The Eternal Audience of One, by Remy Ngamije*****

“Life is not hard in Windhoek, but it is not easy, either. The poor are either falling behind or falling pregnant. The rich refuse to send the elevator back down when they reach the top. And since cities require a sturdy foundation of tolerated inequalities, Windhoek is like many other big places in the world. It is a haven for more, but a place of less. If you are not politically connected or from old white money, then the best thing to be is a tourist. The city and the country fawn over tourists. The country’s economy does, too. That is when it is not digging itself poor.

That is Windhoek. The best thing to do in the city is arrive and leave.”

And now, raise your hand if you find yourself wondering where Windhoek is. Don’t be shy. You’ll have plenty of company…ah. Yes. I applaud your bravery, being the first. And you, and you…and you in the back. Anyone else? That’s what I thought. Look around. Almost all of you. So now, I’ll relieve your discomfort and tell you, it’s in Namibia. Our protagonist, Seraphim, and his family must relocate there during the upheaval in their native Rwanda. This is his story, told in the first person.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Gallery Books for the review copy. This book is available to the public now.

Seraphim’s parents are strivers, working industriously to ensure that he and his siblings will have excellent educations and better lives. As a young man, he works hard and is fiercely competitive in school, but once he is at university in Cape Town, he becomes a party animal, using Cliffs Notes to dodge the assigned reading and embarking on booze fueled, all night romps. Ultimately, this is a coming of age story in a different time and place than that which most Western readers are accustomed to. And oh, my friend, if you are going to spread your wings and stretch your global literacy just a teensy bit, then this is one painless way to do it.

Once he’s inside South Africa, Sera deals with Apartheid, and during the course of his education, is advised by a wise friend, who tells him that if you want decent notes, you must befriend BWGs. These are Benevolent White Girls, and they seem to know some sort of educational code that young Black men have somehow been shut out of. There’s a funny passage about how to tell if a Caucasian is the sort one can hang out with, and to explain the difference in his own social class growing up, in contrast to others in his social group, he describes a problem with desks. There are fifty children in the class, he says, and not everyone can have a desk. Little Sera gets busy, and eventually is able to rise from chair number 50, to chair number three. Then, after a struggle with Gina and Hasham, the first and second place students, he rises to the first chair, first desk. When a friend asks what became of Gina and Hasham, Sera shrugs with his characteristic cocky arrogance, and he tells him, “I like to think they married and had second and third place children.”

Part of what I love is the way the voice here sounds like young men in their late teens and early twenties, here, there, or probably just about anywhere. In my experience, his demographic is the most hilarious of any in real life, and it comes shining through here, full of irreverent wit.

The narrative isn’t linear, and there’s some creative jumping around that, when combined with the internal discussions the narrator calls “The Council of the Seraphims,” can be difficult to keep up with. Don’t try to read the second half of this novel after you’ve taken your sleeping pill.

All told, this is a brainy, hilarious work, which is perhaps why Ngamije is being compared to Chabon and Zadie Smith.  He resembles neither, apart from being very literate and extremely funny. In fact, this book is worth reading just for the snarky texts sent by Sera and his friends; their handles crack me up even before I see what they have to say. Highly recommended, even at full price.

The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela*****

This magnificent collection took 10 years to organize, collecting Madiba’s letters from the many points where they were received, and from the prisons–where many of them were not mailed out, for various technical reasons that were a poor disguise for censorship. The preface suggests that most people will want to flip through it rather than reading it cover-to-cover, but I am a habitual cover-to-cover sort, and so I read the first 50 pages in sequence. And the book’s editor is correct. This is not a cover-to-cover read.

Nevertheless, I am struck immediately by the dignity with which Mandela communicates with his captors. Time and again he writes to them in a courteous, civilized, and highly educated hand about the various ways in which his rights under South African law are being violated and what he is requesting they do to remedy it. He is persistent. He forces them to treat him as a human being. Mandela was an attorney, but he was also possessed of social instincts that nobody can teach anyone. And although I never met him, everything I have read–which is a good deal, where this man is concerned–convinces me that he was also a very nice person.

This is a tome, and it’s a treasure. I am glad I was denied a galley because this is the sort of volume I want as a physical copy. In the end my son purchased it for me for my birthday, and so I thank Benjamin. What a treasure.

If you are looking for just one book about Mandela’s life, read his hefty autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. However, if you are a collector of books about South Africa, or about civil rights in general, or of course, about Nelson Mandela, go out and get this book now.

Going to the Mountain, by Ndaba Mandela*****

GoingtotheMountainNelson Mandela’s hundredth birthday approaches. His grandson Ndaba, whom Mandela raised following his release from prison, talks about growing up with the titan that led the movement against Apartheid in South Africa. He reflects on Xhosa culture and the role that it played in the struggle and in his own development, and it is within this framework that he talks about his grandfather, and about the future of his people.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Hachette Books for the review copy, which I received free and early.

