The Power of One

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Chapter Twenty-Three

Summary Chapter Twenty-Three

Peekay has finished his three-month spell as a grizzly when he is recalled and asked to do another three months. Flattered, he agrees, in spite of the dangers.


Chapter Twenty-Three, the first chapter of Book Three and the second last of the novel, follows Peekay into a completely new territory: out of South Africa and into the harsh world of the Northern Rhodesian mines. (Rhodesia became 'Zimbabwe' in the 1970s, during the liberation movement.) It thus serves as a conduit between worlds-it summarizes the final events of Peekay's South African life, and introduces the scenes and characters of his Northern Rhodesian life. Peekay is now seventeen and his voice within the novel has almost caught up to his voice without the novel-that is, his voice as narrator. The author has succeeded in gradually changing Peekay's perceptions so that the reader has a sense of his maturation-the seventeen-year-old Peekay, aware of the world of "whores" and "pack-rape," is leagues away from the five-year-old Peekay, who did not even know what a drinking problem was. Bryce Courtenay has subtly constructed his bildungsroman-rather than telling us how Peekay's mind has changed, he allows Peekay's burgeoning intellect to speak for itself. As always, Peekay quickly adapts to his new environment and excels-his Rhodes scholarship disappointment, the first real "failure" of his life, does not hamper his need to win, but rather fuels it. Peekay achieves the best results in his mining exams, he is selected for the miners' first rugby team, and his altruism leads him to give lessons to the other miners to help them pass their exams. Peekay is almost perfect. Bryce Courtenay himself has said that his protagonist is supposed to be "larger than life." Indeed, Peekay lives up to the People's legend of the Tadpole Angel-he has the aura of a legend, a hero, a fairy tale character. Yet his modesty and his sense of humor keep him human and make him accessible to readers. Chapter Twenty-Three concludes with Peekay almost laughing at himself after realizing that he has eaten a cat.

By extending the novel's scope beyond the South African borders, Courtenay highlights the fact that oppression is an international phenomenon. The black Rhodesians are treated almost as badly as the black South Africans. Moreover, his depressing portrayal of the Belgian prostitutes with their "constantly opening legs" reminds us that oppression of women is as much a reality as racial oppression. Interestingly, although many women play important roles in Peekay's life-such as Nanny, Mrs. Boxall, and Miss Bornstein-women are generally sidelined. Peekay's most important mentors are men-Hoppie, Geel Piet, and Doc. Moreover, while Peekay briefly addresses issues of puberty and sex in the novel, this is very different from a conventional "coming-of-age" novel. There is no love interest in the novel; the only explicit love relationship is the friendship between Peekay and Doc. The introduction of the character of Rasputin witnesses the arrival of yet another male friend into Peekay's life. Peekay and Rasputin's silent relationship provides a touching example of the idiosyncrasies of friendship-Peekay has learnt that intellectual conversation (such as he enjoyed with Morrie) does not have to play a role in a relationship. Indeed, Peekay's very decision to refuse Morrie's offer to pay for Oxford and to work on the mines symbolizes a return to his working-class roots: thus, Courtenay has taken on the issue of class structure as well.

It is uncertain whether Peekay actually journeys to the crystal cave of Africa or whether this journey takes place simply within his mind. His description moves from the metaphorical "night country" to a literal description of being stranded on the cave ledge and confronted by the black mamba snake, which he self-consciously points out to be a symbol. It no longer matters which world- real or imaginary-Peekay inhabits, however. By causing a blend of the two through his writing style, Peekay acknowledges the importance of both reality and imagination in everyone's lives.