The Power of One is a novel written by Bryce Courtenay, and covers the immediate post war years in South Africa, as seen by a young white boy whose real name is never mentioned. Called “Peekay” – short for “Piss Kopf” or “Pisshead” – the boy is sent to the veldt to live, and finds friends in the nearby prison, the town, and in the person of an expatriate German intellectual. All these people train him in mental and physical accomplishments, seen over a period of many years (the book ends as Peekay enters adulthood).
The novel is more a bildungsroman than possessing of any kind of real storyline. There are threads of matters that were to be covered in the sequel “Tandia” – the gradual awakening of black nationalism, PKs boxing career and strive towards the welterweight world championship and his growth as a human being – but its strength is in the details of country life in South Africa and in boarding school, in the characters, and in the small vignettes such as the boxing training, prison or boarding school life, and the relationship between PK and the professor. Courtenay evokes a real sense of time and place, and having lived in southern Africa myself as a boy, I can vouch for the details of sleepy towns with small shops, and the seeming vastness of the African veldt. Characters are also well drawn and often amusing, forceful, interesting or plain evil. On that level the book works well, and everyone in Liquorature enjoyed the pure narrative and descriptive details. The guy is a powerful writer, no question. If nothing else, the drama and conflict between english and Afrikaner is excellently handled.
Where it falls down more seriously is in the broader themes, the most egregious of which is the prophesied messiah (as PK begins to be seen by the black prisoners and the broader black populace). This kind of thing just plain annoys me: it implies a lessening of the power and ability of black people, that it requires a white child to save them, and smacks of the sort of bigotry that Wilbur Smith was often accused of when he drew his larger than life but one-dimensional native characters who were often evil and venal and motivated by only base desires. Aside from Gael Peet, none of the non-white characters are given much to chew on, and seem to be simple, even childlike in their acceptance of apartheid and racism or PK’s own role. And PK himself often seems far too too saintlike, to be real: people sacrifice for him (some actually die for him) and he causually accepts this without much in the way of questioning or introspection, even as he turns into a sort of homunculus of above average abilities in anything he turns his mind to – in this, Ender in Orson scott Card’s “Ender’s game”was much more realistically portrayed.
Courtenay certainly wove a lot of his own experiences into the story: his own mother had had a nervbous breakdown, and he felt an orphan for most of his life; he had himself been to an elite boarding school, and was an overachiever in his own youth; and indeed, he did work in the copper mines in Ndola, on a grizzly, as PK did. Points have to be given for his seamless interweaving of these elements into this narrative, no matter how suddenly and abruptly “The Power of One” ends (I get the feeling he was setting up the sequel even as he completed it), or how weak his perception of the non-white people was. All of this is not to diminish Courtdnay’s powers as a storyteller: in both Tandia and the Australia stories that followed, he seemed to become more aware of the weaknesses inherent of his first novel, and sought to give full weight and emphasis to native peoples in a way that he lacked here. Perhaps my own experiences – being seen as both white or coloured, native or foreign, local or immigrant in the course of my life and travels, depending on where I was – have had something to do with my perspective here.
At the end, I enjoyed the novel as simply a reader. Courtenay has written a fascinating, almost historical document of his times, given us colourful and interesting charcters, and described a phase in the life of South Africa that is in turns affecting, horrifying, lyrical, adventurous and sad. Not everyone will like it – I read many reviews that reviled the book for the same reasons I did – but on its own terms, I’d have to say that he wrote a book I’ve never entirely managed to get out of my mind or off my own shelf. It’s worth the time invested in a read, or maybe even two.