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Denis Beckett

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Jane Rosenthal Reviews Magenta

MagentaBeckett’s rollicking trek through Jozi

JANE ROSENTHAL – Oct 27 2008

When Bart, the protagonist of Magenta (University of KwaZulu-Natal Press), says he has better things to do than write a novel, he is told: “No you don’t. Novels broaden us, they nudge the world.”

And this certainly seems to be Denis Beckett’s intention with this startling and amusing addition to South African fiction. As readers who remember him from his television days will know, Beckett has opinions and ideas and loves to share them with people.

This he does in 500 rather uproarious pages; this is not a quiet novel, though it is full of some serious distilled meditations on life in Gauteng. The style takes some getting used to, mainly because it is unusual, but once into the swing of it it’s a lot of fun. Beckett sustains the narrative simultaneously with Bart’s inner commentary and asides. There is much inventive playing with words; the text is ironic, speedy and succinct, which was always Beckett’s distinguishing style, mixed with his idiosyncratic take on situations and his ability to present two sides of an argument.

Bad old crime-ridden Joeys is the setting, including the (old) CBD, the suburbs and the squatter camps. In the initial chapters we find Bart in various commonplace situations in which current issues such as affirmative action, dishonesty and racism in the office, and crime and violence arise, but all within the narrative. Here Bart’s core character and beliefs are set out for us. Other minor characters are skilfully and memorably drawn, such as Aletta, Bart’s forthright Afrikaner PA, his old student activist pal, Joyous Khumalo, with whom he has a somewhat troubled relationship now that Joyous drives a top-of-the-range car, and Themba Ndlovu, whom he met by chance in the Library Gardens when they both stopped to watch a chess game.

The part-thriller, part-love story plot revolves around the death during a hijacking of another old friend of Bart’s, Roger, with whom he had lost touch. He reads about it in the newspaper and, prodded by Aletta who is shocked by his disinvolvement, gets in touch with Roger’s widow, Kei. This leads to him becoming closer to her and her son, Lud, a disillusioned and confused young fellow who believes his father was killed by hitmen hired by the BEE partner in his business. Lud is gravitating towards an aggrieved and militaristic right-wing group.

Beckett is good at depicting fraught and dramatic situations, which he does with great gusto and many droll asides. In an attempted hijacking at a restaurant at Zoo Lake Bart tries to “stride off in an insouciantly though inoffensively fuck-you manner”. This rollicking tale also figures a car chase involving a truckload of explosives and the most ludicrously unbelievable wedding scene ever written (an extreme version of shotgun sans the pregnancy). But interspersed are many debates and discussions on issues that concern ordinary South Africans. These include those already mentioned, Boer-Soutie (British) relations, BEE deals, wealth, poverty and the economy.

The most serious thinker in the novel is Themba Ndlovu, whose ideas on the future of South Africa are expounded at length. He is a returned exile but is alienated from the mainstream ANC with some rather radical ideas on how to go from “this-phase” to the “next-phase”. At one point he says: “We don’t need a constitution to protect democracy, we need democracy to protect democracy.”

Beckett is clearly aware that this didactism is not always appropriate for a novel, but still thinks it the best way to get his ideas across, rather than, say, at a political meeting for “three old ladies who came for the biscuits”. So he uses the novel form but takes the mickey with action-packed drama deliberately offsetting the “lectures” that Themba is berated for giving. Bart initially disparages Themba’s ideas, calling him the “Apostle of Hope” and even buys him a copy of Meredith’s The State of Africa to give him a salutary dose of Afro-pessimism.

Throughout the novel Beckett treats the reader to well-observed renditions of various forms of South African English. The more extreme forms of Afrikaans-English might cause raised eyebrows, and he is certainly mistaken, in this reader’s opinion, when he states that South African English has no more regional dialects. He apologises for having this “wuss” thing called a glossary, but it’s a wonderfully irreverent addendum.

The resolution of the plot is brought about by staff at the Zoo Lake restaurant (one just has to love Anastasia the manager) and the denouement is a little trite. Despite several such Tretchikoff moments, which for a person of Beckett’s sophistication must be to pull the reader’s leg, and despite the high concentrations of socio-political debate, this is a good read: often hilarious, eccentric and vintage South African.

- Mail & Guardian


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