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Simplistic but enjoyable
on October 3, 1999
This is an enjoyable novel but hardly the masterpiece some reviewers would have you believe. The characters are drawn as carefully as those in Star Wars. Judge and Klipkop are bad. Hoppie, Doc, Geel Piet, Mrs. Boxall, Miss Bornstein and Morrie are good. Peekay himself is a Christ-like figure, perfection personified. He's a brilliant boxer, a brilliant student, a faithful friend. He's honest, brave and hardworking. He can see the faults, foibles, and follies of those around him. He never misjudges a person, never makes a mistake, never does something he has cause to regret later. In short, he is not credible at all.
Its portrayal of South African history is equally one-dimensional. All racists are Boers and most Boers are racist. The English are mostly good. Blacks are uniformly good. We are, to be sure, told that many of the Barberton prisoners have committed terrible crimes but no Black character in the novel ever does anything wrong. This simplistic portrayal means that it is not "The Classic Novel of South Africa" as the cover proclaims. That honour belongs to "Cry, the Beloved Country", a far more nuanced and heart-wrenching story that's also set in the post-War period.
The boxing scenes are among the best in the book, particularly the early ones before you realize that the good guys never lose. If you're drawn to the book by an interest in boxing, read Norman Mailer's "The Fight".
The theme of the novel, from which it draws its title, is the power of one person to affect change and to follow his dreams rather than those others have for him. A bleaker, but far better written, version on this theme is Halldor Laxness' Nobel prize winning "Independent People."