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Tuesday, 18 May 2010 10:35

Review of High Low In-between by Imraan Coovadia.  Cape Town: Umuzi, 2009.

All things that we ordainèd festival

Turn from their office to black funeral (Romeo and Juliet). 

Imraan Coovadia’s third novel is intriguing – it is about intrigue, and it is a deliberate generic puzzle in order to represent what one character calls “a looking-glass society” (103).  Its action includes deception, betrayal, death, murder, theft, intrigue and mystery – all the stock in trade of the who-dunnit.   And yet that is hardly the point, because the world in which these things happen is presented as very different from the genre’s old separation of good guys from bad.  This reworking with a difference also extends to other genres with which Coovadia plays.  When a planned party has to change abruptly, in the first chapter of High Low, from being a retirement party to a funeral gathering, no one can be sure of who decided and did what, or even how much it should or does matter.   “[N]othing and nobody was in charge” (103).  When the families in Verona made their terrible mistakes, at least Capulet could say that he and his kind were responsible, “we ordainèd”, and thence allow events to bring them to their senses.   Nothing like that seems possible in Coovadia’s fictional world where people feel obliged to work “outside the ordinary channels” (240).

The novel has two narrators who alternate chapter by chapter: Nafisa the widow of the dead Arif (who might have committed suicide or might have been murdered) and her son, Shakeer, an international photographer known in his family as Sharky.   The setting is Durban, as his name suggests, and the time is a present in which the socialist or other democratic principles of the resistance era have disappeared and many of the one-time revolutionaries have become new officials on the take.  One of the other intriguing aspects of the novel is the social fact (following the political change) that white people are now quite irrelevant in the somewhat murky, interacting worlds of Indian and African people.  To one of the Indian characters who has grown used to living “in between”, the country once belonged to “the Europeans and the multinationals”, but now “is not likely to be our country either” (p24).    

When Hamlet comments sardonically on the “thrift” with which “the funeral baked meats” became the cold fare of the “marriage tables” he is telling Horatio that they are in a Denmark where nothing is any longer as it was, or as it now seems.   And he remains notoriously unable to act upon his suspicions.  Shakeer is in a comparable situation, and that is the point.  (These cross references are all mine; Coovadia’s are to the shades of Dante’s Inferno.)  Too many people live outside the law, like the illegal Pathan-Pakistani immigrants who have taken over the Durban restaurant business and survive because they are “reputedly the toughest” (17).   Nafisa, once she has accepted that her husband was murdered, has her suspicions (as does Sharky) but these remain obscure for the reader, and this is not a fictional world in which she or he is able to pursue them with vigour.   

Nafisa’s “hold on circumstances” (10) is increasingly unsteady, and two-thirds of the way through she is still resolving to “push things to a conclusion”:

      She would unload all her burdens.  She would sell the house and leave the country behind.  She would find out who had murdered her husband.  She was fed up with this in-between condition. (181).

Among Nafisa’s burdens are the tax-man’s threats to prosecute her for undeclared income and the possibility that she has contracted HIV from a needle-stick injury.  She has more “ooplung, black money” (21) than she knows what to do with, and the portion that she had deposited in a London bank is now missing.  She is a doctor with a practice in the Grey Street area of Durban and many patients in King Edward Hospital.  Her husband, Arif, worked in AIDS research but his success in “isolating the virus” (18) has been “completely squandered by the government” (18) many of whom are old comrades, and he has been “forced out of the University” by a management eager to curry government favour.  At the time of his death, he is also facing a court case for initially unspecified reasons.  Gradually it emerges that his star student, now a leading surgeon in Durban, is facing prosecution for trafficking in human organs and Arif is to give evidence.  Durbanites, if not all South Africans, will recognize many of these events and places, although they have been stirred around and the characters do not particularly match actual people.   

The treatment of Durban suggests that besides his playing with crime fiction and tragedy, Coovadia has a satirical eye.   And yet his treatment of his characters is sympathetic rather than mocking, and this is what gives the novel its disturbing appeal.   The much travelled Shakir is introspective and indolent, or at least inactive, and Nafisa is unsteady, and yet their perceptions and uncertainties are always compelling.   Nafisa has a quasi maternal bond with her domestic worker, Estella, and a deep sympathy for another African woman whose life she is unable to save. She also has a temperamental inclination towards “magical thinking” (11) which contrasts strongly with her husband’s rational and scientific outlook.   Here the novel is at its most ambitious for it sets up a contrast between Western and African modes of perception and thought, and then shows how frequently the division is blurred in the daily lives of its characters, many of whom live across realms of culture and belief.   This is most clearly depicted when Sharky is taken by Estella to an African woman healer whom she is consulting about her epileptic daughter.   He is an onlooker, taking photographs, but as they leave is surprised when he realizes that the woman has read his troubles too, and offers help.   

Nafisa’s final thoughts, when she knows what happened to her husband and to the missing money, are that theirs is a world of shadows and that everything in it “was coming to an end.   At the same time everything in the universe was beginning again” (246).   The novel too is cyclical, with another funeral and then a Sufi ritual of consolation in its last chapter.  It is Shakir’s turn to be the narrating consciousness.  His concluding thoughts are that “for questions of life … you don’t need specialized knowledge.  You need the same soul that we all have” (261).