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Denis Beckett

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Karl van Wyk Reviews Magenta

The only negative review I’ve seen so far…


Magenta is Denis Beckett’s first novel. Most will recall Beckett as the host of Beckett’s Trek, a television programme that explored contemporary South African life. This is also Beckett’s preoccupation in Magenta, as the novel’s protagonist, Bart Dunn, treks across Johannesburg, experiencing and discussing post- apartheid South Africa. What is unique about Bart is that he is politically optimistic despite living in a politically troubled country.

Unfortunately, several unwise artistic choices make the novel difficult to read. Beckett has chosen a style that is far too conversational and turns a potentially interesting novel into a disagreeable one.

At the beginning of the novel, Bart, a politically liberal white South African, discovers that an old political friend of his, Robert, has been murdered. This is the novel’s haunting force as it drives the plot forward and influences the characters’ actions. The character who seems most affected by Robert’s death is his son, Lud, a young right-wing extremist, who believes that his father’s death was the result of a BEE conspiracy. Kei, Roger’s mourning wife, is a woman whose friendship with Bart grows as the novel progresses.

There is also Joyous, Bart’s long- time friend who, despite engaging in many successful business deals, frequently borrows money from Bart but never seems intent on paying him back. Finally, there is Themba, who is quietly philosophical as he ponders the current state of South Africa and the rest of the continent. He and Bart engage in many discussions as Themba proposes solutions to our current political state.

The novel grapples with South Africa’s most pressing issues: crime, racism, Zimbabwe, religion, apartheid and BEE. I do not mind when novels deal with several subject matters; some of the most interesting novels do just this. Take, for example, Ivan Vladislavic’s superb Portrait With Keys, in which many of the country’s concerns are discussed with amazing skill from an experienced writer.

It is refreshing that Beckett gives us a character, Bart, who is hopeful about his country. However, Bart’s optimism never prevents the reader from feeling the political weight of a novel that discusses too much.

It is through Themba that the bulk of the novel’s political concerns are conveyed. Whenever Themba speaks about politics, the other characters jokingly accuse him of being too preachy.

This may be a device used by Beckett to encourage us to excuse the novel’s preachiness. It feels laboured when one encounters several consecutive chapters that involve characters exchanging their political views.

The language Beckett utilises for both the characters and the narrator is based largely on what he calls “Seffricanese”, a kind of linguistic quilt of all of South Africa’s official languages. The novel is written in English, but, in keeping with the Seffricanese theme, Beckett sometimes drops in words from the other 10 official languages.

The Seffricanese does not make for difficult reading, but the manner in that Beckett writes does. With short, punchy sentences, even shorter non-sentences, and the occasional use of SMS dialect, Beckett produces a novel that feels cluttered and stylistically erratic. This was Beckett’s intention, but it never makes for comfortable reading.

The novel’s most admirable quality is Beckett’s willingness to discuss burning issues in a confusing and frenetic South Africa.

Ultimately, though, this is a novel that, despite its noble pursuits, is executed with poor results.

- Sunday Times


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