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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Because The Power of One is set between the years of 1939 and 1951 in South Africa, the emergence of apartheid forms an important part of its context. Readers may question why apartheid does not appear to be the central issue of the novel. Indeed, Courtenay focuses more on Peekay's boxing career and his relationship with Doc than he focuses on the rise to power in 1948 of the Nationalist government, led by D.F. Malan, the engineer of apartheid. However, Courtenay is trying to recreate, through Peekay's perspective, the flimsy understanding that even South Africans had of apartheid during its inception. Apartheid was never announced—it slowly seeped into people's consciousness. It was first introduced by D.F. Malan under the guise of something strange, but innocuous: 'separate development' or the ability for each tribe of South Africa to develop its potential on its own. It took time for people to realize that this explanation was merely a front for one of the most sinister and brutal plans the world has known. Courtenay achieves the sense of apartheid slowly filtering into one's consciousness by slowly building Peekay's understanding of it: in Chapter Four Peekay notices a "BLACKS ONLY" sign above a workshop and does not understand why whites cannot enter; he hazily remembers hearing the actual word 'apartheid' during one of his boxing matches in Johannesburg; Captain Swanepoel, a South African policeman sent to deter Peekay and Morrie from continuing their night school for Black boxers alludes in passing to the instigation of one of the apartheid laws, the Group Areas Act of 1950. Apartheid seeps into the South African landscape as a slow- working poison—it fits with the image of a "shadow world" used so frequently throughout the novel. Moreover, the perversion which apartheid causes afflicts everyone, in both direct and indirect ways. For example, Peekay--the novel's symbol of unity amongst all races--cannot accept Doc's peaceful death because he has become so accustomed to the gruesome, brutal murders that result from excessive racism-such as Granpa Chook and Geel Piet's deaths. Apartheid is most to be feared, Courtenay suggests, because of this sly, undercover manner of working. As Peekay notes in the novel's final chapter, "all routine, no matter how bizarre, soon becomes normal procedure." Apartheid is sinister because, as evidenced by Peekay's slow revelation of it, apartheid is gradually becoming a routine in South Africa. With the interesting combination of having a factual background-apartheid South Africa-with a fictional foreground-Peekay's story-Courtenay tests the very borders between fact and fiction. Ultimately he seems to imply that when History can no longer be trusted, fiction must take up the responsibility of spreading the truth.
In Chapters One and Two, as a mere five-year-old, the precocious protagonist Peekay is already addressing the necessity of affecting camouflages in order to survive the system. His first person narrative voice, usually extremely conscious of his audience, suddenly turns on himself in Chapter Two with the imperative command: "adapt, blend,
develop a camouflage." Much of the novel's imagery relies on dualisms—head and heart, big and small, English and Afrikaner-and Peekay realizes that his reliance on camouflage points to the fact that there exists a schism between his interior and exterior self. He battles throughout the novel with the concept of camouflage, changing his view as to whether or not it is necessary in order to survive. As a vulnerable five- year-old at boarding school, his first lesson is that camouflage is essential not simply to his well being, but to his very survival. He decides that crying is a sign of weakness, and he assigns that to his inner being. The medicine man, Inkosi-Inkosikazi, offers Peekay the ability to move between his inner and outer selves-although Peekay cannot cry on the outside, he may cry inwardly in the magical "night country." Peekay remarks that he leads a double life. Peekay is even suspicious with Hoppie on first meeting him on the train to Barberton-his earliest experiences have taught him not to trust, and he says repeatedly that he has his limits in how much he will reveal to Hoppie. It takes the character of Doc to teach Peekay how to trust-the love that Doc and Peekay have for one another allows Peekay to drop his camouflage to some extent, and reveal his brilliance.
In his first boarding school, Peekay learned that to stand out was dangerous and disappearing into the masses was the best camouflage. However, at the Prince of Wales school in the second half of the novel, Peekay in fact discovers that his desperate need to always win, to always be the best, is also a camouflage. He knows that, ironically, by standing out he is allowing the vulnerable part of himself to hide-no one questions winners. The examples discussed above deal with Peekay's survival in a local sense. The issue of survival in the apartheid South African context becomes much more complex. At one point, Peekay hints that camouflage is essential in order for him to become a "spiritual terrorist." Yet he constantly has to use his judgment-at times the best camouflage is, like a chameleon, fading into the background while at other times the best camouflage is being the best. For example, Peekay manages to survive the Barberton prison system through developing so fixed a routine that no one suspects the black market scheme going on. Becoming a "spiritual terrorist," on the other hand, can only be achieved through "winning." At the Prince of Wales school Peekay learns to challenge the very concept of "survival" itself. He reflects in Chapter Sixteen that at school he learned "that survival is a matter of actively making the system work for you rather than attempting to survive it." This represents the true beginning of personal independence for Peekay. The power of one is represented by the latter definition of "survival"- going beyond normal human capabilities, in spite of the restrictions around one.
The character of Doc best demonstrates the theme of the coexistence of logic and magic. Although Doc represents logic, order, and scientific precision (he teachers Peekay to observe, analyze, and make inventories of cacti, for example), at the same time he recognizes the need for magic and mystery to exist in the world. He points out to Peekay that it is mystery, not logic, that creates hope. The Black people's invention of the legend of the Tadpole Angel-a symbol of hope-thus fits into this mysterious world. The Black South Africans' preferred method of storytelling in the novel-unchanging legend-contrasts with Peekay's logical, chronological narrative. This contrasting perspective arises in a number of incidents throughout the novel-Peekay worries when he discovers that Gideon Mandoma is his nanny's son since, he says, Black people do not believe in coincidence, but in pointedness. In the Northern Rhodesian mines, Peekay's theory of 'increasing odds' holds no weight with the Black miners, who believe in 'juju'-mystery and charm. It is, of course, extremely problematic to equate Black people with magic and white people with logic, and this is perhaps one of the novel's downfalls. The character of Geel Piet goes some way to redeeming this problem-with his practical, down-to-earth astuteness, he breaks the rigid boundary set up between black magic and white logic.
Peekay's attitude towards boxing is extremely complicated, setting up the theme of where one can draw the line between boxing and fighting, if one can even draw a line at all. Towards the end of the novel Peekay begins to question the role that the people around him have played in his life-he feels constrained by their goals for him, and realizes that his only self-initiated ambition is to become welterweight champion of the world. It is thus this ambition which allows him to feel "the power of one" within him. The final episode the novel blurs this clarity, however. As Peekay fights his childhood nemesis, the Judge, he draws on all of his boxing lessons-Hoppie, Geel Piet, and Solly Goldman's advice-and implies that his boxing career has culminated in that moment. Certainly, Peekay's first interest in boxing stemmed not from a love of sport, but from a need to defend himself against bullies. There is something sadly pathetic when Peekay admits to himself, in Chapter Twenty-Three, that the source of his boxing desire is a dead chicken. Yet perhaps it is this hidden, vulnerable core of Peekay-revealed to the reader alone-which allows the reader to identify with him. Peekay, an almost perfect character and a hero almost wherever he sets foot, is a likable protagonist because he approaches himself with honesty.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Power of One!