|Friday, 19 April 2013 13:17|
By Imraan Coovadia
Review by Alan Muller
A book of essays that opens with a piece serving as an “expression of doubt in the book” is bound to leave most readers, be they academic or otherwise, with certain misgivings. Imraan Coovadia’s Transformations is a collection of seemingly disparate essays that focus on topics ranging from his mother’s digital Azan clock, vuvuzelas and Thabo Mbeki’s 2007 letters to the nation, to the shift “from one framework of perception to another” in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. While Coovadia suggests that he “cannot imagine any reader, apart from a friend or two – and probably not even two - who would be interested in all the essays in this collection”, the vast majority of his works are fiercely readable. Foremost among these are “How to Read Lolita” and the controversial “Coetzee in (and out of) Cape Town”.
“How to Read Lolita” sees Coovadia approach Nabokov’s narrative technique in Lolita from a psychological vantage point, using Gestalt psychology and the visually ambiguous Necker Cube to explain how the hebephilic Humbert Humbert’s narration can be seen to tell two different stories at the same time. “Coetzee in (and out of) Cape Town” has, as Jane Rosenthal had envisaged in her review of Transformations for Mail & Guardian, sparked a great deal of controversy regarding Coovadia’s often scathing indictment of J.M. Coetzee’s emigration to Australia and his lionisation within South African literary circles, suggesting that “Coetzee has become a religion rather than a source of literary experience”. While his commentary on Coetzee’s private and professional lives may come across as harsh, perhaps betraying a personal agenda of sorts, one cannot help but enjoy the piece for its bold, controversial and nothing-is-sacred approach.
While there is a great deal of intellectual insight to be gleaned from these essays, they also add to Coovadia’s biographical profile as he distributes fragments of his own narrative throughout the collection, from his childhood in Overport in Durban during the 1970s and 1980s to his scholarly endeavours at the University of Cape Town. Furthermore, one is able to identify tropes in both his intellectual and creative thinking, such as allusions to classical mythology that are evident from his debut novel, The Wedding (2001), through to his most recent, The Institute for Taxi Poetry (2012). The essays in Transformations are sure to open vistas for scholarly research when considered in conjunction with his novels.
While Coovadia admits that “this collection of essays has no proper reason for existence apart from a publisher’s tolerance”, the text is never the less substantial and thought-provoking while remaining playful and accessible.