JA, NO, MAN by Richard Poplak (Penguin), 321 pages, $18 paper. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
Powerful stories can make an impact even when they're not that well written. But when devastating detail comes via vivid and passionate prose, then the punch to the solar plexus is that much heavier.
Richard Poplak's story of growing up white and, though it's not probed too deeply, Jewish in South Africa is mesmerizing: nuanced, complex, appalling. Nothing is simple. His black nanny is a sadist (and who can blame her?); his invisible daddy is referred to only as Dr. Poplak. Schools don't teach; they brutalize.
The story spans Poplak's childhood from toddlerhood to high school, 1973 to 1989. Key to the narrative is the way the school system, by routinely abusing its students, breeds a fascist future. Through primary, middle and high school - with a terrifying detour through an 11-day boot camp disguised as a nature trek - white kids were trained to take their place in South Africa's racist universe.
Particularly fascinating is Poplak's developing obsession with pop culture. Television didn't come to South Africa until 1972, and when it finally did arrive, it was a strictly state-controlled one-channel universe.
How is it, then, that of all the American programs available, SATV chose to import Star Trek and - wait for it - The Cosby Show? In the case of the former, Poplak determines that Lieutenant Uhuru must be an alien. Cosby was hugely popular with white South Africans, who found the sight of blacks behaving like whites so ludicrous as to be entertaining. Such is the mindfuck that was South Africa under apartheid.
So wholly shaped was Poplak by his upbringing that his first experiences in a Claude Watson classroom in Toronto, where black and Asian students happily mingle with whites, sends him into a paroxysm of panic.
The genius of it is that the writer is able to both grab our sympathies and make us feel that, by dint of his status and colour, he got what he deserved.