This fabulist tour de force marks Ceridwen Dovey’s astonishing debut. I doubt that any southern African writer has delved into the functioning of power with as much intensity and insight since the masterly reflections of Bessie Head and JM Coetzee; Dovey’s is a potent new voice on the southern African literary scene.
Set in an unnamed (and unidentifiable) country following a coup that has deposed the President and installed in his place a man known as the Commander, Blood Kin unfolds in a taunt sequence in three parts. Itis narrated by a set of voices that fail to take on fully-fledged individual characteristics but operate, instead, as a "chorus" (as Dovey puts it in an interview) to the workings of power and particularly to the ways in which power intrudes into and in fact shapes the most intimate spheres of everyday life.
Part One establishes a sense of vertiginous urgency as we circle through terse chapters, each headed in sequential order "His portraitist’, "His chef" and "His barber", and narrated by these three intimate employees. First we are introduced to the professional services they offered the President. In the second round of the sequence we witness the President being taken prisoner, along with his portraitist. They are held in the palatial Summer Residence in the mountains overlooking the city, along with the President’s barber and chef.
This grouping is evocative, if apparently banal, as the three professions take on ominous shades of meaning. “I apologise for the unintended similarity of your situation to the children’s rhyme. What is it, butcher, baker, candlestick maker? Let me make it up to you by saying you can call me the Commander. Equally ridiculous,” says their captor (18).
The chef stalks his crustacean prey around immaculate kitchens, aiming to strike when his victim is relaxed, caught off guard. Of the abalone he says: “They were always tense from being transported and had to calm down before I could kill them, otherwise the flesh would be tough. I would leave them there until everything else was almost ready, then creep up on them and hit them on their soft underbellies with the end of a rolling pin. If they sensed me coming they contracted like a heart muscle and were wasted” (5-6). The malevolence of the everyday is overwhelming when we watch him “disemboweling crawfish using their own feelers, destoppering sea snails, beheading prawns” (5) with a practised, culinary cruelty.
The portraitist spends his spell in detention fussing about his pregnant wife, who he adores in an obsessive-possessive fashion, and miserably proclaims his innocence: “I have avoided thinking about why I am here. I have never paid attention to politics; if I am exempt from one thing as an artist, surely it is knowing what my government is doing” (14). Yet, for all his protestations, he is entangled in the web of power to a degree that he will only fully realize in the novel’s powerful dénouement.
Art, the novel insists, is far from innocent. The portraitist has painted the President weekly, framing his image at the seat of power and infusing it into the private worlds of his subjects: “At the end of each session, before the paint had even dried, his assistant collected the portrait to hang next to the flag in Parliament, so that the portrait in Parliament was always the most current, and the outdated ones were distributed to dignitaries to hang in their homes” (4). When he is later required to paint the Commander, the portraitist reflects: “I know that a portrait is one of the trappings of power, that each one I painted increased the President’s control by a fraction; that the image of him, freshly rendered in oils, hanging in Parliament, had some value outside of itself, that it strengthened his legitimacy, and that it will do the same for this man sitting before me” (69).
The barber inhabits the most painful set of contradictions. Having come to the city to revenge his dead brother, he worms his way into presidential proximity. Yet once he has gained access to the man responsible for this brother’s torture and death he seems to become too enraptured with his daily grasp upon power – momentary but absolute – to exercise it: “I would sharpen my knife in front of the President, and he would wince from the sound, but he never opened his eyes to look, which could be interpreted as a sign of either cowardice or bravery. Then I would take his head firmly between my hands and tilt it backwards. This was the moment I waited for each day: with a brisk twist of my hands, I could have snapped his neck, slit his throat with a knife-flick, but I did neither” (7). When, in the Summer Residence, he meets his brother’s fiancée, now married to the Commander, she is incredulous. How could he have worked in such intimate proximity to the man she perceives as a butcher? How could he have failed to exercise the power available to him? Why did he not kill the President? The barber explains: “I wanted to work for the President, for the man who had killed my brother. I wanted to find a way to work for him so closely I could touch him daily, could have him briefly in my power” (63).
As the readers become increasingly beguiled by the stories of these three men, their chorus is replaced by that of three women in Part Two: the barber’s brother’s fiancée, the chef’s daughter and the portraitist’s wife. The web is spun tighter and tighter as their voices circle around the persona of power. Finally, in the third part, each of the three men is allowed his closing statement as the wheel of power turns once again. Having watched them being drawn into the Commander’s new orbit of power, we are only too keenly aware of what will follow.
Dovey’s attention to the minute gestures of everyday life is exquisitely profound in the understandings of power it enables. Thus we have the Commander’s wife – and the President’s barber’s brother’s fiancée – reflecting: “Human beings depose each other, set themselves up in the place of the deposed, and then go about their daily tasks: you shave at the ex-President’s basin, examine yourself in his mirror, pack your old socks in his underwear drawer. That in turn made me think about contamination, and whether a bad person leaves behind bad things in his space, excretes badness like foul air: can you catch it like a cold?” (81). Yet power, in this novel, does not simply contaminate; rather, it is shown to course through, animate and tie together all the characters and their multivalent desires – drawing them inexorably towards their final destinies.
I strongly recommend this highly accomplished, beautifully-tuned prose, with its ripples of restrained violence coursing across the surface.