Each tale dips into a decade and focuses on people, incidents and interactions that in one way or another characterise that decade; state sanctioned murder, passbooks, communism, necklacing, the TRC, Aids and the 2010 World Cup. Tales of the Metric System spans the years between 1970 and 2010 and is a marvellous construct. It approaches the topic of the apartheid years and those struggling against this system from an entirely fresh angle. It also spills over into the years after apartheid, which adds a different perspective to the more distant past. The narrative is interlaced with personal minutiae of ordinary days and some wonderfully colourful characters. To those readers who think they have read this sort of thing before, you have not. This novel is unmissable.
The title itself is intriguing. Why are these tales of the metric system? Perhaps the metric system is a metaphor for the apartheid government and the stories and troubled lives that it spawned. It is said that implementation of the metric system, in its full extent not only currency, was most successful in South Africa due to the kragdadigheid *(heavy-handed, uncompromising autocracy) of the Nats. “The world changed with the units of measurement”. How ironic that this conservative, undemocratic government embraced such a modern system while keeping the population in the dark ages in every other way.
Each tale has a different set of characters at its centre some of whom crop up on the periphery of a later tale. The characters seem to be a composite of real characters such as Neil Hunter, loosely based on Rick Turner. Towards the end of the novel, a particular family closely resembles the Shaik family, except they are Hindus rather than Muslims. This is a rather clever way of getting sufficient authorial distance from real people and being able to imagine them into fictional characters.
There are so many memorable characters that it is difficult to single out a few but Mr Shabangu, the caretaker of the Caledonian Christian Men’s Hostel in Pietermaritzburg, is particularly fascinating though unlikeable. He is a secretive man who steals and hordes his ill-gotten goods. He witnesses one of his youthful accomplices being necklaced by a furious community but does nothing to prevent it. Then there is Yash, who lives in Phoenix and is besotted with playing the guitar and has a record collection of pop rock music. He played in a band in a beachfront restaurant, which was not strictly legal in 1979. He goes to try to claim his pay from the restaurant owner, Colin, on Boxing Day. This does not go well and he realises that the intimacy he thought he shared had been withdrawn. “It happened with Europeans. A trapdoor opened and you fell through the floor.” This use of second person narrative is used to good effect throughout the novel. It seems to pull the reader into the action as if at one with the character. The ‘you’ statements also give the impression of something that is generally true. The dialogue throughout the novel flows easily and convincingly. The voices of the different characters are perfectly captured by the use of different diction and turn of phrase.
The book itself is also a thing of beauty. Examine the title closely and you will see icons of the times integrated into the letters; cuffed hands make up an H, a burning tyre makes up an O. Each chapter has a title page with an icon that represents the chapter whether this be a guitar, a pass book or a vuvuzela. I have enjoyed some of Coovadia’s previous work such as The Wedding and High Low In-Between but in this novel, he has surpassed himself.
*According to Riaan Malan, kragdadigheid is an old Afrikaner philosophy; an act of power, you took what you wanted and held it with your gun and fists