BY GARETH LANGDON
South Africa’s troubled history – one which is well documented and reverberates through our lives daily – draws the attention of many of our contemporary novelists. Imraan Coovaadia, a treasured local author with first-hand experience of South Africa’s tumultuous recent history, carefully unpacks the past in his newest book, Tales of the Metric System.
Tracing the lives of a large cast of characters from a variety of backgrounds, races and homes, the novel moves chronologically forwards in snapshots of our nation’s history, like a photo album documenting a life – beginning with the first day of school, and ending with university graduation. Designated a particular year and a subject each chapter takes the form of a short story able to stand on its own: the tragic end of a young black man on the run from the government, and at odds with his alcoholic Afrikaaner friend and playwright; the young white couple coming to terms with the oppressive state of public schools and their son’s place in it; a family of Indians and their relationship to their mysterious activist uncle. Each of these has great merit individually, but the true art of the novel is the way these disparate narratives are woven together to form a whole.
As the title suggests, the book contemplates the metric system. In 1971, South Africa switched from the Imperial system of measurement – with its confusing gallons and pounds and ounces – to the more precise (some say) metric system, which is neatly divided into tens and hundreds. In the same way that the metric system measured roads and bags of mielies and volumes of fuel, so too the government began to more strictly measure the value of humans by the colour of their skin. Tales of the Metric System, then, is a collection of tales of a measured, controlled and bureaucratic South Africa.
In the same way that measurement takes a starting point for the sake of accuracy, so too the novel begins at a point which is recalled throughout. It is subtle, but we are often reminded of the tragedy of the first chapter, and the play (and indeed the playwright) involved. Without giving too much away, the tone is set in chapter one, and by it we are able to measure the rest of the novel’s events.
Coovaadia’s novel is a triumph. Each tale is refreshing, true, and moving. It provides a relevant and thorough understanding of the emotional experience of South Africa – one which is finds particular relevance for the contemporary reader with chapters set as recently as the 2010 World Cup. As a work of literature the text flows exquisitely and is at once ordered and spontaneous. With a reserved sense of humour and close observation, Tales of the Metric System immerses the reader in South African history, and indeed its present – with a contemplative eye to the future.