Tales of the Metric System is the second work of fiction written by Imraan Coovadia that I have had the pleasure of reading. A couple of years ago I read the witty, satirical and insightful Green-Eyed Thieves. Coovadia is a writer who makes you work hard for the pleasure you derive from his writing but in the end, the effort is always worth it. Tales of the Metric System is no different. The rather dry title is a subtle play on the notion of change. The title refers to South Africa’s adoption of the metric system of measurement fro the previously used American customary units in 1971.
The changes which the book tracks are the social and political changes of over four decades in South Africa. Coovadia takes an unusual but successful spin on the structure of the book – episodic in nature and comprises of ten interconnected vignettes of South Africa’s history between 1970 and 2010. A fine thread runs through the chapters as themes of non-racialism, the measure of life, responsibility and forgiveness are explored and they all cast long shadows in the stories and characters that surface and recede at different points in the course of the four decades span. Questions are asked and topics are subtly probed with no easy answers in sight.
Imraan Coovadia has a very effective satirical talent in his writing and this is exploited to a great deal in the chapter where Albert Mokoena is hospitalized and finally dies of HIV/AIDS. The amusing poking of AIDS-denialism is thoughtfully done. The chapters each capture a day in the lives of the characters overarched with well-known events and relatable public figures in the background. Tales of the Metric System is a unique but highly effective take on historical fiction.