Peekay: The novel's protagonist and narrator, Peekay is a white English South African who recounts his life growing up in South Africa during World War II and the beginning of the apartheid era. An extremely precocious student and a naturally brilliant boxer, Peekay is loved by almost all who meet him. He moves a legend amongst black South Africans, who believe that he has come to avenge them against the Afrikaners. Each side, however, wishes to claim Peekay for themselves. Peekay's generosity and altruism leads him to devise ways of helping black prisoners write and receive letters, and to teach black men to box. Peekay's sense of humor, his fascinating philosophical and analytical voice, and his ability to criticize himself allow us to identify closely with him.
Doc: Doc is a German music professor, in his 80s, with whom Peekay becomes best friends in the town of Barberton. Doc's loves are music, cacti, whisky, and coffee. Doc was a concert pianist in Germany before he gave up performing after a disastrous concert in Berlin in 1925. He is one of Peekay's most important mentors, but is prized by the Barberton citizens only for the culture he brings to the town through his classical music. The only characters other than Peekay with whom Doc has much contact are Geel Piet and Mrs. Boxall. When Doc dies, he leaves all his belongings to Peekay.
Geel Piet: Geel Piet is a Cape Colored man who works in the Barberton prison. A rascal of a man, he nevertheless becomes Peekay's personal boxing trainer in Barberton and develops a close relationship with both Peekay and Doc. Geel Piet is largely responsible for spreading the myth of the Tadpole Angel. The most important lesson he teaches Peekay in terms of boxing is to fight with his feet- he tells Peekay to "dance" with his feet. Geel Piet is brutally murdered by one of the Barberton prison warders, Borman, who grows suspicious of Peekay and Geel Piet's close relationship. Together Peekay and Geel Piet were running a black market within the prison.
Morrie Levy: Morrie is a very rich Jewish boy who becomes Peekay's partner at the Prince of Wales School. Morrie, who is a foil to Peekay, teaches Peekay the tricks of business-gambling is his passion, and he and Peekay set up all kinds of "scams" together. Morrie, like Peekay, is an "outsider" because of his Jewishness, and Morrie has to put up with racism from the likes of Jannie Geldenhuis. Morrie is a loner, an intellectual, a fine joke-teller, and a generous friend. He undergoes a catharsis during the course of the novel-through Peekay he comes to know black people for the first time in his life, and he becomes extremely invested in the night school that he and Peekay start for the black boxers at Solly Goldman's gym. When Peekay does not win a Rhodes scholarship, Morrie wants to pay for him to attend. He is prepared to defer his own degree in order to study with Peekay. He does not understand Peekay's boxing dream, however, and wants Peekay to become his law partner.
Mrs. Boxall: Mrs. Boxall is the librarian in Barberton and has a weekly column in the local newspaper called "Clippings from a Cultured Garden." She becomes a great friend of Peekay and of Doc, and she personally undertakes to educate Peekay in English literature. Mrs. Boxall, a generous and magnanimous woman, initiates the mysterious Sandwich Fund, whereby she gathers food, money, letters, and tobacco for black prisoners and their families. She delights in classical music and loves Doc's concerts.
Big Hettie: Big Hettie is an obese Irish woman whom Peekay sits next to during Hoppie's boxing match against Jackhammer Smit in Gravelotte. Big Hettie gets stuck in the train compartment and-after stuffing her face with food dies when they reach the town of Kaapmuiden. She teaches Peekay the importance of pride and courage.
Marie: Marie is a fifteen-year-old farm girl who works as a nurse in the Barberton hospital. Peekay's mother manages to turn her into a born-again Christian and Marie, in turn, tries to proselytize everyone she can.
Borman: Borman is the aggressive warder at Barberton prison
Rasputin: Rasputin is a Russian man who lives next door to Peekay in the mining camp in Northern Rhodesia. A hulk of a man, each evening he hews a wooden ball with a great axe while he drinks whisky and listens to Tchaikovsky. He buys sweets for the mining kids on Wednesday western nights, and he loves to make rabbit (or cat) stew for Peekay. When Peekay is knocked unconscious in a mining accident, Rasputin comes to the rescue, killing himself in order to save his friend.
Gideon Mandoma: Gideon Mandoma is Nanny's son and the great-great-grandson of the Zulu chief Cetshwayo. Peekay boxes against him and emerges victorious in Sophiatown. Gideon continues to train at Solly Goldman's gym and he and Peekay become great friends. Peekay and Morrie use Gideon in order to inspire guilt in Singe 'n' Burn, their headmaster, when they try to convince the man to allow them to start a night school for black boxers.
Granpa: Granpa spends most of his time tending his rose garden, which he cultivates for his long-dead English wife, and chuffing on his pipe. He is notorious for telling Peekay irrelevant stories when Peekay goes to him for advice. A racist, Granpa nevertheless has respect for Inkosi-Inkosikazi since he cured him of his gall stones. Granpa also helps Peekay convince his mother to allow him to teach the black inmates at the Barberton prison.
