Sunday, January 12, 2014
Sunday, January 5, 2014
Published by: Little, Brown and Company
Publication Date: March 11th, 2008
Format: Kindle, 684 Pages
It is hard to grasp that a little boy who grew up in a tribal setting in South Africa would become the driving force to eliminate apartheid and would subsequently become the president of South Africa, and a man who changed history and shaped the 20th century. Nelson Mandela was fortunate in that he was allowed access by a flawed system to an education, an education that he would then use to dismantle that very system. There is no ambiguity that Mandela and his struggles symbolized freedom to the world and to South Africa. He was a great man. But being a great man doesn't translate to being a great writer. To me, the reason to read is for enjoyment and entertainment, and yes, education. But I like my knowledge presented to me in an engaging fashion. Therefore nonfiction has never been my genre of choice. The fact of the matter is life doesn't necessarily have a narrative. Life has a beginning, a middle, and an end, that is true. But not every life is worth or worthy of a book. Great historical figures, as well as annoying celebrities, are an exception.
Yet to have a biography or autobiography there needs to be more then this beginning, middle, and end. There needs to be insight as to how that time was filled. As a reader I didn't want just a dry telling of the facts, I wanted to know Mandela's feelings. I wanted to know his beliefs, his loves, his despair at spending 27 years of his life incarcerated. His feelings when Winnie went a little crazy, instead of a press release. This is what I desired, and instead I got brief glimpses of his life amid a struggle with no narrative, nothing to grab you and make you feel invested in his journey. Just a dry telling of the facts and figures that would make a statistician cry from sheer boredom. Flat, emotionless writing with so many names and acronyms, I wasn't sure if I could finish the book without loosing my mind.
To be fair, I will say that I was fairly ignorant of what the history in South Africa was, I kind of dropped that African history class in undergrad due to surly students and an indifferent TA that reminded me of Eric Stoltz. I did work on the play "Master Harold"... and the Boys about institutionalized bigotry and racism in Port Elizabeth during apartheid, but I can honestly say I don't remember anything about it other then how long it took me to paint that set. Therefore learning more about this time did hold some fascination for me and also underscored the fact that the world will basically turn a blind eye if you're killing your own people, Pol Pot, Stalin, early Hitler. But the fact that the government was just as bad if not worse then Nazi Germany and that this lasted not just a few decades but for almost an entire century is staggering. The travel bans, the pass books, the government did everything they could to push down the natives. The fact that the government was Boer, aka the Dutch who came and settled in South Africa, who are most known for that lovely Boer War, has made me draw the conclusion that the Boers are Bastards... I think this would make a catchy bumper sticker, don't you? Or Afrikaners suck. Your choice.
This is the world that Mandela grew up in. I liked that we saw his journey and how he questioned things. He thinks like I do in some respects. If he didn't know about something he would go out and find out everything about it before making a decision. He'd read and read and read till he came to his own conclusions. But this was a bit lugubrious to read about his reading. I don't want to be doing battle with my books. Really I don't. I take a certain glee in writing the reviews later... but that doesn't make up for the previous torture the book has inflicted on me. What I wouldn't have given for maybe a little bit about his family, his feelings about not being there for them instead of a day by day breakdown of one of his trials that lasted years, but felt like millennia. While nothing makes up for the life he lost locked behind prison walls, I can definitively say that I felt every single year he was locked away with him.
With this book there is also a final question to be asked. How much did this book sanitize Mandela's image? The book was rushed to publication for his taking office as president with the help of his co-author, not, in my mind, ghostwriter as some have said, if it was ghostwritten, it would have been actually better written, so therefore, what was tweaked? What was taken out and what was kept in? In fact many people believe that Mandela was chosen as the image for anti-apartheid because his hands we clean. While he advocated the taking up of arms, he himself didn't.
There were little things in the book that disturbed me, such as his having a picture on the wall of the winter palace to commemorate the uprising that killed the Tsar and his family. How could anyone want to hang on their wall a reminder of the death of innocent children? Even if you are a communist, seriously? No. Just no. He also worshipped Castro, which recent articles have said wasn't talked about in the book, I just think they didn't finish the fifty million page opus of dullness, because Mandela clearly states his admiration of him. There are just so many thoughts spinning in my head about using one bad political model to fight another one... I just want to clear my head, get ride of the lugubriousness of this text, wipe away the cobwebs and have a real author come in and write about Mandela. With his passing I want a truly great writer of biographies to come along and do justice for Mandela, and maybe find a little bit of the truth... or at least don't varnish over things like Winnie.