Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Mixed Blood, by Roger Smith

The word that comes to mind after reading Roger Smith's new Cape Town thriller, Mixed Blood, is "overdetermined," a bit of jargon from Marxist literary theory--but also an apt description of a farce-like plot (not comic but violent). Farce, actually, gets its name from the French word for "stuffed," as in stuffed turkey, etc., and farces are always overstuffed with incidents spiralling around a central plot. Similarly Mixed Blood deals with a number of characters (an American family on the run after a botched robbery in the U.S., a bad cop, a "colored" night watchman, a couple of young punks, a Cape Flats slum kid and his mother, a straight-shooter Zulu cop named Zondi--perhaps in homage to James McClure's black cop in his apartheid era series), all revolving around and spiraling outward from a break in on the high-rent slopes of Cape Town's spectacular mountains. One of the central characters, the bad cop, is similarly overstuffed, to the point of comic-book exaggeration: He's fat, racist, smelly, violent, has a rash and hemorrhoids, and to top it off he's a religious fanatic. What happens to him in the end, in retrospect, calls for his being a spectacular figure rather than a simple man, in a symbolic sense at least. In parallel with the structure of farce, the story builds inexorably to a grand conclusion (violent rather than comic, here) bringing all the threads together and resolving almost everything (though I have to say I found the very final event a bit anticlimactic). Mixed Blood is a different kind of thriller than Deon Meyer produces: for one thing, Smith's story is more stylized--less realistic, less interested in character; at the same time, Smith draws a rather more complete portrait of Cape Town than Meyer does in any one of his books. We get the rich and the poor, the walled-in rich and the slum-dwelling poor, the mansions and the tin-roof shacks, the mixed-race coloreds, the now-ascendent blacks, the whites tentatively hanging on to the cliffs of Table Mountain and its related peaks, the tourist and consumer havens at the waterfront--all drawn vividly in all the complexity and beauty of the city itself. It's perhaps due to Smith's wise choice of an outsider (an American gambler-soldier-thief who had gotten caught up in a bad bank robbery, trying without much success to protect his family) as the central character, able from his distinct point of view to reflect on the beauty, the banality, and the violent contrasts of Cape Town. Smith's tale has a drive and an inevitability that makes it a compelling read, and I look forward to his next Cape Town novel, which won't be the next in a series, as he has dealt rather thoroughly with most of the characters in his first novel.


Roger Smith said...

Dear Mr Harper

Thank you for your entertaining and insightful review of my first novel. I particularly enjoyed your reading of Mixed Blood as a farce (albeit a violent one).

Contemporary South Africa seems to demand this treatment.

Glenn Harper said...

Hello and thanks for your comment--it's always great to get a response from the author. The connection of farce with South Africa's present and its history makes me think of Tom Sharpe's bitingly funny and violent farce of apartheid in Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure, two cautionary fables about human rights and human nature.

Barbara said...

Good review, Glenn. I admit I found it hard to read at first - not because of the writing, which is smooth and compelling enough, but because of the sheer hopelessness of the poverty and corruption and its crushing effects on people.

I'm glad I stuck with it though because as you persevere, here and there you find tiny glimpses of redemption, and I don't mean retribution - but of brutalized people awakening just a bit to their humanity. And it was like finally getting a sip of water in a drought!

I agree that it's a wide-angle picture of Capetown. And not the one in the tourism pamphlet.