Buckingham, or Lutherburg as it was known before democracy, has been through more changes of identity than Michael Jackson. In its current incarnation it acts as a magnet for all those who see "The Change" as an opportunity to take advantage of the much talked-about new spirit of conciliation. King of the freeloaders is Pascal Le Gros, a white attorney wanted for embezzlement who plans to open up a Bushman theme park, and who happens to be sleeping with the town's black deputy mayor, Mimi.
The new South Africa has become even more fractured and bigoted than before. Recriminations run riot and some of the novel's most scathing moments derive from the way the two communities, white and black, echo feelings of contempt. The new mayor, an Indian posing as a black, reflects on the uselessness and brutality of the former white rulers: "If they could not shoot it, kick it, fuck it or eat it, they went home and beat someone up." The white churchgoing population has split into two camps over the issue of whether to admit blacks to services. The half that refuses re-names itself the Dutch Reformed Reformed Church.
At times the flippancy of the tone can be excessive, but Hope counterbalances the farce with a tragic account of sinister goings-on under the old regime. Mimi, who spans both stories, was once purchased for six bars of soap, and like most characters dreams of the future while struggling to escape her past. She comes up with an idea to mark the first anniversary of democracy: an Elvis Presley lookalike competition. Presley is the one symbol able to unite this motley collection of characters. The farmers like him as a country boy. The Communists like him because he's working class; the blacks, because he sounds like a white negro.
That the golden age never really existed is no longer of importance. The key point is that the past can be a source of redemption as well as recrimination. In the bloated image of Pascal dressed as Elvis, replete with satin jump-suit and wing collar, and leading the way forward to a new South Africa, Christopher Hope has produced one of his most bizarre images yet.
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