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The battle of boxing and war, how they compare in the Power of One
In 1939, hatred took root in South Africa, where the seeds of apartheid were newly sown. There a boy called Peekay was born. He spoke the wrong language–English. He was nursed by a woman of the wrong colour–black. His childhood was marked by humiliation and abandonment. Yet he vowed to survive–he would become welterweight champion of the world, he would dream heroic dreams.
But his dreams were nothing compared to what awaited him. For he embarked on an epic journey, where he would learn the power of words, the power to transform lives, and the mystical power that would sustain him even when it appeared that villainy would rule the world. Ideals must be back, for Courtenay's first novel is a fast-paced book with an old-fashioned, clean-cut hero, easily identifiable villains, no sex, and saint like sidekicks. All done in sturdy, workmanlike prose. Set in South Africa in the 1940's, the novel resembles those enormously popular books on southern Africa written by John Buchan and H. Rider Haggard. Courtney’s Peekay, like those earlier heroes, inspires devotion from a disparate band of followers, which includes a witch doctor, a German professor, a barmaid, Gert the Afrikaans policeman, Morrie the Jewish refugee, and his Oxbridge headmaster. Courtenay lovingly evokes an African landscape of small town and bush as he describes the journey of Peekay - from a horrendously cruel boarding school to a triumphant vindication as a young man in the copper mines of what is now Zambia. At his first school, Peekay, as the only English child in an otherwise Afrikaans school, is held accountable for all the wrongs inflicted by the British. But a fortuitous meeting with an amateur boxer, "Kid Louis" Groenewald, supplies the young Peekay with the means and the drive to fight back. Peekay learns to box (boxing fans will particularly appreciate the vividly described fights) and thereafter is forever serving justice and earning Brownie points. His first teachers are the tough Afrikaner jailers of his hometown prison and a black prisoner. Later, at a prep school in Johannesburg, while the victorious Afrikaner Nationalists introduce apartheid, he is taught by the best trainer in Africa. As well as being a scholar and everybody's favorite young man, Peekay also earns a reputation among the blacks as a great chief - "The Tadpole Angel" - who is destined to save them, but not in this book. Peekay is just too noble, and his political views, perhaps reflecting those of his times, are paternal to say the least. But, nevertheless, this is a somewhat endearing, if uncritical, celebration of virtue and positive thinking. Despite the lack of shading and the chipper philosophy, then, a surprisingly refreshing debut.
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Peekay's attitude towards boxing is extremely complicated, setting up the theme of where one can draw the line between boxing and fighting, if one can even draw a line at all. Towards the end of the novel Peekay begins to question the role that the people around him have played in his life-he feels constrained by their goals for him, and realizes that his only self-initiated ambition is to become welterweight champion of the world. It is thus this ambition which allows him to feel "the power of one" within him. The final episode the novel blurs this clarity, however. As Peekay fights his childhood nemesis, the Judge, he draws on all of his boxing lessons-Hoppie, Geel Piet, and Solly Goldman's advice-and implies that his boxing career has culminated in that moment. Certainly, Peekay's first interest in boxing stemmed not from a love of sport, but from a need to defend himself against bullies. There is something sadly pathetic when Peekay admits to himself, in Chapter Twenty-Three, that the source of his boxing desire is a dead chicken. Yet perhaps it is this hidden, vulnerable core of Peekay-revealed to the reader alone-which allows the reader to identify with him. Peekay, an almost perfect character and a hero almost wherever he sets foot, is a likable protagonist because he approaches himself with honesty. Because The Power of One is set between the years of 1939 and 1951 in South Africa, the emergence of apartheid forms an important part of its context. Readers may question why apartheid does not appear to be the central issue of the novel. Indeed, Courtenay focuses more on Peekay's boxing career and his relationship with Doc than he focuses on the rise to power in 1948 of the Nationalist government, led by D.F. Malan, the engineer of apartheid. However, Courtenay is trying to recreate, through Peekay's perspective, the flimsy understanding that even South Africans had of apartheid during its inception. Apartheid was never announced—it slowly seeped into people's consciousness. It was first introduced by D.F. Malan under the guise of something strange, but innocuous: 'separate development' or the ability for each tribe of South Africa to develop its potential on its own. It took time for people to realize that this explanation was merely a front for one of the most sinister and brutal plans the world has known. Courtenay achieves the sense of apartheid slowly filtering into one's consciousness by slowly building Peekay's understanding of it: in Chapter Four Peekay notices a "BLACKS ONLY" sign above a workshop and does not understand why whites cannot enter; he hazily remembers hearing the actual word 'apartheid' during one of his boxing matches in Johannesburg; Captain Swanepoel, a South African policeman sent to deter Peekay and Morrie from continuing their night school for black boxers alludes in passing to the instigation of one of the apartheid laws, the Group Areas Act of 1950. Apartheid seeps into the South African landscape as a slow- working poison—it fits with the image of a "shadow world" used so frequently throughout the novel. Moreover, the perversion which apartheid causes afflicts everyone, in both direct and indirect ways. For example, Peekay--the novel's symbol of unity amongst all races--cannot accept Doc's peaceful death because he has become so accustomed to the gruesome, brutal murders that result from excessive racism-such as Granpa Chook and Geel Piet's deaths. Apartheid is most to be feared, Courtenay suggests, because of this sly, undercover manner of working. As Peekay notes in the novel's final chapter, "all routine, no matter how bizarre, soon becomes normal procedure." Apartheid is sinister because, as evidenced by Peekay's slow revelation of it, apartheid is gradually becoming a routine in South Africa. With the interesting combination of having a factual background-apartheid South Africa-with a fictional foreground-Peekay's story-Courtenay tests the very borders between fact and fiction. Ultimately he seems to imply that when History can no longer be trusted, fiction must take up the responsibility of spreading the truth.
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The climax arrives only at the very end of the novel, when seventeen-year-old Peekay comes face-to-face with his childhood nemesis, Jaapie Botha. Peekay training to become a "spiritual terrorist", his theory of "winning"
Which is later taken up by sports psychiatrists, Peekay’s foresight after his boxing match with Gideon Mandoma as to the atrocities that will occur in South Africa?