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Tales of the Metric System: Book Review

Tales 3x4 of the Metric System, 2nd image20170426_134854Tales of the Metric System, by Imraan Coovadia (Ohio University Press, 2014) is an important read.

It conveys, through ten linked short stories, detailed truths about the transition from apartheid to self-rule in South Africa. There is a difference in having read news of change over the past forty years in South Africa, remembering hearing of Nelson Mandela’s struggles, and watching various documentaries to reading these ten complete narratives. It’s in the details of daily life, the consequence of small actions, the fear, the kindness, and the curiosity of being human exposed in these stories that we feel and know the change.

Anyone wondering about the internal lives of private citizens during and after apartheid in South Africa would do well to read this collection of linked short stories. Although fiction, truth is there.

They are primarily ordered by chronology, in a time span between 1970-2010, forty years. Ten separate narratives, each a story unto themselves, combine to show how life changed for those under observation of the secret police. And yet, as they move forward through time we meet characters whose lives intersect with the earlier, threads that link. Sometimes the new characters are relatives of the earlier—a son of an earlier, a parent in a new marriage, a daughter of a former character. Through the use of generations and changed situations we see and feel the true changes that have come to the country, and realize that all is not solved by simply changing from a system of apartheid to self governance. In fact, old class systems continue in a different way within a new system of governance.

The title: Tales of the Metric System is brilliant. It captures a concrete element of change in South Africa, the change from Imperial measurements (inches, feet, yards, gallons, pints, quarts) to all things Metric. As we have observed in the United States, a seemingly simple change of measuring systems takes years to accomplish. It takes will. It needs a catalyst to push the change. We still have not found the will to change in the US, although dates for adoption of Metric have been stated and revised for over forty years.

In the first story, Ann has been called to her son’s private school to discuss the possible expulsion of her son for rule breaking. This quote illuminates the encompassing changes coming to the country as well as to the metric system.

“They wanted to expel her son for possessing two bottles of brandy. The measurements made by Curzon College were as outdated as yards and inches. They didn’t know what counted.”(20)

In South Africa however, the change to Metric comes bundled with total social change: from an imperial white government to elected black majority rule, from narrow restrictions on travel to more openness consistent with nationhood, from racial divides based on color (Indian vs black vs Asian vs white) to more subtle discrimination. Nelson Mandela is present in the narratives, and we note his status by the nickname The Old Man. AIDS is addressed in two stories, in a way which indicates both a lack of understanding as to the disease itself, let alone treatment. In one story a refusal to comprehend the disease leads to experimentation with vitamin injections instead of the new approach with antivirals. This is symbolic of the old South African generation-in-power’s attitude toward anything new and foreign, thus suspicious.

I liked the use of stories defined by date as noted at the top of each story. The stories remain within that time framework, and because we are offered a succession of stories the passage of time is concrete and contained. This allows the reader to gain a deeper understanding of the time, place and situation as opposed to a story with many flashbacks. It allows detail within a story that mark time with precision. As humans we mark time by particular personal incidents.

It is interesting that the final story is a continuation of the first story, six years apart. It is an ending that causes one to return and reread the first story to sort out clues that support the last one. The death of Neil (Ann’s second husband) is hinted at in several stories, but it isn’t explained fully until the last story. This structuring keeps the reader wondering what happened to Neil, although we have learned in the first story that he is a revolutionary dissident and this knowledge has allowed the reader to accept his death as not entirely unexpected. But the power of detail in the first story fuels the collection, and sets a tone to the book. Learning finally how he dies and at whose hand is stunning. In fact it requires the reader to go back to the first story to comprehend all of the connections. I find this brilliant structuring.

It is rare to find a book that so illuminates cultural change as a reader finds in this work. Foreign literature is important for global understanding. We ought to be reading more of it. And yes, there are Vuvuzelas.

Goodreads | Tales of the Metric System


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Category: Indie It Books, Uncategorized

About the Author: Ann Bodle-Nash: A free-lance traveler since the age of 11 months, little moss grows on her soles. With relatives and friends scattered across the globe, she finds frequent excuses to travel. But travel in the West is best--those quiet corners of weirdness are like light to a moth, burning with intensity, encouraging curiosity and discovery. She imagines the glory of 30 days of continuous floating and fly fishing on the Yellowstone River after watching a documentary on same. Currently living in Washington State with her husband.

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