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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Tales of the Metric System

Imraan Coovadia

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Title: Tales of the Metric System
Author: Imraan Coovadia
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014
Length: 389 pages
Availability: Tales of the Metric System - US
Tales of the Metric System - UK
Tales of the Metric System - Canada
Vermessenes Land - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nicely done take on four decades of South African transitions

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Business Day . 2/12/2014 Ashraf Jamal
Financial Mail . 6/11/2014 Leon de Kock
Mail & Guardian . 15/1/2015 Jane Rosenthal
Sunday Times . 9/11/2014 Ray Hartley

  From the Reviews:
  • "Characters recede then surface at different points in the chain of time; however, within Coovadia’s schema they do not necessarily evolve (.....) It is bracingly evident that Coovadia’s novel is no messianic celebration of a nation’s democracy." - Ashraf Jamal, Business Day

  • "In this novel there is clear evidence of a literary imagination at work that, like Gordimer’s, is able do what most SA writers can’t -- bridge the periods of apartheid and postapartheid, traverse racial gulfs and write a multigenerational fiction interwoven through a range of distinctive locales. (...) The novel is uncharacteristically verdant, both in its vertical and its horizontal reach, but principally in its rediscovery of characterisation." - Leon de Kock, Financial Mail

  • "This novel is far richer, deeper and more philosophically interesting than its rather dry title might suggest (.....) Coovadia examines and investigates how to decide what counts in life, how to measure this, and what is immeasurable -- yet vitally important. Various characters remark on these questions throughout the text, gently reminding the reader of what binds this novel together. (...) These interconnected stories are all fictions, but not entirely so. And there is no disclaimer asserting that the characters are not based on real people; many of them are, or are composites of known people." - Jane Rosenthal, Mail & Guardian

  • "More effectively than any political tract, Coovadia quietly and subtly probes the struggle ideologies of liberalism, black consciousness and non-racialism. You feel his presence behind the prose, watching you with eyes that are at once amused, mocking and empathetic. (...) With its elegant prose and its ruthless determination to lead you to the truth, Tales of the Metric System is about as good a book as you are likely to read on South Africa’s transition from struggle to power." - Ray Hartley, Sunday Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Presented, despite its title, as a novel -- it says so on the cover, too, a reminder to readers -- Tales of the Metric System is unusual in its episodic structure: it consists of ten chapters, each describing events of a few hours or single day, from between 1970 and 2010, with little continuity and only limited overlap of characters. Characters do resurface in different chapters and times, and some -- notably Ann, with whom the book also opens -- play prominent roles, but there's little effort at straightforward, simple progression; readers are dropped into a new situation and constellation in each chapter, generally with limited exposition of what has transpired in the meantime. The chapters are vignettes from South Africa's history between 1970 and 2010 (and don't even all take place in South Africa); if not quite everyday-accounts -- generally at least some significant or pivotal event (even if only on a personal level) is at the heart of each episode -- the episodes nevertheless tend to be closely personal, against only a backdrop of the historical.
       South Africa adopted the metric system in 1971 and, yes: "The world changed with the units of measurements". Tales of the Metric System doesn't recount this and South Africa's many other transitions closely, but offers scenes from the times along the way; the accommodations and shifts necessitated by forms of regime-change (whether of units of measurement, government, or the introduction of television) don't dominate but do underlie many of the episodes. The recurring characters' new stations and situations are revealing, even if we generally never learn of exactly how they moved from one stage to the next.
       Typical is how Ann -- the most visible figure throughout the novel -- is introduced, un-fixed even in the most basic identifying marker of a name: "She wasn't sure of her own", born Ann Bowen, she became Ann Robie when she married for the first time, but, in the opening chapter, set in 1970, notes: "she had never completed the switch to Ann Hunter", never taking the family name of her second husband, Neil.
       Ann notes, almost three decades after the opening episode, which had her son Paul in trouble (later to be expelled) from school -- "he sacrificed himself for his friends" -- that in the years afterwards: "there was a chain of events which didn't allow us to recover our footing". Even as the novel appears to offer a loose chain through history -- personal and national -- it is only very late that it is all tied together. Already early on it is revealed that Ann's husband -- Paul's step-father -- Neil Hunter "had become a legend since his assassination", but that event is only recounted in the final chapter, the only one presented out of chronological order, as the book closes with events from 1976.
       Again focused on a single day, the chapter set in 1976 nevertheless acknowledges that year as a pivotal turning point for the course of the nation -- as also suggested by the chapter being presented out of (chronological) turn. For once Coovadia steps further back and goes so far as to list several of the historically significant events of 1976 -- the year beginning with the (very late) introduction of television to South Africa. (The character of Neil Hunter is based on that of influential philosopher Rick Turner -- though Turner was, in fact, only killed in 1978.)
       The individual chapters are finely crafted. Coovadia does not force the momentous -- as (variations on) 'historical' fiction often do -- yet manages to sustain a sense of tension in each chapter, throughout. Often one expects more confrontation than actually occurs, as Coovadia resolutely refuses to force the issues too obviously (instead showing a nice simmering touch). There is an inevitability to the novel's long-anticipated concluding scene, and also to one of the other death-scenes -- yet elsewhere a surprising death occurs off-stage. In reflecting on the latter, a character even notes:

There was something in the Gerasimov situation which you should be treating at arm's length. You had to look at it sideways, in the form of a silhouette, to keep it in the right proportion.
       Coovadia expertly selects his perspectives, in keeping his tale(s) in the right proportions.
       It is this Gerasimov who also observes, to a writer:
I believe, Sebastian, that novels are more important than ever. They are more important than video recorders and record players and television because they enable us to exercise our minds. They allow us to step back and see where the history is taking us.
       Tales of the Metric System seems a good example of that. "There are different relationships of cause and effect", a character notes, and Coovadia's artfully constructed novel explores that well, offering no easy answers or definitive accounts-of-the-nation but rather a much more complex, realistic depiction. Big history -- the names, the supposedly central events -- remains largely in the background here, yet Tales of the Metric System is more convincing and revealing as historical fiction -- of a place and an era -- than most.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 April 2015

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Tales of the Metric System: Reviews: Imraan Coovadia: Other books by Imraan Coovadia under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books from and about Africa

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About the Author:

       South African author Imraan Coovadia was born in 1970.

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© 2015-2022 the complete review

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