Franz Kafka said, “we ought to read only books that bite and sting us.” What’s the last thing you read that bit and stung you?
I have read some truly great books this year. And they all have bit and stung me. If I have to single out one to tell you about, it would be Zoo City by South African author, Lauren Beukes. (I hope my boyfriend doesn’t see this post, he loves to say “I told you so” when it comes to books he recommends that I take a long time to get to.) This science fiction novel won the Arthur C. Clarke award in 2011, but that’s not why it bites and stings. It’s also not because the author is everything I want to be as a writer.
Zoo City is a sharp kick to the groin on a cold Karoo winter morning. It takes a familiar world, Johannesburg, South Africa, puts it in the realm of fantasy, and by doing that, exposes all the problems and wonderment that is this fantastic country. In Zoo City, people who have committed crimes receive an animal as punishment. This animal is what keeps them alive. While the animal is alive, the undertow won’t come for you. But if the animal dies, well, is anyone else scared yet? The animal also gives its host a shavi, a magical power, but it’s not an airy fairy book, as I first thought. Within the first ten pages you’re gripping the bed covers in terror, and your body is tensed between wanting to look and not wanting to know what comes next.
It kicks you in the groin, because, if you’re South African, this is your home, this is your world, and all the magic and fantasy don’t disguise, in fact it highlights, the real issues of corruption, discrimination, and crime. It’s your world and it’s rough and the president’s a war-mongering, bigoted, sexist pig-head, but you love the people, you fucking love the sunshine, and through the main character, Zinzi, you live the vibe and the strength that is South Africa.