The unutterable hubris of the copycat

imitation

ARGENTINE WRITER JORGE Luis Borges (1899-1986) did it. Italian philosopher Umberto Eco (1932-2016) did it. And now, there’s South African philosopher Leonhard Praeg with his debut novel weaving together a tale of self-reflection and intrigue; philosophy, politics and coincidence, to say nothing of love and tragedy in a way that will grab you by the mind and spirit and not let go, even after you’ve finished reading it. Imitation is an extremely lucid narrative which doffs a hat to Czech writer Milan Kundera (b. 1929) as it plays intelligently and curiously with all the possibilities of what storytelling can be.

Granted, it doesn’t have the gravitas of Eco’s Name of the Rose, which engages the meaning of laughter in the world through a medieval cipher, but it sits comfortably on the same shelf. Cast between a farm in the Karoo, an apartment in Paris and a building site on the Ivory Coast, among other places; it’s contemporary and sexy without being overworked or irrelevant and once you start reading it, you will not be able to remove yourself from its confines until the very last page.

The novel weaves together first person narrative with the back story of fictional characters developed through the pen of Kundera and truths that play with the notion of hubris in our world. What Praeg is doing here is penetrating deeply into Kundera’s 1990 novel Immortality, and exploring the what ifs of that tale. In doing so, he finds other characters of his own, including a young man who is safe in the confines of his own silence and has survived 17 suicide attempts. And while each of the book’s seven parts seems self-standing, they’re tacked together with delicate yet robust threads that jolt you in the solar plexus when you see them.

In the 1980s, a basilica called Our Lady of Peace was controversially commissioned and built in Yamoussoukro, the administrative capital of Côte d’Ivoire. Controversial because it was paid for by the country’s then dictator, one Félix Houphouët-Boigny, from his private monies. Controversial because it was extremely costly and the community, extremely poor. And controversial because it challenged the architectural integrity of St Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Praeg’s character is insinuated into this heady tale of imitation and hubris as the project’s publicity guy.

And no, it’s less of a tale about the architecture and more of one about the underpinning thinking that enabled it to happen, and to exist in the world. Imitation, they say, is the most earnest kind of admiration. And from this premise a yarn of such noble and internal proportions evolves that you’re left sleepless. How does Buffon’s needle which posits an 18th century theory of coincidence relate to psychiatric patients on the steps of a mental institution in Switzerland? How does a friendly gesture by an elderly swimming student to her gym instructor erupt into a narrative of engagement, which crosses lines of gender habits? This very finely constructed novel makes you sit up and focus as the most extraordinary associations are brought to bear and contextualised with wit and wisdom.

Marred ever so slightly by a couple of subbing oversights and a little too much moralising when it comes to the taxonomy of ruling structures, the work is a very powerful read which is elegantly structured and beautifully told. It’s a feather in the cap of Praeg as a fictional debut, but also one in that of the University of Pretoria, where Praeg heads up the philosophy department.

  • Imitation by Leonhard Praeg is published by the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg (2018).
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The scintillating horror of Doubt

Unrelenting: Sister Aloysius (Fiona Ramsay) and Sister James (Janna Ramos-Violante) hold moral authority in a place of worship. Photograph by Germaine de Larche, courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square.

Unrelenting: Sister Aloysius (Fiona Ramsay) and Sister James (Janna Ramos-Violante) hold moral authority in a place of worship. Photograph by Germaine de Larche, courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square.

What would you do if you suspected something appalling was happening in your midst, where an innocent child’s well-being was at stake, and the issue was a disaster you think you might have the power to avert? This is the kind of dilemma embraced in James Cuningham’s stage version of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer prize-winning play Doubt: A Parable.

It is not so much the 2008 film version featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep that this play evokes, but Jean-Jacque Annaud’s 1986 interpretation of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, in its engagement with the blind and stubborn faith of the establishment, played with unforgettable vehemence by Feodor Chaliapin Jr as Jorge and Volker Prechtel as Malachia, the priests who guard the sanctity of the library.

It is this fierce and dark tone created by the stylised set in juxtaposition with severe costumes and utterly honed performances by Fiona Ramsay and Janna Ramos-Violante that embraces the moral contradiction of the play that will haunt you. Ramsay, in particular, embodies the sense of a die-hard old nun without a glimmer of light in her outlook; terrifying to contemplate, but magnetic to behold. Her slight frame embodies something so massive and catastrophic clutching so tightly to the one-upmanship of religious sway, it is unforgettable.

Ramos-Violante is the younger nun, the foil to the tale. Opposite Ramsay’s Sister Aloysius, her Sister James is small fry, a woman easily threatened by the authority of church hierarchy in a misogynist world.

The prescience of this work, set as it is on the cusp of a kind of collapse of innocence of Western culture – just after the assassination of President JF Kennedy – cannot be overlooked, in our world of increasing religious fundamentalism, but also one of increasing social transparency, which sees the unravelling of so much horror that traditionally happened behind closed doors – and where the presentation of young boys and priests in the same sentence leads one to believe the worst.

And yet, unlike Aisling Walsh’s Song for a Raggy Boy (2003) which confronts the same issue, the subtlety in Cuningham’s direction and the collaborative energies of the cast, is almost more devastating, offset as it is by an utterly sterling cameo performance by Mwenya Kabwe as the child’s mother, which is pivotal to the whole work.

Doubt is a cleanly composed, terrifying piece of muscular, unpretentious theatre, unforgivably tight in its use of language, but also completely developed and three-dimensional in how it describes the dilemma. You don’t leave the environment armed with a healthy dollop of homophobia and self-righteous hatred of the establishment of the church education system. But you do leave in an emotional state of turbulence that might keep you awake.

  • Doubt: A Parable, written by John Patrick Shanley is directed by James Cuningham and designed by Tina Le Roux (lighting), Vaughn Sadie (set) and Margo Fleish (costumes). It is performed by Mwenya Kabwe, James MacEwan, Janna Ramos-Violante and Fiona Ramsay, at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton, until August 15. 0118838606 or visit co.za