Review: The Unspeakable by Peter Anderson

I was sent a complimentary copy of this one by the agent promoting the author in exchange for an honest review – thank you very much! That fact didn’t influence my opinion in any way.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

It is the mid-1980s, the era of so-called reformist apartheid, and South Africa is in flames. Police and military are gunning down children at the forefront of the liberation struggle. Far from such action, it seems, a small party of four is traveling by minibus to the north of the country, close to the border with Zimbabwe. Their aim is to shoot a documentary on the discovery of a prehistoric skull that Professor Digby Bamford boasts is evidence that, “True man first arose in southern Africa.”

Boozy, fat, self-absorbed Professor Bamford is unaware that his young lover, Vicky, brings with her some complications. Rian, the videographer, was once in love with her, and his passion has been reignited. Bucs, a young black man from the townships hired as their driver, is doing his best not to be involved in the increasingly deadly tensions.

Told in the first person by Rian, it centers on the conflicted being of the white male under apartheid. Unlike many of the great novels of the era, it renounces any claim to the relative safety zone of moralistic dissociation from the racist crime against humanity, and cuts instead to the quick of complicity. It is sometimes said of Albert Camus’s The Stranger that everything would have turned out very differently, had the murder only taken place “a few hundred miles to the south.” This is that South with a vengeance.

My impressions:

Even though the book was told in the first person limited voice, a feature not liked by everyone, the narration was done in a great way – it was well-paced, it managed to keep my attention and sounded true. Sometimes the truth is hard to swallow but you cannot fail to appreciate it, especially if you read about a country such as South Africa, where people living during the apartheid period were lied to and brainwashed repeatedly.

The surface is about shooting a documentary which is supposed to make or break Bamford’s career but the author used it as an excuse to focus on rather difficult, philosophical questions; they were revealed inside a story in such a way that it wasn’t a chore to think about the answers. What leads people to commit unspeakable acts? Who is to blame – the circumstances, the official propaganda, the past experiences? What does it mean to attempt to speak about the “unspeakable”? If I had to compare the formula I would say the old movie ‘Cabaret’, dealing with coming to power of the Nazi in Germany, I find the closest.

Rian, Bamford and Vicky, the three main characters, have to deal with love, lust, origins, meaning, racism and the past during one trip to the country in order to shoot a rather controversial documentary.They try to do the right thing, enjoy themselves, do the good job, but their inner demons act up and soon enough they find themselves on a straight path to a tragedy. The strange thing is I liked the character of Bamford, an obnoxious,   shunned and lonely palaeontologist, the best. He came with an interesting hypothesis- that modern Man has degenerated from earlier and more intelligent beings. If Africa remains the cradle of Man, and Bamford’s discovered skull is all that remains of Man’s earlier and more civilized incarnation then the accelerating bestiality of recent South African history has an inherent, depressive logic. Still is his theory right?

Be warned: the events of the book will shock and they are meant to. By the end these casual and degenerate impulses of the main character find a kind of logical inevitability. I admit the doom and gloom of the narration got to me too much sometimes and I found myself wishing for a bit of comic relief. No such luck. The denouement was far bleaker than I expected and a bit open-ended too but I suppose, all things considered, it couldn’t have been any different.

Finally the cover works just fine – it’s simple and grim.

Final verdict:

An interesting book about South Africa and the condition of human nature, asking a lot of difficult questions. Not an easy position to read but it is certainly worth the effort.

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10 Responses to Review: The Unspeakable by Peter Anderson

  1. heidenkind says:

    This sounds like a movie I’d like to see, but I don’t know about reading a book about it…

    • I agree: this book is a prime movie script material. It has it all: drama, crime, sex, political turmoil. It even has a kid to be rescued (a secondary character but still). Simply perfect.

    • Carla says:

      Hi Heidenkind
      I am about halfway through the novel, and agree it would make a powerful movie. But I am glad I am reading it, as it would be difficult for a movie to portray the inner landscape of the characters as well as the narrative does.

  2. blodeuedd says:

    I am with Heidenkind on this one

  3. Great review, I’ve read this too. While it is a hard read, it’s worth it. The writing style is amazing

  4. rameau says:

    You say first person limited voice and I know I’m not going to read it. Didn’t think about a film, but maybe…

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