Critics go gaga after going behind bars with Mandela

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Critics go gaga after going behind bars with Mandela

A collection of his prison letters gives great insight into Madiba’s humanity, and the foreign press is agog

Andrew Donaldson

Five will get you 10 that next year’s Alan Paton Award will go to my old colleague, Sahm Venter, who compiled and edited The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela (Penguin Random House). Coverage on the book and rave reviews in the local press have verged on mania, particularly as we celebrate the centenary of Madiba’s birth this week, but the notices in the foreign newspapers have been quite extraordinary, too.
Writing in the New York Times, CNN’s former South African correspondent, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, takes some time off from personal reminiscences about the ANC president to inform her readers that the book “confronts readers with the most direct evidence yet of Mandela’s intellectual evolution into one of the great moral heroes of our time”.In the Observer, Tim Adams felt in his letters an “unavoidable sense” that Mandela was well aware that his story would make history — “that it would have a triumphant last act of truth and reconciliation”. It was “uncanny”, Adams wrote, but this conviction “hardly ever appears to have faltered within him”.
CRASH COURSEMandela, Adams further noted, did a lot of reading in prison — and appears to have taken one particular book to heart: “Elsewhere, in the midst of nearly 10,000 days of imprisonment he declared himself an early adopter of ‘self-help’ wisdom. Writing in 1970 to support Winnie, who had herself been jailed, he urged her to try to read The Power of Positive Thinking by the American psychologist Norman Vincent Peale: ‘He makes the basic point,’ Mandela noted, ‘that it is not so much the disability one suffers but one’s attitude to it. The man who says: I will conquer this illness and live a happy life, is already halfway through to victory.’ No reader of Peale’s book can ever have taken that lesson more closely to heart.”MORE PRISONER CHRONICLES
Nobel laureate Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, author of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) and The Gulag Archipelago (1973), is probably the most famous of the many writers who found themselves incarcerated in Stalin’s notorious prison camps in Siberia. 
But, according to novelist William Boyd (A Good Man in Africa, Any Human Heart), Solzhenitsyn’s reputation as the “laureate of the Gulag” could be challenged by a new English translation by Donald Rayfield of Varlam Shalamov’s astonishing tales of life in the Soviet Gulag, Kolyma Stories. 
The first of this two-volume set, published by the New York Review of Books, is now available; the second will be published next year. Together they are considered a masterpiece of Russian 20th-century literature, an epic array of short fictional tales that reflect the 15 years Shalamov was imprisoned as a dissident, first in 1929 and later in 1951.Writing in the Sunday Times of London, Boyd said Shalamov’s writing — “spare and deadpan” even while recounting acts of appalling barbarism and cruelty — was reminiscent of Hemingway’s, with its conscious repetition, simple adjectives and “precise objective description”.
Shalamov never recovered from his years in the Gulag. Even after his release, he endured such a pariah status that his own daughter disowned him. He continued to be surveilled by the KGB and he moved tentatively in literary circles as if tainted. He did manage to publish some poetry, but the stories about Kolyma were all banned and had to be smuggled abroad where they were published in samizdat form and then in French and German translations.
THE ISSUE
When he resigned as Britain’s foreign secretary last week in protest at Prime Minister Theresa May’s “soft” Brexit plans, Boris Johnson made history — although perhaps not as he intended. With his departure, the UK now has its first ever Conservative cabinet without an old Etonian. 
It is a pity that BoJo’s resignation came after journalist Robert Verkaik’s acclaimed polemic, Posh Boys: How the English Public Schools Ruin Britain (Oneworld Publications), hit the bookstore shelves. The book would have been so much the better had it included this incident. But perhaps a postscript for subsequent editions …But, speaking of Brexit, Verkaik’s book does include a few anecdotes about May’s predecessor, David Cameron, the Tory who caused all the trouble. It seems that Cameron, a rather thick-skinned sort, had surprisingly declared The Jam’s 1979 class war anthem, The Eton Rifles, to be his favourite song — which did rather annoy Paul Weller, the song’s composer. “Which part of it doesn’t he get?” he complained. “It wasn’t intended as a f***ing jolly drinking song for the cadet corps.” Verkaik adds another twist: it seems that the committed socialist Weller sends his kids to private schools as well. “I guess you get what you pay for,” he told one journalist. “My little lad’s only four and the other day he was counting in French. It’s hard for me to get my head round what is a nice school because I never experienced that.” Or, as he told another reporter: “I don’t want my kids coming home speaking like Ali G.”
Described by the Guardian as a “trenchant j’accuse against the old-boy chumocracy”, Posh Boys is seen as the latest in a series of strong books on the divisions in modern Britain. But it has particular relevance for South Africa, too, and could well be read alongside Jonathan Jansen’s provocative As By Fire: The End of the South African University (Tafelberg).
POSTSCRIPT
Posh schools, of course, entrench the class system — in the UK and abroad. The American comedian Rich Hall has an excellent riposte for those who regard the US as a classless society. If, he suggests, you work in a building that has your name on it, then you are upper class. If you work at a desk, and the desk has a plaque with your name on it, then you are middle class. If, however, you wear a shirt or a uniform with your name on it, then you are working class …THE BOTTOM LINE
“In most countries, you are generally permitted to do anything you want, unless there is a law forbidding it. In the DPRK, it is the opposite: Everything is forbidden, until you are told that it is allowed.” — See You Again In Pyongyang: A Journey Into Kim Jong Un’s North Korea by Travis Jeppesen (Hachette Books).

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