Better Read Than Never: COURTENAY’s The Power of One

The Real Nelson Mandela, being sworn in. (Not Morgan Freeman.)

Sometime during the weeks following Nelson Mandela’s death, I started thinking of The Power of One, a novel that had meant a lot to me in the early ‘90s. (In a fit of bad poetry, I once wrote, “The loneliness birds are croaking…” and feared and heard them often that decade. I still do, sometimes, though I now remember that those birds were inspired, if not stolen, from the novel’s narrator.) Among the many articles and tributes that I read to Madiba, there were references to his enjoyment of boxing as a young man, and the things that he had learned from it. Right! And The Power of One is set in South Africa, centred on the boxing obsession and exploits of a white boy, and wait, wasn’t there a black man in prison who inspired his fists and his mind? I went looking, and found a free on-line torrent (okay, my wife did), but I didn’t really get into this second reading until I was holding a paperback copy. I could say it was an unconscious desire to respect author’s rights, but it was mainly a bibliophile’s bias. I like the feel of 500 pages between my fingers.

The Power of One was a first novel by Bryce Courtenay, an Australian advertising executive who wrote the book as a mid-life challenge¹, setting his adventurous and spiritual and polemical – and, I wasn’t surprised to discover, highly autobiographical – story in his native South Africa. This rambling tale, which he’d planned as a “practice novel”, sold millions. I liked it.

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Stephen Lewis (on Nelson Mandela)

“He turned the other cheek.”

Stephen Lewis was a leftist Canadian politician, and remains among the most articulate and passionate champions of social justice in the world. He was Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations, and a Special Envoy from that body for the cause of AIDS in Africa. He was also a friend of Mandela and especially his wife, Graca Machel. Lewis could unleash a tidal wave of scrupulously chosen words, but in a CBC interview on hearing of Mandela’s death, his most powerful were these five. They enshrine the courage, the wisdom, the Christian forebearance to seek only justice, only forgiveness, only the future good of his country, when revenge might have seemed a necessity.