The Power of One

by: Bryce Courtenay

Peekay

Peekay, speaking as an adult, traces his life from the age of five up until the age of seventeen. Although he usually portrays events as they are experienced, the older voice of Peekay occasionally steps in with an intrusive, ironic comment. Since Peekay's mother suffers from a nervous breakdown, he is brought up by his black Zulu nanny, Mary Mandoma, until he is sent to an Afrikaans boarding school at the age of five. Peekay's Englishness creates great problems for him at school, where the older, Afrikaans boys treat him brutally. Peekay's traumatic childhood informs his character later in life-although he blossoms into a hero, an almost-perfect character, his childhood haunts him and leaves him with a deep-set insecurity and vulnerability. This vulnerability, which he shares with the reader, as well as his cheeky sense of humor (at one point he tells Doc that the composer W. C. Handy sounds like a "lavatory brush") ultimately makes him a likable hero with whom we can identify. Although Peekay undergoes many extraordinary adventures--many of which bring him face to face with the perpetrators of racism and apartheid in South Africa (such as Borman in the Barberton prison)--he is not a self-righteous hero. He is distinguished by the traits of extreme generosity and a love for people of all types of races, but he rarely passes judgment on others. Moreover, he does have the ability to do the wrong thing. He represents a kind of morality that is self-constructed: instead of following his mother's strict, religious tenets of good and evil, Peekay develops his own values. In spite of-or perhaps because of-Peekay's horrific youth, he becomes a "winner." He excels at boxing, not losing a match throughout the novel, and the book ends with his admittance to Oxford University. Peekay's mentors, Doc and Mrs. Boxall, claim that he is a genius, while the black South Africans in the novel hail him as the Tadpole Angel, a chief who has come to lead them out of white oppression. Peekay's unusual name is given to him by a Jewish man, Harry Crown, as a more sanitary version of the name the Judge gave him-"Pisskop" (pisshead). This is a sign of how Peekay is constructed by those around him-the concept with which Peekay struggles the most is the elusive idea of "the power of one." He battles against the idea of depending on others, and seeks personal independence in all aspects of his life.