Thursday, November 02, 2006

BOOKS, ETC.: Dear God. What Have I Done?

Holy crap. I forgot till just now that, a couple weeks back -- probably in the drunken flush of having gotten a semi-decent night's sleep -- I signed myself up for this. It's National Blog Posting Month (aka NaBloPoMo, natch), and it means I'm on the hook for writing a new post every single day. Now, I already try to post every weekday, so what this means is super-happy-fun bonus weekend posts... which you're all welcome to read as soon as you get back to your desks on Monday.

I can't promise you much, but I can tell you this: if you're not heartily sick of me by November 30th, then I haven't done my job.


I was going to catch you up on my reading log (I'm at 42 and counting, not that you'd know it from reading this site), but instead I feel compelled to tell you about what I did last night, and not just because I go out so little that the mere act of leaving the house is a noteworthy event.

A few days ago, my friend, champion, and soon-to-be booking agent N.C. hooked me up with another friend of his, whose job it is to organize in-store events for every single Chapters store in western Canada -- a job that frightens me in its enormity, but N.C.'s friend handles it with aplomb. Anyway, she invited me to interview Mac Maharaj, a long-time friend of Nelson Mandela (they were political prisoners alongside each other, and later Maharaj served as a Minister in the African National Congress's Cabinet), who acted as editorial consultant on Mandela: The Authorized Portrait.

So, because I like to jump into water that goes way over my head, I said yes.

I know embarrassingly little about the political history of South Africa. I reassure myself that this is acceptable by reminding myself that I also know embarrassingly little about the political history of Canada. I do know that Laura Secord played an important role in the War of 1812, but would I know that if her face and name had not been appropriated by a well-known chocolatier? I suspect not. (This is the Canadian way: we take our heroes and we have them shill candy and doughnuts for us. Come on... doesn't this make you love us a little bit?)

Having spent a fair bit of time immersed in
Mandela for the past few days, I still wouldn't call myself an expert on South African politics, but I don't feel as guilty about it. This is an incredible book. It interweaves Mandela's life with the politics of his country -- because, as one person notes, the two are inseparable -- but more than that, it reveals the enormous humanity of the man. This aspect of the book touches me deeply.

Most biographies are written in the voice of one person, and that person usually has a personal axe to grind. In the case of
Mandela, the publishers commissioned more than sixty interviews with people who have come into contact with Mandela at different points in his life -- from Archbishop Desmond Tutu to Bill Clinton to Bono -- and this approach gives you a unique 360-degree look at Mandela, who like all of us, was many things to many people.

To politicians such as Clinton and
Tony Blair, Mandela was a model of forgiveness. Interestingly, they each note Mandela's ability to acknowledge his former hatred of his white captors in order to rise above it so that he could proceed to create a unified South Africa.

To people more intimately acquainted with Mandela, such as Maharaj and Archbishop Tutu, Mandela is a more complex figure. They speak of him with enormous affection and respect, but they don't demonstrate the almost fawning devotion that Mandela seems to elicit from the general public. Maharaj speaks wrily and humorously of the many times that Mandela has frustrated him personally, and Archbishop Tutu notes Mandela's weaknesses, including his unshakeable loyalty to his former comrades, which from time to time interferes with his judgment.

Last night, Maharaj and I touched on these subjects, but what I was most taken with for the twenty or so minutes that we talked was Maharaj himself. Here is a man who has lived not just through but right in the
middle of some of the most important historical events of the past century. What does that do to a person?

[Here's where I have to break and warn you that, after all that build-up, this next part may seem rushed. Sam just woke up from his nap and wants to practise standing on chairs -- which, need I say, is not permitted in Casa Doppelganger unless one has also drank a pitcher of sangria and is about to impress the group with one's version of The Robot -- so I'm dividing my attention between that and this. But I wanted to get these impressions out before they fade any further.]

I won't act all cooler-than-thou here. I'll confess right now that I was more than a little awed and intimidated to be speaking to such a person, and this wasn't remedied by the crowd of 100-plus people who showed up to watch. But once we started talking, the crowd seemed to disappear and it felt, to me anyway, as if we were having a real conversation. Without sounding too fawning, though it may be too late for that, here are some of the things I learned:
  • that you can be a great man and still be a man;
  • that even knowing you're fighting a just cause, you can still have regrets about your choices; and
  • that actions and effects always play out in two arenas: the personal and the political.
The most moving portion of the evening, for me, was when Maharaj, who is a warm and gracious and witty and cultured man, became visibly moved when he talked about his greatest regret. He talked about the horrible feeling of powerlessness he felt as a political prisoner, which he was from the time he was 29 until he was 41. He talked about being in his mid thirties and feeling as if he were at the height of his powers, and that it was all for nothing because he was confined to a seven-foot-by-seven-foot concrete cell with no connection to the outside world. And for a second I felt, as close as it's possible for me to feel without having experienced it myself, how that must feel -- to be young and strong and dynamic and filled with fire for your cause, and to have all that passion with no place to focus it, and to know that once you've passed this zenith of your strength, it will never come around again. He also spoke feelingly about the vast regret he feels for much pain his family has suffered because of his choices.

Despite all this, Maharaj seems not to harbour anger, which is amazing to me. He agrees with Mandela that true reconciliation is the only way to create a better world. And in these seemingly dark times in which we are all living, he still believes that a better world is possible.

Maharaj states in his book:

[Mandela] has truly become humankind's hope for the future at a time when politics has become a dirty word, stripped of all morality and Machiavellian to its roots... he remains the hope of this world.


Doppelsis said...

Wow! Great post.

Sami said...

I am tempted to query whether the Authorised Portrait of Mandela actually does provide a 360-degree portrait of Mandela.

Does it include the part where he was a terrorist, responsible for the deaths of many thousands of people - most of them black? The part where the organisation he transformed from a movement for peaceful change to a terrorist faction planted bombs in crowded train stations or forced black women to drink fabric softener and die in agony for buying that fabric softener in a white-owned shop? Does it mention the "necklace" - where the ANC would soak a tyre in petrol, wrap it around someone's neck and set it on fire?

The canonisation of Nelson Mandela is vile propaganda. I don't much care if his decades in prison - where he went FOR BEING A TERRORIST AND KILLING PEOPLE, not just for speaking out against the government - changed him. The man was evil, and I hate that no-one recognises that.