Cruel, debased, grotesque, the protagonist of Cheap Lives demands attention for the list of atrocities he has committed just as stridently as Tamburlaine, but without the poetry. With the insouciance of Christopher Marlowe, Antony Sher throws down a central figure of repulsive proportions, a man it is virtually impossible to feel sympathy for.
Rotting on death row in Pretoria's maximum security prison for a series of foul crimes, Prisoner 83143118, Yusuf, is out to provoke. "Mister," the book begins, "you ask what it was like to kill you. I'll tell you later." So tension is established and a correspondence begins between the criminal and the only one of his prey ever to have escaped. The victim, tour guide Adrian, is his aggressor's opposite: blond and beautiful, scrubbed clean and sweetly smelling. Or so it seems. In fact his nicely- ironed white shorts won't stop him from picking up a bit of rough.
Antony Sher is mining a rich seam of subconscious elements: mutual repulsion and fascination, growing inter-dependence, sadism and self-laceration. For either man to open up to the other is a high-risk, high-octane experience which both are seduced by, though in different ways. After his traumatic encounter, one might expect Adrian to establish distance between himself and the prisoner. Instead, his first message is unsettlingly intimate and sensual. Receiving a letter from his demon, Yusuf, has been like a physical encounter - the licked envelope, the paper they have both touched.
Gradually, a cloying mistress, he cajoles his suspicious assailant, trying to lead him towards a full account of what happened between them. Sher sets up a dangerous chess game in which they trade confessions and vulnerabilities: I won't tell you until you tell me. This gives the book a horrible compulsion: what will the next revelation be? how will the recipient react?
Sher presumably makes Adrian a tour guide to set the wide-open veldt against the prison cell, but the backdrop of tourist Africa never quite takes off, and descriptions of Adrian's rapport with his groups come as unwanted digressions from the main drama. More interesting than spatial differences is the alternation of their languages: superficially sensitive, precious white guy using words to conceal and flatter; coloured underclass spitting venom laced with random learning.
The book's main development is the gradual dawning of light in the barbarian's brain - he reads books in prison, Nietzsche of course. This is a rather obvious narrative trick, giving him an edge on the educated but intellectually bland white boy. The question is whether awareness will bring remorse and further, this being South Africa, whether it can politicise him. Yusuf's whole point about himself is that he has no cause, and couldn't give a damn about Nelson Mandela, whom he refers to as a "kaffir terrorist." The book is set in the run-up to Mandela's release.
Sher's ironic point is that the issue cannot be ignored, not even by this arrogant piece of low-life: despite himself, Yusuf is jealous of the political prisoners. They are famous, they have an aura around them. As a mere multiple murderer, he's a nobody: "I picked the wrong spot to make my mark." His is an alarming voice, an incoherent rage. Sher uses words like a volley of firecrackers, explosive and staccato.
As the book pushes towards its climax under the momentum of violence, the killer winds up corrupting the language of the political support organisations to his own ends, in a hollow mockery of their ideals. Sher gives you no prizes for reaching the finish - this book is an ordeal without redemption.