Powerless – John Samson
Powerless was the first novel John wrote but not his first published. For those who have read his Shaka are Dead, this is quite different, although stays with the theme of post-Apartheid South Africa.
Where Shaka is written in colloquial style, Powerless is written in standard English.
It tells of two men, one black and one white, caught in a lift when the power fails. We don’t know how long they are in the lift for, although hints suggest it could be as long as five hours overnight. Interspersed between the men’s conversations are vignettes enhancing and explaining aspects of the men’s stories. Links to how their respective loved ones are dealing with their failure to return home help set the wider context all culminating in the final climax after the power returns. The lure of Johannesburg, bank robberies, car hi-jackings, township violence, Inkhata vs ANC, conscription, the elections of 1994 all feature as the stories of the various characters intertwine, weaving a social commentary of life during Apartheid, the dreams people had of the New South Africa and the reality underlying the positive gloss post 1994. Amongst the heartache and the pain shines hope and a sense of reconciliation: it helps to talk.
What I love about Powerless are the multiple climaxes. It’s an emotional roller-coaster of a read as the two men dig deep into their inner-beings. As one of them notes: ‘Apartheid is dead but its spirit still haunts us’ – a statement still true of South Africa today, ten years after Powerless was written.
Another statement which jumped out capturing the essence of South African life then in particular was ‘Indoctrination by environment.’ John has a wonderful way of capturing the essence of a situation adding to the richness of his characters.
For those wondering, no, my love of Powerless was not determined by the images of Simon and his brother looking after cows in Natal, it’s because the story is so well structured taking me on a journey or four.