Ndaba spent his early years moving between his parents’ households. His mother struggled with alcoholism and other disorders; his father was ill, and would later die from AIDS. He tells of the surreal juxtaposition of the slum that had been his entire experience with his grandfather’s house, where he had his own room, food that was healthy and prepared for him, clothing, and even a video game system; it was just about everything a child could ask for, but it came at the price of separation from his mother, and he rebelled and acted out in response. As a man with a wider view of the past, he recognizes that this was by far the best outcome, but for many years he resisted, yet was safe because of his grandfather’s stable influence and wisdom.

He speaks of having come to Disney World as a youngster, where he was engaged in conversation with a friendly American, who asked him, as they stood in line for a ride, how big the lions are in Africa. Ndaba, of course, grew up in an urban environment and had no more seen a lion wandering around than the questioner had. He came to realize that these are the stereotypes that the Western world has for Africa: lions in rural areas, and crime in the cities. Dangerous animals; dangerous people.  He suggests that the U.S.A.  improve its own police forces before presuming to talk to South Africans about theirs.

He has a point.

The entire memoir is told using Xhosa folk tales as allegory, and the result is glorious and deeply moving. Although I seldom become teary while reading, a good hard lump formed in my throat when he spoke of taking his grandfather on his final journey to Capetown.

Highly recommended to everyone, whether you know the history of the South African Revolution or are new to it.

Hum If You Don’t Know the Words, by Bianca Marais***

HumifyoudontknowI received an advance copy in return for this honest review, thanks to Net Galley and G.P. Putnam. I expected to absolutely love it; I came of age when the South African revolution against the Apartheid state was in full flower and before anything about it showed on mainstream media, which was all we really had then apart from underground films shown in the basements of coffee houses near campus. I loved Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, and had attended dozens of talks given by members of the African National Congress that were forced into exile. So when I saw that this novel was set in revolutionary South Africa, I was pumped. Popular fiction about one of the greatest political events to occur in my lifetime?  Oh yes indeed. Count me in!

As it turns out, not so much.

The novel has its strengths, to be sure, and those that have read nothing about the South African revolution may find this story more approachable than plunging into Mandela’s work, which requires hefty amounts of time and stamina as well as strong literary skills. Marais’s book showcases the inequalities that existed, a Jim Crow that was every bit as brazen as that in the southern USA during the early and mid-twentieth century.  It highlights the institutionalized racism that forbade people of color from even entering white enclaves where the best of everything existed, unless the bearer was carrying a pass issued by a Caucasian employer. There are a lot of people out there, especially young ones, for whom this will be a worthy introduction. And it starts out strong, with convicts on the Parchman work farm in a setting so stark and immediate that it made me thirsty.

That said, it also has its limitations.

Our two protagonists are Robin Conrad and Beauty Mbali, in that order. Robin is a Caucasian child whose parents are killed in the struggle against Apartheid. Beauty is a Xhosa woman that is hired to care for Robin. Beauty’s own daughter took part in the Soweto Uprising and is missing.

My disappointment with this book springs from the fact that Robin is given greater development, and in terms of physical space, nearly double the number of pages as Beauty (known to Robin as “Mabel”).  A puzzling component is Robin’s invisible friend, whom she refers to as her sister. The invisible friend gets as much attention here as Beauty does, and for the life of me I cannot understand why. I don’t see the imaginary sister adding anything to the story. Given the setting, it’s also hard to understand why we need so much information about Afrikaaner culture.

It feels a lot as if the author is saying that “All Lives Matter”.

I know this book has a lot of happy readers, but I can only promote it in a limited sense. With the above caveats, this book—which is for sale now—is recommended for younger readers that have at least eighth grade literacy skills.

Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela*****

longwalktofreedomI read this memoir, one of the most important of our era, before I was writing reviews. I bought it in the hard cover edition, because I knew I would want it to last a long time and be available to my children and their children. It was worth every nickel. It’s lengthy and requires strong literacy skills and stamina, but if you care about social justice and are going to pull out all the stops for just one hefty volume in your lifetime, make it this one.

The first two or three chapters flow like molasses on a hot day. Mandela is laying his ground work, but it’s tedious at the start. Fight your way through it, because the story to follow–and we’re talking about the huge majority of the book here–is absolutely riveting, and in many ways is a tremendous lesson in struggle as well.

Mandela is gone, but he is still a luminary figure in world history. In writing his memoir, some of which he did in prison, he was not following any publishing house’s advice about grabbing the reader right at the get-go. He didn’t need to toss in the usual teasers or follow a blueprint, because he was Mandela. An immensely articulate individual, an attorney before he devoted his life purely to the downfall of Apartheid South Africa, he was capable of telling his story brilliantly in many languages, and he did it.

This autobiography chronicles Mandela’s life, first as the son of a tribal chief, then as an educated Black man under apartheid (a dangerous thing to be), then the journey, both outward and inward, from attorney to the leader of a revolution. You will read about his time on Riecher’s Island, the notorious prison, and the various experiences he had in the courtroom and in captivity. He tells of the cunning ways those who were jailed for political reasons created to communicate and to an extent, continue to lead from inside prison. And he breaks up the horror with an occasional vignette of a surprisingly kindly jailor or other authority figure who does small, decent things when no one is looking.

