The Power of One

Author: Bruce Courtenay
Publisher: William Heinemann Ltd
Published: 1989

I have a dreadful, dreadful confession to make. Until The Power of One, I had never read a Bryce Courtenay novel. Why this is so unusual, and so embarrassing is that everybody who had recommended Courtenay to me, were woman. I even had Courtenay books given to me as birthday presents by women. I would take the book, smile appreciatively and then shunt the book to the back of the collection.

You see, I have this macho bullshit thing going on, where refuse to read women’s books – that is not female author’s – but ‘girly books’ or chick-lit. And look at The Power of One – the title just reeks of one of those self help books. And as such, it was to be ignored. However if it had called ‘Fists of Power’ or some other such nonsense, and had a picture of two guys punching it out on the cover, I may have gravitated towards it.

But that was my loss. But finally, a male recommended The Power of One and I gave in. And I really loved it, from first page to last – and my only complaint is the story didn’t keep going, as the young hero, Peekay, had one last task to complete on his agenda, before his story could end. However, I think that Peekay achieving this goal is a given.

So what it’s all about? It’s actually quite a long tale, so giving a succinct synopsis is quite difficult, but I’ll try to outline the key moments – unlike the film version, which managed to miss nearly every key moment in the book (I will talk more about the film, in a post tomorrow).

The story concerns a young boy, as the story opens, he is about five years old, who becomes known as Peekay, who is growing up in South Africa. When his mother has a nervous breakdown, he is sent to boarding school. This school, is almost exclusively populated by Boer children, and as Peekay is English – or a Rooinek, as they call him – he is bullied, abused and tortured by the other boys. Especially by an older boy, known as The Judge. This boy has all the making of a Nazi bully-boy, and in fact, when World War II breaks out, he carves a swastika into his arm, and declares that Peekay is a prisoner of war.

Peekay is befriended by a Kaffir chicken, which he names ‘Grandpa Chook’ which becomes his only friend at school. The two of them become inseparable, and an almost psychic bond develops between the two.

Later, once his mother has recovered, Peekay’s family, which consists of his mother and his grandfather, move to the township of Barberton, and Peekay is called home. He catches a train for the first time in his life, traveling alone. One of the conductor’s, Hoppie Groenewald, takes Peekay under his wing. It turns out that Groenewald is a boxer, and when the train stops at a junction, Groenewald takes Peekay to the fight. Groenewald is not a big man, but is fighting a huge miner. Groenewald, almost miraculously wins the fight. He explains to Peekay, that ‘small can beat big, if he fights first with the head, then with the heart – that’s how a man stays ahead from the start!’ Peekay decides there and then he wants to become welterweight champion of the world.

Life in Barberton is very different to boarding school. He meets and old German named Doc, who is a classical piano player, with an insatiable thirst for knowledge, especially the botany in the area. Peekay becomes Doc’s assistant, and together they make excursions in to the countryside cataloging the flora. Doc also instills a desire to learn, and not be embarrassed about his knowledge to Peekay. At boarding school, Peekay had to hide his intelligence, as being a know-it-all, was just another route to receiving a beating from the Boers. But Doc turns that all around, and Peekay begins to excel. Doc also gives Peekay piano lessons.

However, things turn for the worse, when Doc is incarcerated for being a German, and failing to register. He is taken to the Barberton prison, where he is to stay until the end of the war. But, as Doc is a man of culture – as opposed to the black prisoners, who are treated like shit – he given virtually free reign at the prison. Even his piano is transported to the prison so he can play.

As Doc is such a man of culture, Peekay is allowed to go visit him in prison, and continue his piano lessons. But it is when Peekay learns that the prison has a junior boxing team, that Peekay’s eyes light up, pleading to be trained. Because he is so young, he is initially turned down. But his persistence pays off, and he is allowed onto the team, but not allowed to particapate in any actual fights for two years.

One of the prisoners, a lowly fellow named Geel Piet, takes interest in Peekay, and ingratiates himself on the team. Geel Piet, may be a low life prisoner, but he has a great boxing brain, and turns Peekay into a superior junior boxer. The key word is ‘boxer’ – rather than fighter. Peekay, as he is small, is taught swift footwork and defensive boxing skills. Once Peekay is allowed in the ring, Peekay swiftly proves himself as a talented young boxer.

Years later, after the war, on a scholarship, Peekay leaves Barberton, for the Prince of Wales, English school in Johannesburg, where he mets a Jewish boy named Hymie Levy. They become good friends, involved in all sorts of money making scans – often involving Peekay’s boxing skills. But they also excel at study, and it looks like Hymie will be going to Oxford. Peekay sits for the Rhodes Scholarship, but doesn’t get it – and so is unable to afford to go. Instead, he takes a year off, and works in the mines in Rhodesia, to earn the money required.

Condensing the events in a 500 page novel to a few short paragraphs, of course, does not do justice to the sweep of the story, or fully define the relationship between the characters. And that is a chief element in this story – and that is the relationship that Peekay makes. Some of these relationship end in sadness, and others – as the story ends, you can be assured would go on to bigger and better things. Peekay absorbs a piece of everybody he meets.

One character not mentioned, is Africa herself. The country, its people, and its problems form a large part of the story. The racial prejudices are presented in all their bigoted glory – for better or worse. And it’s not all black and white either. The conflict between the white Boers and the white English, is just as heated as the abuse and persecution of the blacks.

As it is part and parcel of the times that the story is set in, the racism is not necessarily restricted to characters who are bad either. Some of the prison guards, that Peekay befriends, are racist in the extreme, but incongruously, aren’t bad people. But the racism, was what they grew up with, and how they had been taught to treat blacks. As that would suggest, The Power of One is not preachy in racial problems in South Africa – remembering this was written before South Africa’s Apartheid policy was abolished. The novel concentrates on telling its story first, the politics is of a secondary nature.

The Power of One is a great novel, full of great characters, with a goodly amount of boxing mixed with the drama, and I’d recommend it to pretty much everyone.

May sees the launch of King of the Outback, the sixth book in the popular Fightcard series – and my literary debut (writing as Jack Tunney). Accordingly, in a month long celebration, Permission to Kill will be looking back and some of the highlights – and lowlights – of boxing in film and literature – and in music too.

For an up-to-date direct connection with the Fightcard series check out the home page, or for you youngsters, you can follow the Facebook Fan Page.

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