Readathon-ing towards South Africa: Tales of the Metric System

Tales of the Metric System
Tales of the Metric System, by Imraan Coovadia.

Like I said before. The rules of choosing books for my readathon are pretty fluid – mainly it’s :

  1. Author is from said country &/or
  2. Action is set in said country

Other than that, the sky is the limit ;). So when I came across Imraan Coovadia’s book in a Goodreads thread I chose it because of the title, really.

Well, of course, I read the details and got an idea what it’s about, and I did see that the book was featured in the nota bene of the WorldLiteratureToday magazine. But I didn’t imagine it will be so skillfully written.

Tales of the Metric System takes 10 days in the life of South Africa and then spreads them over the last four decades (spanning the period 1973 to 2010) each day with its own personal story.

The entire book provides a subtle bridge between the periods of apartheid and postapartheid, and the stories, although seemingly not connected at first, do play loosely into each other

The first sequence is dated 1970. The metric system has recently been introduced, and the hard winter of apartheid is at its height. This story is told from the perspective of Ann, the wife of an activist professor, whose life is not easy because her husband is under surveillance, and arrest is a constant possibility.

Each chapter introduces a new situation and witnesses, drawn from diverse corners of society, advancing in time as the country suffers from, and celebrates the transitions that lead to the present.

You read the story of the same Ann – now different, after her husband’s murder, militating in London alongside the Soviet activists, who saves the life of a young spy when she catches her stealing intel and decides to spare her life and let her go.

Then after the apartheid finally comes to an end, you have the story of Ann’s future daughter in law, caught shoplifting in a mall and at the mercy of the same woman whose life was spared by Ann back in London.

There’s the story of young Victor, whose life is forever changed by the prospect of a life in theatre, and the apparent loss of his working permit.

And the story of Shibanga, the old kleptomaniac man who stole Victor’s papers our of spite, love, and weird protectionism, who then hides away in a township only to continue on his stealing feat – and cause the horrific necklacing murder of a young boy in the process.

But I gave you too many spoilers already!

I recommend this subtle apartheid reading, regardless of how much you know about South Africa’s history.  It’s alive, hard to swallow, and very well crafted.


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One comment

  1. The books does seam super engaging and something I would enjoy reading, I love books filled with history that take you by the hand and walk you through different periods and introduce you to different charming characters. Will put it on my list 🙂

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