Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A South African Cop Hits the World Stage

Deon Meyer, Seven Days

Inspector Benny Griessel is tapped to solve the murder of pretty young attorney Hanneke Sloet. Unfortunately, the case has yielded no physical evidence, and the trail went cold months ago. But the case has new urgency, in the form of an anonymous sniper, who is shooting random police, and announces he will shoot one per day until Sloet’s killer is found. Now the case has two fronts, conflicting clues, and a deadline Griessel may not be able to meet.

This strange, risk-taking South African mystery, first published last year in Afrikaans... but let’s pause there for a moment. Despite having generated countless international headlines a generation ago for its apartheid policies, most people in the Northern Hemisphere still don’t know much about South Africa. It remains terra incognita, and as such, just the sort of place readers like me would glom onto, for the opportunity to discover something new about the world.

As Deon Meyer depicts it, South Africa remains a nation riven by deep divides. Although apartheid was officially dismantled between 1990 and 1994, skin color remains a shorthand code for privilege and authority in Meyer’s land, and most people need to savvy two or three languages just to make it through the day. Everyone pretends to aspire to equality, but being white and speaking English still open doors of economic opportunity.

Deon Meyer
I can’t blame Meyer for not pushing that storytelling prospect as far as he could. After all, I’m his secondary audience. He wrote this book for his fellow Afrikaners, immersing the story in the kind of details they live with every day, not those which differ from my life. Yet in reading, I felt a pervasive ordinariness. Change the proper nouns, and you could set this story in upstate New York, Cumbria, or any other area overcome by forced diversity and working class malaise.

Captain Benny Griessel enjoys the privileges of a white Afrikaner, yet cannot free himself from punishing rounds of guilt and self-recrimination. He has had a swift ride up Cape Town’s ladder of police authority, and enjoys remarkable respect and power, despite being relatively young. Yet he holds himself responsible for everything. At the beginning of this novel, he is only a few months removed from nearly destroying himself at the bottom of a bottle.

Griessel suffers because he blames himself for everything. Not just stuff that actually is his own fault, like drinking his family away, but stuff over which he has no power. He attempts a fumbling romance with a washed-up singer and fellow recovering alcoholic, but he blames himself for her every setback and relapse. Many of his guilt soliloquies make little sense. Meyer, in narrating this story, doesn’t seem to regard Griessel’s relentless self-flagellation even worthy of commentary.

Is it perhaps a cultural thing? If so, it’s the closest Meyer comes to what I hoped to find in this story. Griessel holds himself responsible when the sniper evidently changes his MO, catching the police constantly on the back foot. He blames himself when the chain of command makes unreasonable demands for quick resolution. He blames himself when press blowback hits his superiors in the face. Griessel practically blames himself for everything but the tide.

Then, the investigation bifurcates in a way that deserves more comment. Griessel hurries to figure who killed Hanneke Sloet, a quest that circles the upper echelons of lingering white power. Much of the inquiry deals with “Black Economic Empowerment,” a government scheme to level the economic field, but which makes Black wealth into a form of white patronage. Meanwhile, the constables whom the sniper keeps bringing down are overwhelmingly black.

Even within the national police force, the races evidently communicate with each other primarily in tones of inherited guilt, punctuated by brief bursts of Afrikaans vulgarities. Anyone who has traveled through Compton, East London, or South Detroit will find the communication styles remarkably familiar. Old resentments don’t go away just because the laws change. And when power flows from the top, those at the bottom learn not to wait too long.

Time and again, I felt like something remarkable lingered beneath this story’s ordinary surface. Maybe the fault lies with me, because I wanted something more exotic, and Meyer is writing about his familiar world. The uninspiring result has a quotidian Hill Street Blues predictability, and I find myself moving limply from chapter to chapter, propelled by the occasional glimpses of surprise. The product isn’t bad. I just wish Griessel’s world didn’t feel so blandly familiar.

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