A Croc of Silver: 2015 Barry Ronge Prize Shortlistee Imraan Coovadia Discusses Tales of the Metric System
Published in the Sunday Times
By Imraan Coovadia
This book comes the closest I can to telling the story of contemporary South Africa. It’s made out of the experiences, the happiness and unhappiness, the entanglements and ironies of a thousand people who I have known or read about or imagined. It’s not a book for intellectuals or academics, for book club readers or radio show reviewers, for bankers or clerks, but it’s not a book against them either. It’s a book, as I see it, and to borrow a thought, “for everyone and nobody”.
In our country books are like stones. Someone throws them into the pond. They skip a few times and then disappear forever. I think a book should be more like a crocodile. Let it hang around disguised, and every now and again ambush some unlucky reader and take him or her down deep into the water.
You ask where the nugget of truth is in the story.
First of all, I hope it’s not a nugget. A nugget, even of gold, is something you would sift out, leaving the rest. There has to be a sense of overall truthfulness, sincerity, and conviction, for a novel to work – at least for this novel to work – and there shouldn’t be anything you can leave out. For a poem, gold may be the right measure of value: every word needs to be worth its weight in gold, because there are few words and each demands attention and display. In a novel the currency of words is closer to silver or bronze. Each word and sentence has to cross your palm almost without your noticing. In my experience, that’s the way that truth operates – steadily, quietly, surprisingly – in a novel.
Excerpt from Tales of the Metric System:
Yash had been planning to kill himself for almost a year. He dated the decision to the Diwali before last, soon after the start of television, when his cousin Logan bought a dozen boxes of fireworks from Singapore Retailers. They had orange fuses and flaking green paper sides, smelled of the bitter black pepper of gunpowder when you held them in your hand, and shone with an alien light in the sky above that Logan’s uncle’s house. There had been a Catherine wheel turning back and forth like a hosepipe full of sparks and yet its brilliant white revolutions struck him as unendurably sad. Yash had been unable to stop his eyes filling with tears.
On the same evening, the Pioneer sound system had been stolen out of Logan’s car while the guests were in the yard. Although Logan’s uncle had immediately identified the thief, who lived across the road and subsequently played his own music on the stolen speakers, it was impossible to have his cousin’s property returned because the miscreant was the nineteen-year-old, ne’er-do-well son of a sergeant in the police force. He and his father could make life difficult for Logan and his uncle, teachers in the same government school, if they went to lay a complaint.
Logan wasn’t the type to forget an injury. Under the proper conditions he was prepared to take action. When the school boycotts came here to Phoenix, Logan had promised to march up to the sergeant’s door, ring the buzzer until they were forced to let him in, and take back his speakers and graphic equaliser.
Yash thought that he wouldn’t live to see the day this Logan put his speakers back in the sockets in the doors of his car. In the meantime, they remained empty to remind Logan of the theft, also because he couldn’t afford to replace the system on his junior teacher’s salary. Yash had an idea that Logan was one person who was capable of bringing about a revolution.
In a way none of them were good for him. Logan and Sanjay and even this Kastoori made claims on life far stronger than his own. Could they know that this difference in their intensities, the sum of their wills to survive subtracted from his own, reduced him to thoughts of suicide. He was at less than zero.