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Denis Beckett

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Sarah Hudleston Reviews Magenta

MagentaDenis Beckett uses his first novel as a way to convey his thoughts on the rights and wrongs of our country


AFTER writing 11 books, Denis Beckett, who has had a lifelong career as a journalist, television personality and raconteur extraordinaire , decided that a work of nonfiction to express his disillusionment with post-millennium, post-democracy SA would not do.

So he embarked on a three-and-a-half year project to say everything he had to say on the matter through the medium of the novel.

It would not have taken so long if he had not also had to keep earning a living while becoming a novelist. But he kept at it with a fervour that was only matched by his editor, Elana Bregin, who picked it apart and challenged just about every sentence.

Beckett always wanted to make a difference . He studied law and qualified as an advocate. But no sooner had he passed his bar exams than he decided to give it all up for journalism, working for The Star and The Rand Daily Mail, before founding Frontline, an avant garde magazine that poked holes in life in apartheid SA.

Magenta, his latest book and first novel, is a natural progression for him. “I always wanted to state a case and write it in a particular way so that people would read it,” he says.

“I am sure if I had written it as a work of nonfiction, nobody would have read it. So I spent a long time linking my case inside the story.”

Magenta, described by its publishers as “a utopian thriller” , is a fast-moving tale in which the characters get to say exactly what is wrong or right with SA .

Beckett says despite his misgivings, he is committed to SA . “I am here. I get joy out of the things I experience and the relationships that I experience here every single day. Of course I am sick and tired of the faults … they are ludicrous,” he says.

Although Magenta is deadly serious in content, it is at times seriously funny. Not funny haha, but more of the variety that recognises, somewhat wryly, the South African psyche and way of life.

“At the recent literary festival at Richmond in the Cape, where the first few copies of my book were sold, I had the delightful experience of meeting a woman while I was walking down Main Street,” Beckett says.

“She had bought the book and said it was quite embarrassing because she kept laughing out loud while she was reading it in a coffee shop. People kept on looking at her so she had to get up and leave.”

While he is pleased that Magenta is making people laugh, it is, he says, an angry book. “I am angry at the poverty and misery and racial hatred in this country.”

SA in Magenta is a country of paranoia, of coming to terms with a traumatic past and trying to see a future in which people live in peaceful co-existence.

Magenta is a rather wild tale — a thriller of sorts, with some thoroughly believable scenarios, such as a hijack scene which is so realistically sketched that it could give readers post-traumatic stress.

Despite retaining his puckish sense of humour, Magenta is an outpouring of anguish for a democracy that, in Beckett’s opinion, has gone haywire.

Through the characters, Bart, Themba, Lud, Kei and Joyous, Beckett covers just about every thought and conversation South Africans are likely to have in post-apartheid SA.

Lud is the son of Bart’s friend, who has been killed in a hijacking. He is convinced that his father’s black economic empowerment partner, Joyous, has had his father killed. He joins an extreme rightwing group.

Beckett says he suspects, from his experience writing the novel, that there are bits of its author in all the characters. “There is one character that is really me,” he says, adding that it is one who is “something of a joke”.

Readers acquainted with Beckett’s introspective way of dissecting every situation, as he did on his much-loved television series, Beckett’s Trek, might suspect there are traces of the author in Themba Ndlovu — a former exile who has found little material comfort in the new SA and has much to say about what is wrong with it and how it should be fixed.

But perhaps Bart Dunn is modelled on the author. He’s an archetypal white “ou” who feels somewhat beleaguered living in a country where pale males feel they have drawn the short straw.

Many want to emigrate, but Bart has no intention of leaving, particularly after he falls in love and is filled with hope for the future.

Towards the end of the book, Bart says, in a conversation with Kei: “People can also divorce. Not me, any more. I can’t emigrate either. It would take a dimension out of my life.

“My job on this planet is to make my puny effort in the place I am in. When one knows that marriage is for keeps, you conduct it differently to when an exit option is in mind …”

Despite Beckett’s anger about his country, he says that there is always hope. “It is worth finding ways of minimising the wrongs and maximising the rights.”

Magenta is very much a South African book and Beckett says he is not sure it would work for international readers.

It is filled with local lingo derived from the country’s cultural mix and most South Africans will probably recognise themselves, or probably their feelings about the country, on its pages.

- The Weekender


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