Saturday, 31 March 2012

Out of Shadows: Jason Wallace (Zimbabwe)

‘If I stood you in front of a man, pressed a gun into your palm and told you to squeeze the trigger, would you do it?’‘No, sir, no way!’‘What if I then told you we’d gone back in time and his name was Adolf Hitler? Would you do it then?’

Zimbabwe, 1980s. The war is over, independence has been won and Robert Mugabe has come to power offering hope, land and freedom to black Africans. It is the end of the Old Way and the start of a promising new era. For Robert Jacklin, it’s all new: new continent, new country, new school. And very quickly he learns that for some of his classmates, the sound of guns is still loud, and their battles rage on . . . white boys who want their old country back, not this new black African government. Boys like Ivan. Clever, cunning Ivan. For him, there is still one last battle to fight, and he’s taking it right to the very top.

This is a compelling and very well written novel by a highly acclaimed author, which I read in two days flat, a much unusual feat for me.

The preface to this remarkable book consists of the quote listed above, which the young Robert, a pupil at a boys boarding school in the newly independent Zimbabwe is asked shortly after his family's emigration to that land. It is not until the closing chapters of the book that we truly learn the significance of this quote and indeed the question that it poses.

Robert Jacklin, an impressionable thirteen year old, is the lead character in this extraordinary tale that addresses racism cleverly from both angles, black versus white, and the other way around. Robert is the son of idealystic yet highly dysfunctional parents, who have begun a new life in independent Zimbawbwe shortly after the war. Young and naive, and oblivious to the simmering tensions within the country, the young Jacklin initially befriends one of the few black pupils in the school, but desperate to fit in and feel part of the crowd, he soon ditches his black friend in favour of three particularly nasty and racist white boys in order to fit in and protect himself from their jibes.

The worst of these is the highly manipulative Ivan. It is easy to see elements of the Afrikaaner mentality in this character, and to some extent their American equivilant, the KKK. Unlike the KKK, Ivan makes no attempt to hide his contempt for the black pupils, and black Africans in general, in particular the new President, Robert Mugabe, openly using racist jibes and abusing both staff and pupils under the watchful eye of the history teacher, who shares his views.

Jacklin, despite his discomfort with many of the acts of violence and bullying that his three friends carry out, and that he feels obliged to join in with, allows himself to become part of this gang, all the while struggling with his conscience. As his friends become more and more sadistic, Jacklin becomes more and more uncomfortable. He feels powerless to extricate himself from the metaphorical grave that gets deeper each day. One has to feel sorry for Jacklin, feeling isolated and trapped, in a country where he does not belong, with friends that he begins to realise are not friends at all, but violent bullies trapped in a cycle of hatred.   

As Jacklin begins to mature, helped by his fathers remarriage to his former black maid,  he slowly comes to his senses, and starts to step back from the group. It is very much a case however of three steps forward, as he has witnessed the level of violence that these boys are capable of, and is fearful of what they may do to him. When he realises the full extent to which they have gone, killing and maiming innocent black children, and he uncovers a plot to assissinate the President himself, the country's great hope for peace, he realises that he must act.
The closing chapters reach a thrilling cresendo which is thought provoking indeed. The book finishes as it began with that same question - If I stood you in front of a man, pressed a gun into your palm and told you to squeeze the trigger, would you do it?’‘No, sir, no way!’‘What if I then told you we’d gone back in time and his name was Adolf Hitler? Would you do it then?’

If you changed the name Hitler to Mugabe and looked 20 years into the future from the time that this book was set, I wonder if the answer would be the same, and what the outcome may have been. Would history have been any different, or would another dictator have taken his place? Did the sins of the white settlers fathers find them out, and is this a case of what goes around comes around? If so, where if anywhere do you draw the line? The books willingness to explore these issues in a way that is designed to appeal to young adults is what makes this so good a read, and why it deserves all the awards that it got.

No comments:

Post a Comment