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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book review: Madam & Eve – Twenty: Celebrating 20 Years of South Africa’s Favourite Cartoon Strip!

delightful review of South Africa’s changing landscape over two decades

On a recent trip to Cape Town, a friend introduced me to Madam and Eve as the Doonesbury of South Africa. This compilation of cartoons from 1992 through 2012 centers around Madam, a middle-aged white woman, her black maid Eve, Madam’s mother Edith, and their neighbor, the little girl Thandi. The cartoons provide a wonderful series of snapshots of South Africa’s changing social and political landscape, replete with Apartheid-apology greeting cards (“Roses are red, violets are blue, I’m sorry about the last 60 years, how about you?”), a South Africa monopoly board (“Collect R200,000 bribe as you pass go”; “Go to jail! … or fire public prosecutor”), and South African bestsellers (“Rich Dad, Poor Dad, Tender Dad”). (Tenders are the calls for bids to fill government contracts.)

For someone who, like me, knows relatively little of South Africa’s day-to-day political goings-on, some of the jokes went over my head, about Julius Malema, eating off the stomach of sushi models, and Brett Murray’s explicit painting of Jacob Zuma (“The Spear”). But for each that went over my head, several more hit home, either because the events were internationally known – Zuma taking a shower to protect himself from HIV or seeking his nth wife on a dating site – or because they display unfortunate international “truths” – Madam and Gwen watch TV impassively as horrible current events unfold, but then are aghast at the news that someone threw flour on Kim Kardashian.

Here are a couple of my favorites:

1. Thandi says to Edith: “Check out my new school project.”

“Big deal…a ship in a bottle.”

“Wrong! It’s a minibus taxi in a bottle!”

“How did you get it in there?”

“I held up a little police roadblock and it made a quick u-turn into the bottle.”


2. Teacher says to Thandi: “Okay, class! You have thirty minutes to complete your vocabulary quiz. Ready? Begin!”

Neptune: When you hire your cousin as the official ANC song writer.

Nationalise: Things politicians tell the nation that aren’t true.

Bookkeeping: Government policy of keeping books from school children.

This collection is lots of fun, and I highly recommend it.

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letra – Que bueno es vivir – Los Muppets

Escribí la letra a esta canción (la versión al final de la película):

Todo es genial
El mundo entero siento que en mi mano está

Todo es perfecto
Con todo en su lugar
Y no puedo mi sonrisa borrar

Que bueno es vivir cuando siempre alguien canta junto a ti

Todo es genial
y es para siempre feliz la vida

Y al mundo continuaremos regalandole RISA

La pelicula casi acaba
Y hay que decir adios

[Quieren parar de cantar
Ya cantaron esta cancion]

Que bueno es vivir cuando siempre alguien canta junto a ti

[Somos felices cuando no cantan.]

Tengo todo lo que soñé
Y seré aquello que quiera ser.

Todo puedo hacer
Tengo el cielo azul si estoy yo y tu y tu y tu y tu y tu y…bueno, todos ustedes


Tengo todo lo que soñé
Y seré aquello que quiera ser.

Todo puedo hacer
Tengo el cielo azul si es que estoy yo y tu y tu y tu

Que bueno es vivir

Cuando siempre alguien canta junto a

Que bueno es vivir

Mimi mimi mimi mi

Que bueno es vivir

Cuando siempre alguien canta junto a tí.

Aqui hay un video.

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Hyenas (film, Senegal, 1992)

thought-provoking story of justice, money, and vengeance served very, very cold

Dramaan Drameh is a shopkeeper and the mayor elect of Colobane, a poor town. Then Linguère Ramatou returns after decades away, having accumulated fabulous wealth and seeking vengeance for a long-past but deeply grievous wrong carried out by Dramaan.

The film explores fascinating issues of justice and money and the relationship between the two. It also explores how the promise of money changes people. The pacing is pretty good. The film is in Wolof with English subtitles. The DVD has no special features: Just the movie and the option of scene selection.

My favorite line: “She has more money than the World Bank!”

Note on content: No swearing, no sex. Mention of prostitution and an adolescent pregnancy. No visual violence.

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9 languages for 90% of the world’s population

"To engage with all but a tiny fraction of people in the world, you definitely do not need to learn all their first languages. You need to learn all their vehicular languages – languages learned by nonnative speakers for the purpose of communicating with native speakers of a third tongue. There are about eighty languages used in this way in some part of the world. But because vehicular languages are also native to some (usually very large) groups, and because many people speak more than one vehicular language (of which one may or may not be native to them), you do not need to learn all eighty vehicular languages to communicate with most people on the planet. Knowing just nine of them – Chinese (with 1.3 billion users), Hindi (800 million), Arabic (530 million), Spanish (350 million), Russian (278 million), Urdu (180 million), French (175 million), Japanese (130 million), and English (somewhere between 800 million and 1.8 billion) – would permit effective everyday conversation, though probably not detailed negotation or serious intellectual debate, with at least 4.5 billion and maybe up to 5.5 billion people, that is to say, around 90 percent of the world’s population." (David Bellos, Is that a fish in your ear? Translation and the meaning of everything, p14)

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notable fiction and non-fiction of 2011

I’m kind of drawn by these Washington Post lists.



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the weight of stories

“His death story seemed very heavy to me, in whatever unit death stories get measured.” (Karen Russell, Swamplandia!, p126)

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