The Solly Goldman gym in Sauer Street was just like any gym you've been in or read about. It smelled of sweat, chalk, liniment and hope.”

But this story isn’t just about throwing punches. Actually, for a book with two boxing gloves on the cover, “The Power of One” is an ambitious novel. Racism and apartheid, having struck every factor of South African life, feature prominently in this novel. Peekay is disgusted by racism in all its forms. He views racism as, “a primary force of evil designed to destroy good men.” As Peekay gets older (and by older I mean 15) and starts to get more in the fight game, he runs headfirst into the racial cauldron that is post-war South Africa. With the Afrikaaner Nationalists in power, South Africa is a land of vicious white supremacy. Moorie says, “the election of the Nationalists to power was one of the crummiest moments in the history of any people.”

And Peekay is stuck in the middle of all this. His fate is inescapably tied to the fate of his deeply divided country. But in the midst of this hatred, Peekay finds solace in boxing. To Peekay, other fighters and trainers, the ring is the one place where race doesn’t matter. “To boxing men, black isn’t black in the ring,” Peekay says. At this time and place, the boxing ring was the great equalizer.

Peekay puts his anti-racist beliefs to the test when he is offered a fight in a black township, which was illegal. (“This was not a fight between black and white, it was a testing of the spirit, the spirit of Africa itself.”) This fight, against a black young man who is believed to be a future tribal spirit leader, is definitely the most memorable fight of the novel. At the end of the fight, all black and whites equally cheer the victor. The ring announcer sums it up beautifully: “We have seen the spirits fight. In this we are all brothers.”

In addition to dissecting the racial hatred in South Africa, “The Power of One” also takes on religion. Peekay’s mother has an extreme come-to-Jesus moment, after which she dedicates her life to saving “the lost.” She puts all “fun things” on “the Lord’s banned list.” Peekay is doubtful of his mother’s newfound faith: “All the people I knew who had opened up their hearts to Jesus struck me as a pretty pathetic lot, not bad, not good, just nothing.”

Until a friend told me about this book, I’d never heard about it, the film adaptation or the author, Bryce Courtenay. As a boxing fanatic, I loved all the detail about the fights and how they worked in 1940s South Africa. But while Peekay’s undying desire to being welterweight champion of the world is the driving force behind the narrative, this novel has so much else going on. People who hate boxing will still love this novel. It’s long, and I am fully aware of what I’m doing in recommending a 500-page novel. It may take a while to get through, but at the end, I found this to be a very rewarding read.

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