book review: A Rainbow in the Night: The Tumultuous Birth of South Africa, by Dominique LaPierre

lively history of South Africa in stories…apparently with errors

Dominique LaPierre writes a completely engaging story of South Africa, translated from the French by Kathryn Spink. For those, like me, who mostly know South Africa through the words of Nelson Mandela (as in the wonderful, highly recommended Long Walk to Freedom), this history fills in much more of the history of this fascinating nation. For example, the initial Dutch presence in southern Africa stemmed from the Dutch East India Company’s desire to provide vegetables for passing ships, with no desire for conquest or empire there.

The history is not comprehensive: As the author says in his note, “I did not set out to compile an exhaustive history of South Africa. Rather, I wanted to recount, as accurately as possible, a powerful human epic” (ix). He does exactly that. He recounts the history through people’s stories: Christiaan Barnard, who performed the world’s first heart transplant (and, shortly thereafter, the first inter-racial heart transplant, in defiance of apartheid); Helen Lieberman, a white speech therapist who worked in poor townships; Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who led the work for reconciliation; Nelson Mandela; Wouter Basson, a doctor who spent his career developing unconventional weapons against blacks (such as poisoned underclothing intended to assassinate Archbishop Tutu (p186-7), various pre-Mandela presidents; and the architects of apartheid.

I was particularly struck by the influence of Nazism in informing the apartheid regime. Disappointingly, I went on to read the following in Martin Rubin’s 2009 review of the book in the LA Times: “Apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd was undoubtedly influenced by Nazi ideology, but the highly colored account here of his visiting Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s as a student is a flight of fancy. In fact, by this time Verwoerd was well established as a leading South African intellectual and a full professor at Stellenbosch University: He had been a graduate student in Hamburg and Leipzig, but in the mid-1920s.” He sums up: “The overall result is a profoundly unsatisfactory historical record.” As I listened, I was struck by LaPierre’s occasional rhetorical flourishes, saying – for example – that black South Africans had “a cultural richness and a religious fervor unseen anywhere else on the continent.”

The history has many holes, sometimes the personal focus leads to confusing jumps in time, and as Rubin’s comment above highlights, some of the tales are fanciful. But LaPierre effectively introduces us to many of the major players in the history of the
Rainbow Nation.

Note on content: A little bit of strong language (when quoting the police) – 2 f-words. A few references to sex. Lots of profoundly
offensive racism.

I listened to the unabridged audiobook, read by Stefan Rudnicki. Solid performance.

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