Lieutenant Smit: Lieutenant Smit works at the Barberton prison and is one of the boxing coaches. He is also the brother of the well-known boxer, Jackhammer Smit, which is how he and Peekay initially strike up a friendship-Peekay saw Jackhammer Smit fight against Hoppie in Gravelotte. Smit, a reasonably non-prejudiced man, avenges Geel Piet's death for Peekay by beating up Borman. Yet Smit is not entirely devoid of racist attitudes-at his introduction, he allows his colleague Klipkop to beat one of the servants for an offense that he did not commit.
Inkosi-Inkosikazi: Inkosi-Inkosikazi is the great Zulu medicine man who, at the beginning of the novel, is summoned by Peekay's nanny to cure the boy's bedwetting problem. Inkosi-Inkosikazi introduces Peekay to the magical world of the "night country," where Peekay can always find him. He also gives Granpa Chook to Peekay. Interestingly, Inkosi-Inkosikazi, a modern medicine man, drives a Buick.
Solly Goldman: a Jewish man, and the best boxing trainer in South Africa. He coaches Peekay while he attends the Prince of Wales School in Johannesburg and teaches Peekay his famous thirteen-punch combination.
Dum: Dum and Dee are Peekay's Shangaan twin kitchen maids.
Granpa Chook: Peekay's chicken, given to him as a gift from Inkosi-Inkosikazi. Granpa Chook is Peekay's only friend in the hostile boarding school environment.
Hoppie Groenewald: Hoppie Groenewald is one of the guards on Peekay's train to Barberton, and is also the "champion of the railways." He inspires Peekay to begin boxing lessons and his dictum "First with the head, then with the heart" remains with Peekay throughout the novel.
“Sometimes, the risk is the emergency. But you have to take it to make it real.”
“First with your head and then with your heart”
“Sometimes the slightest things change the direction of our lives, the merest breath of circumstance, a random moment that connects like a meteorite striking the earth. Lives have swiveled and changed direction on the strength of a passing remark. Hoppie Groenwald was to prove to be a passing mentor who would set the next seventeen years of my life on an irrevocable course. He would do so in a little more than a day and night.”
“History will tell of how the election of the Nationalist party headed by Dr. Daniel Francois Malan was the turning point when the Afrikaner once again became the dominant force in the country. History is bound to treat this event with great pontification, showing how the struggle between the two white tribes of Africa reached its climax.”
“"The music of Africa is too wild, too free, too accustomed to death for romance. Africa is too crude a stage for the small scratching of the violin, too majestic for the piano. Africa is only right for drums. The drum carries its rhythm but does not steal its music. Timpani is the background, the music of Africa is in the voices of the people. They are its instruments, more subtle, more beautiful, infinitely more noble than the scratching, thumping, banging, and blowing of brass and vellum, strings and keyboard."”
“I was a child of Africa, a white child to be sure, but nevertheless Africa's child. The black breasts that had suckled me and the dark hands that had bathed and rocked me had left me with a burden of obligation to resist the white power that would be the ultimate gift from those who now trained me.”
“As is so often the case with a legend, every incident has two possible interpretations, the plausible and the one that is molded to suit the making of the myth. Man is a romantic at heart and will always put aside dull, plodding reason for the excitement of an enigma. As Doc had pointed out, mystery, not logic, is what gives us hope and keeps us believing in a force greater than our own insignificance.”
The Complicated Relationship Between Boxing and Fighting: Peekay's attitude towards boxing is extremely complicated, setting up the theme of where one can draw the line between boxing and fighting, if one can even draw a line at all. Towards the end of the novel Peekay begins to question the role that the people around him have played in his life-he feels constrained by their goals for him, and realizes that his only self-initiated ambition is to become welterweight champion of the world. It is thus this ambition which allows him to feel "the power of one" within him. The final episode the novel blurs this clarity, however. As Peekay fights his childhood nemesis, the Judge, he draws on all of his boxing lessons-Hoppie, Geel Piet, and Solly Goldman's advice-and implies that his boxing career has culminated in that moment. Certainly, Peekay's first interest in boxing stemmed not from a love of sport, but from a need to defend himself against bullies. There is something sadly pathetic when Peekay admits to himself, in Chapter Twenty-Three, that the source of his boxing desire is a dead chicken. Yet perhaps it is this hidden, vulnerable core of Peekay-revealed to the reader alone-which allows the reader to identify with him. Peekay, an almost perfect character and a hero almost wherever he sets foot, is a likable protagonist because he approaches himself with honesty.