If you are interested in the history of South Africa and the defeat of Apartheid, this is a must-read. If you ever, as I did, had a “Free Nelson Mandela” poster in your living room…read this, and celebrate.

Good Morning, Mr. Mandela! by Zelda la Grange *****

Good Morning Mr MandelaZelda la Grange, an Africaner, grew up in South Africa under apartheid. Her family was steadfastly right-wing, and she was brought up to believe that Africaners were fighting against the “black communists”. She had been taught to fear them. The family servant, Jogabeth, was black, but she fell into a slightly different category, since she had a large role in raising la Grange while her parents, who were low income and struggled financially despite their white privilege, were working. But Jogabeth was not permitted to touch Zelda’s skin. When Zelda needed carrying, she climbed on the woman’s back, but already knew not to touch her hair, her hands.

It might rub off. It might soil her.
When she was finished with school, she got a secretarial position in the government, and it was there that she found herself working for a new president after the death of apartheid. She worked for Nelson Mandela’s personal assistant. White South Africa was in turmoil; some Africaners were progressive and welcomed the change, but her own family was outraged and frightened. La Grange needed her job and assured herself that because she was fairly far down the food chain, she would likely never actually see President Mandela.
And the very thought of running into Black people in positions of authority terrified her. How much must they hate her and all of the Africaners who had kept them down for so long? Would they hurt her? And when the day finally came that she saw the president, she kept on moving, eyes averted, but he asked one of his staff to bring her in for a conversation.

When she arrived, she burst into tears of mortification and fear. He took her hand, ending her lifelong habit of never touching a black man before she even realized what she was doing, and he made a point of holding that hand until he was ready to give it back to her. And in his kindly, genial manner, he told her, as she stood sobbing in terror before him, that she was overreacting. It would not be the last time he would tell her this.
When I began reading la Grange’s memoir, I was initially disappointed. She spoke of her own life and told the reader that this was not Mandela’s memoir but her own. I didn’t want to read about the daily doings of some Africaner functionary. If I hadn’t received the book in exchange for a review, I’d have abandoned it, and it would have been my loss. Because soon after she found herself working for Madiba, her job became inextricably intertwined with his, and it continued through his retirement. Her life was, in many ways, his life. But because Mandela did not address his presidency when he wrote Long Walk to Freedom, and because he would never brag or dwell upon his own successes unless they were important historically, her story about life with him is different from his own. And because he would never name-drop, she does it for him.
I reflected upon his choice of la Grange when he chose the entourage with which he would travel. He made a point of having a multi-hued staff around him, blacks, browns, golden toned and Africaner. She and a professor were the two Africaners he chose. So initially, he had just wanted her to be the Africaner who would represent her own race and culture on the new presidential staff. And it was a smart move. A man in his position must watch constantly for security risks. When choosing an Africaner for the staff, he needed not only someone who was organized, hard working, and competent—which she was. He also needed the least likely individual to be an assassin! La Grange describes herself as very young (I think she was short of age 20), but also shy and much inclined to blushing. Duplicity was beyond her. She also says she was plain looking and overweight.
Madiba was a really smart guy. He understood that her youth made her more malleable than some, and that she was no part of anyone’s plan for a coup. In time she replaced his private secretary, and over the course of twenty remarkable years, she developed a steel spine as she became the gate-keeper to Mr. Mandela both during his presidency and after his retirement.
La Grange has a lot of stories to tell. She traveled with Madiba to many places, and tells of his friendships with other members of royal families abroad, with celebrities, and with ordinary people. She also speaks of his tireless effort, even after the age of 80, to raise funds for clinics (especially for AIDS patients) and schools in what was still an underdeveloped nation. There was (and probably still is) a tremendous amount of corruption in government, but Madiba was completely clean, as one might expect, and made a point to keep his charity funds separate from those of the government. His travel abroad and frequent appearances sometimes caused political friction with those who succeeded him, who felt he had no right to speak for South Africa anymore; Madiba insisted he spoke for himself alone. And la Grange points out that it was the ANC that chose to make him the icon of anti-apartheid struggle, and thus they had no business complaining when international figures asked for Madiba rather than Mbeki or others who currently held office.
There is a part I skipped through at the beginning that explains what apartheid was, and how it affected the lives of those who lived under it. I didn’t read it because there was nothing there I didn’t know; I was an anti-apartheid activist once myself. But for those who were too young to recall it or whose attention was elsewhere, it may help plug the gaps.
But the vast majority of her story is of her life with Nelson Mandela. For two decades she was on the go, 24/7, and served at such a frenetic pace that she often could not take 20 minutes for a meal. The phone often rang in the middle of the night, and sometimes she worked all night long as well. Her transformation and dedication were complete.
At the very end, a fracture within Mandela’s family formed, and a couple of his daughters decided that she could no longer see him, but she had been there for him right up until he was well into his decline. The memories she shares are ones you will find nowhere else; Madiba had attempted to write a second memoir, but was unable to complete it. And even had he done so, he would not have proudly told the world about the good that he did the way that la Grange does for him.
Highly recommended to everyone.