C.A. David’s How To Be A Revolutionary explores the complicated question of what happens after a revolution. It is a multi-layered exploration of political struggle, commitment to a cause even in the face of betrayal, and the contradiction of power. At its core are four narratives; Beth’s past and present, Zhao’s past and present, Langston Hughes’s letters to an unnamed correspondent in Cape Town, and Beth and Zhao’s friendship in Shangai. Both Beth and Zhao have been loyal to causes that they believed were revolutionary in their own parts of the world. Beth and her high school friend, Kay, got involved in the anti-apartheid struggle while teenagers and despite life-threatening circumstances, Beth remained a comrade. Zhao was a journalist who experienced the Chinese Great Leap Forward and the June 4th in Tiananmen Square. Both have secrets that make them question the sacrifices of the past in the light of the present. For Beth, the ruling party has gone from being liberators to being the oppressors themselves (I am reminded of the famous Smut Ngonyama’s comment; “I did not join the struggle to be poor”). She constantly finds herself trying to be pragmatic in the face of the contradictions of power that are manifested when the liberators are in power vis-a-vis when they are fighting oppression. There is not one way to handle this contradiction; Andrew, Beth’s ex-husband shows an alternative. Each has to live with their choices.  For Zhao, it is the horrific and catastrophic outcome of the Great Famine where many lost their family to starvation while others manipulated the rations and fed fat in the process.

The narratives go back and forth between both characters. The narratives are fused with the present interactions between Zhao and Beth, who live as neighbours in a Shangai block of apartments – Beth is a diplomatic staff at the South African embassy and Zhao is a retired journalist. They strike up an awkward friendship. One that ironically engenders a deep trust that changes Beth’s life. How To Be A Revolutionary is a book that expertly zooms in and out, one moment local, the next moment global. The disenchantment that Beth feels about post-apartheid South Africa is akin to that felt by Zhao about his mother’s death and the Tiananmen Square events. In all, I found the characters well-developed and the moral complications that they had to grapple with to be revealing. The only downside was the Langston Hughes narrative. I found it largely distracting, relatively flat and an unnecessary angle that added little to the overarching storyline. in all, How To Be A Revolutionary is an exploration of shrewd observations that are encapsulated in beautiful minimal prose.  A fine read.

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