The Necessary Coexistence of Logic and Magic: The character of Doc best demonstrates the theme of the coexistence of logic and magic. Although Doc represents logic, order, and scientific precision (he teachers Peekay to observe, analyze, and make inventories of cacti, for example), at the same time he recognizes the need for magic and mystery to exist in the world. He points out to Peekay that it is mystery, not logic, that creates hope. The black people's invention of the legend of the Tadpole Angel-a symbol of hope-thus fits into this mysterious world. The black South Africans' preferred method of storytelling in the novel-unchanging legend-contrasts with Peekay's logical, chronological narrative. This contrasting perspective arises in a number of incidents throughout the novel-Peekay worries when he discovers that Gideon Mandoma is his nanny's son since, he says, black people do not believe in coincidence, but in pointedness. In the Northern Rhodesian mines, Peekay's theory of 'increasing odds' holds no weight with the black miners, who believe in 'juju'-mystery and charm. It is, of course, extremely problematic to equate black people with magic and white people with logic, and this is perhaps one of the novel's downfalls. The character of Geel Piet goes some way to redeeming this problem-with his practical, down-to-earth astuteness, he breaks the rigid boundary set up between black magic and white logic.
The Importance of Camouflage for Survival: In Chapters One and Two, as a mere five-year-old, the precocious protagonist Peekay is already addressing the necessity of affecting camouflages in order to survive the system. His first person narrative voice, usually extremely conscious of his audience, suddenly turns on himself in Chapter Two with the imperative command: "adapt, blend, … develop a camouflage." Much of the novel's imagery relies on dualisms—head and heart, big and small, English and Afrikaner-and Peekay realizes that his reliance on camouflage points to the fact that there exists a schism between his interior and exterior self. He battles throughout the novel with the concept of camouflage, changing his view as to whether or not it is necessary in order to survive. As a vulnerable five- year-old at boarding school, his first lesson is that camouflage is essential not simply to his well being, but to his very survival. He decides that crying is a sign of weakness, and he assigns that to his inner being. The medicine man, Inkosi-Inkosikazi, offers Peekay the ability to move between his inner and outer selves-although Peekay cannot cry on the outside, he may cry inwardly in the magical "night country." Peekay remarks that he leads a double life. Peekay is even suspicious with Hoppie on first meeting him on the train to Barberton-his earliest experiences have taught him not to trust, and he says repeatedly that he has his limits in how much he will reveal to Hoppie. It takes the character of Doc to teach Peekay how to trust-the love that Doc and Peekay have for one another allows Peekay to drop his camouflage to some extent, and reveal his brilliance.In his first boarding school, Peekay learned that to stand out was dangerous and disappearing into the masses was the best camouflage. However, at the Prince of Wales school in the second half of the novel, Peekay in fact discovers that his desperate need to always win, to always be the best, is also a camouflage. He knows that, ironically, by standing out he is allowing the vulnerable part of himself to hide-no one questions winners. The examples discussed above deal with Peekay's survival in a local sense. The issue of survival in the apartheid South African context becomes much more complex. At one point, Peekay hints that camouflage is essential in order for him to become a "spiritual terrorist." Yet he constantly has to use his judgment-at times the best camouflage is, like a chameleon, fading into the background while at other times the best camouflage is being the best. For example, Peekay manages to survive the Barberton prison system through developing so fixed a routine that no one suspects the black market scheme going on. Becoming a "spiritual terrorist," on the other hand, can only be achieved through "winning." At the Prince of Wales school Peekay learns to challenge the very concept of "survival" itself. He reflects in Chapter Sixteen that at school he learned "that survival is a matter of actively making the system work for you rather than attempting to survive it." This represents the true beginning of personal independence for Peekay. The power of one is represented by the latter definition of "survival"- going beyond normal human capabilities, in spite of the restrictions around one.
