Sunday 10 December 1995
! Shaka's Children: A History of the Zulu People by Stephen Taylor, HarperCollins pounds 7.99. To most people the Zulus are those assegai-wielding bogeymen in leopardskin skirts who got what was coming to them at the Battle of Rourke's Drift. This long-overdue reassessment, however, paints a substantially broader picture, tempering scenes of savagery with snapshots of a socially advanced people whose image as the bovver-boys of South Africa has much to do with British Imperial muck-raking. From the establishment of the Zulu nation under Shaka to the nefarious latterday posturings of Inkatha we witness a tribe struggling to retain and develop its identity in a country riven by constant political upheaval. Heavily weighted towards the 19th century, the book skates unsatisfactorily over the Zulus' contemporary status as a nation within a nation, but it provides a breezily readable overview of a great, and greatly marginalised, people.
! The Vinegar Jar by Berlie Doherty, Penguin pounds 5.99. Best known for her children's books, Berlie Doherty brings a meandering, childlike perspicuity to bear on this very adult tale of an unhappy woman's sexual fantasy-mongering. Cornered in a mogadon marriage, Rose Doran finds her existence is suddenly slashed with colour when falls she for Paedric, her mysterious Rumplestiltskin- like neighbour. What starts as an innocent exercise in romantic shadow- play gradually unfolds into an altogether more insidious game when Paedric persuades his admirer to indulge with him in the fantasy of a shared dream child, blurring the line between truth and fancy and spinning all concerned towards a tragic conclusion. A disturbing, darkly sketched study of need and wish-fulfillment.
! Guy Gibson by Richard Morris, Penguin pounds 8.99. David Niven tells a great story about Guy Gibson VC, leader of the legendary WWII Dam Busters raid. Once, to Gibson's enormous delight, he was invited to lunch with Churchill. Meeting him the next day Niven asked how it had gone, to which a pie-eyed Gibson replied: "Jesus Christ, I forgot!" Such is the stuff of which legends are made, and assessments of Gibson have always tended towards the mythical. Richard Morris reconstructs the man behind the icon, revealing a "bumptious bastard" of only average ability about whom contemporaries were sharply divided and whose lauded raid on the Rhine dams was much less significant than tradition would have it. In so doing, he swaps the gung-ho Biggles figure for something infinitely more poignant: a deeply ordinary man suffocating in the web of his own fame.
! Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai, Vintage pounds 5.99. Flitting gently between fiction and autobiography, Shyam Selvadurai's butterfly-delicate first novel is both a simple coming-of-age tale and an intricate study of cultural conflict. It follows the fortunes of Artje, a young Tamil in Seventies Sri Lanka whose preference for dressing up in saris over practising his cricketing groundstrokes leads his parents to brand him a "funny boy". Their efforts to shunt him back onto the path of normality prove fruitless, however, as Artje explores his burgeoning homosexuality, an inner struggle reflected outwards in the social turmoil of his country. Sparsely written and suffused with winsome humour, this is a magical debut, weaving the personal and the political, the tragic and the hilarious.
! Spies and Other Secrets: Memoirs from the Second Cold War by Nicholas Bethell, Penguin pounds 7.99. Although never exactly a spy in the shaken not stirred sort of way, Lord Bethell is the next best thing: a voluminously energetic English moralist with a penchant for getting on the wrong side of dangerous regimes. His sand-paper-dry memoir whisks us from Whitehall to Cold War Russia, from Mandela's prison cell to the fastnesses of Afghanistan on a tireless crusade against injustice and oppression. Bizarre anecdotes - such as the pounds 1 given to him as an army reservist for refreshments during a nuclear war - accompany more serious recollections of work with Soviet dissidents and run-ins with complacent Foreign Office mandarins. Precise, opinionated and gloriously oddball, it is a testament to the difference one bloody-minded Englishman can make.
! Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis, trs Edith Grossman, Picador pounds 6.99. Gabriel Garca Mrquez hails Mutis as "one of the greatest writers of our time", and on the evidence of these three novellas he might not be far wrong. Linked by a common protagonist, Maqroll the Gaviero (Lookout), the tales present a sensuous, jungle-steamed fusion of adventure, philosophy, emotion and mystery, pursuing their hero across the broad mosaic of a turbulent life. Fighter, sailor, lover, businessman, brothel-keeper, guerrilla, purveyor of dodgy carpets, Maqroll is a seedy, irresistibly charismatic Everyman, whose vivid experiences propel him down the road to wisdom and self-awareness. Strange characters and curious backgrounds flit in and out of the narrative and the overall effect is of a fibrous, colourful, elegiac collage of time, circumstance and action.
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