The Slow Poison of Apartheid: Because The Power of One is set between the years of 1939 and 1951 in South Africa, the emergence of apartheid forms an important part of its context. Readers may question why apartheid does not appear to be the central issue of the novel. Indeed, Courtenay focuses more on Peekay's boxing career and his relationship with Doc than he focuses on the rise to power in 1948 of the Nationalist government, led by D.F. Malan, the engineer of apartheid. However, Courtenay is trying to recreate, through Peekay's perspective, the flimsy understanding that even South Africans had of apartheid during its inception. Apartheid was never announced—it slowly seeped into people's consciousness. It was first introduced by D.F. Malan under the guise of something strange, but innocuous: 'separate development' or the ability for each tribe of South Africa to develop its potential on its own. It took time for people to realize that this explanation was merely a front for one of the most sinister and brutal plans the world has known. Courtenay achieves the sense of apartheid slowly filtering into one's consciousness by slowly building Peekay's understanding of it: in Chapter Four Peekay notices a "BLACKS ONLY" sign above a workshop and does not understand why whites cannot enter; he hazily remembers hearing the actual word 'apartheid' during one of his boxing matches in Johannesburg; Captain Swanepoel, a South African policeman sent to deter Peekay and Morrie from continuing their night school for black boxers alludes in passing to the instigation of one of the apartheid laws, the Group Areas Act of 1950. Apartheid seeps into the South African landscape as a slow- working poison—it fits with the image of a "shadow world" used so frequently throughout the novel. Moreover, the perversion which apartheid causes afflicts everyone, in both direct and indirect ways. For example, Peekay--the novel's symbol of unity amongst all races--cannot accept Doc's peaceful death because he has become so accustomed to the gruesome, brutal murders that result from excessive racism-such as Granpa Chook and Geel Piet's deaths. Apartheid is most to be feared, Courtenay suggests, because of this sly, undercover manner of working. As Peekay notes in the novel's final chapter, "all routine, no matter how bizarre, soon becomes normal procedure." Apartheid is sinister because, as evidenced by Peekay's slow revelation of it, apartheid is gradually becoming a routine in South Africa. With the interesting combination of having a factual background-apartheid South Africa-with a fictional foreground-Peekay's story-Courtenay tests the very borders between fact and fiction. Ultimately he seems to imply that when History can no longer be trusted, fiction must take up the responsibility of spreading the truth.
The Tadpole Angel, or Onoshobishobi Ingelosi: As with the symbol of the full moon, Peekay himself analyzes and deconstructs the symbol of the Tadpole Angel. In Chapter Twenty-One he finally comes to terms with the black people's legend about him, and tells Morrie that the Tadpole Angel is "a symbol, a symbol of hope." This analysis of the symbol's importance is confirmed by Peekay's experience in the Northern Rhodesian mines, where the black mine workers view him as a beacon of hope. Peekay's acceptance of the symbol is an important turning point in the novel- previous to that point, he experienced embarrassment at the idea of being the Tadpole Angel and tried to shun the symbol. Along with assuming the role of the Tadpole Angel, symbol of hope, Peekay has to confront hope's opposite: after the boxing match with Gideon Mandoma he gains foresight to the atrocities that lie ahead for South Africa.
The Loneliness Birds: The loneliness birds are Peekay's most childlike motif-their very name describes what they are. They flank the story by making their first appearance in Peekay's life during his fifth year, when he is suffering from the abuse of the Judge and his storm troopers, and their departure at the very end of the book, after Peekay has avenged himself against the Judge. They surface at various moments throughout the novel-for instance, at the end of Chapter Eight, when Peekay says that he has grown up, the loneliness birds stop laying stone eggs inside of him.
Fairy Tales: The Power of One is peppered with references to fairy tales, and particularly the tales of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. For example, Peekay compares rose garden behind his Barberton house as something out ofAlice in Wonderland. Moreover, the twin Shangaan kitchen maids are called Dum and Dee. In Chapter Eighteen Peekay remarks that the crystal cave of Africa looks like "an illustration from a fairy tale." The motif of fairy tales aids the larger theme of the necessary coexistence of logic and magic, with fairy tales of course fitting into the latter category.
The Full Moon: In Peekay's experience, the full moon symbolizes death: always a self- conscious narrator, he in fact points the reader in Chapter Nineteen to the fact that it was a full moon on the nights of both Granpa Chook and Geel Piet's deaths. When Doc discusses his death with Peekay for the first time, at the crystal cave of Africa, it is also a full moon. Interestingly, one of the final images of the novel is also a full moon-although no person has here died, perhaps this symbolizes the death of Peekay's hatred for the Judge. Usually a sign of rejuvenation, the reversal of the moon symbol in The Power of One to symbolize death perhaps suggests the confluence of birth and death-it is thus a symbol of optimism and hope in spite of the horrors it sometimes witnesses.
The Snake: Snakes in the novel first appear as literal rather than symbolic. In Peekay's earliest experiences, he refers euphemistically to his circumcised penis as his "hatless snake." This "hatless snake" is a source of shame to him, as his boarding school companions mock and torture him as a result. Granpa Chook appears to show his support for Peekay, and his faith in Peekay's ability to transcend the shame of his "hatless snake," by biting off the head o an actual snake. Peekay hangs the dead snake from a branch outside his hostel window. Later in the novel, however, the snake moves to symbolic status. In Chapter Eighteen and Chapter Chapter Twenty-Three, Peekay invokes the symbol of the snake by using the expression of "sloughing" his outer skin to reveal his real self. In such a way, Peekay mentally conquers his early embarrassment over his "hatless snake." Instead of feeling exposed and vulnerable, he learns to accept himself as he is. By the end of the novel, the vision of the black mamba snake becomes a symbol of imminent danger-the black mamba snake, a dream sign from Doc, forewarns Peekay of his disastrous accident in the mines, and of his fight with the Judge.
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