NO HONOURABLE GODDAMN STEREOTYPES HERE: ‘An Ounce of Practice’ by Leo Zeilig

Leo Zeilig, An Ounce of Practice (Hope Road Publishing, 2017)

By Lynnda Wardle

An Ounce of Practice by Leo Zeilig is a hugely enjoyable, ambitious bildungsroman following the life and loves of left-wing academic Viktor Isaacs, and his relationships with a group of activists in London and Zimbabwe. The book is framed by the economic insecurities of the 2008 financial crisis, the Arab Revolutions and the political situation in Zimbabwe under the dictatorship of Robert Mugabe. (Although the book appeared in 2017, it was written and published before the resignation of Mugabe in November 2017).

Unlike many novels set in Africa, An Ounce of Practice approaches its subject matter in a self-conscious, reflective manner, avoiding the clichés and stereotypes that appear so often in African fiction.[1] The novel is concerned with the crisis in one part of the world (London and a workers’ strike at a local university) balanced against the wider, global struggle for human rights and justice in Zimbabwe. This is bold fiction revealing the links between the local and global; a narrative that refuses the easy portrayal of the problems of Africa as disconnected from the economies and politics of the ‘developed’ world.

If this all sounds a bit serious and worthy, be reassured. This is certainly not a po-faced, politically correct tale about “iron Lenins”[2], but a powerful love story set against the political turmoil at the start of this decade that will keep you engaged until its bloody, bitter end. The concerns of this novel feel timely and necessary as the Right rises in influence across Europe and elsewhere, and as debate continues around the role and response of the Left. As I began reading this book, staff and students at Glasgow University and other campuses across Scotland initiated strike action over pension rights, and as I finished the last chapter, the ugly injustices visited on the Windrush migrants and their families was breaking news.

Leo Zeilig is well placed to write a book about the Left. A writer and researcher, he has written extensively on African politics and history, including books on working-class struggle and the development of revolutionary movements and biographies of some of Africa’s most important political thinkers and activists. Zeilig’s critically acclaimed novel Eddie the Kid was published by Zero Books in 2013 and won the 2014 Creative Work prize at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa. In an interview in 2017,  Zeilig explained that An Ounce of Practice is concerned with

the connections of the Global North and South, the link between how we live, love and struggle. It also looks at the ‘neoliberal’ hurricane in both parts of the world.

Viktor Isaacs acts as the connector between the two spheres of action in the novel, London and Zimbabwe, and in a sense, he becomes the literal site of the dialectic between North and South and what they represent.

The novel’s title is attributed to a quote from Engels, that ‘an ounce of practice is worth a ton of theory.’ As an academic, Viktor is heavily invested in the theoretical world and he wrestles with the need for personal sacrifice in order to be politically effective — Viktor articulates the novel’s central theme of conflict between idealism and revolutionary action. He is deeply attached to his daughter Rosa, and as the relationship with his partner Nina disintegrates, he struggles to deal with the absences from his daughter that he must endure as part of the break-up.

In the opening chapters as Viktor fails to complete his PhD, he befriends Tendai, a fiery young activist who learned his revolutionary practice in the ant-apartheid movements in Southern Africa, and it is through Tendai and the group organising the strikes at the university that Viktor becomes aware of the some of the issues facing Zimbabweans and asylum seekers living in London. Soon he finds a role for himself campaigning, writing blogs and posting material on social media to mobilise support for the strike. Tendai constantly exhorts Viktor to be more involved in struggles further afield; to broaden his revolutionary horizons, and it is through Tendai that Viktor begins a correspondence with Anne-Marie (the granddaughter of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba), who lives and works for an NGO in Harare. Anne-Marie is passionate and forthright, and their relationship by text and email quickly deepens into an erotic exchange. Although Anne-Marie is in a relationship with Biko, the enigmatic leader of the Harare socialist group, ‘The Society of Liberated Minds’, she nevertheless encourages Viktor to visit Zimbabwe to become part of their struggle against the dictatorship of Robert Mugabe. (Many of the characters in The Society have adopted revolutionary names such as Nelson, Biko, Stalin).

It is easy to feel empathy with Viktor: a nostalgic bear of a man, deeply concerned about making a difference in his world. This journey to Africa will be Viktor’s education: as he begins to write and advocate on behalf of the Society he wrestles with the conflict between the world of ideas and internet activism, and the practical work to be done in organising and sustaining a revolutionary movement. In Africa he will find his own ‘ounce of practice’ as he is drawn deeper into the love affair with Anne-Marie and his friendship with Biko. Viktor’s sense of connection to London and his daughter becomes more fragile and remote as he bears witness to the violence perpetrated in the dying days of Mugabe’s regime and this intensifies his own sense of personal anguish.

As the action shifts from London to Zimbabwe, Zeilig’s writing responds with pace and passion, and the descriptions of Harare are energetic and evocative:

Harare was perched with uncertainty on the red earth, its sprawling bungalow belt and high-density slums ringing the distinctive, shimmering skyscrapers in the downtown streets and avenues. The economic meltdown, the plunge, had thrown this thinly rooted city to the ground. In the middle of roads and on pavements, like a thousand mouths speaking, potholes opened and craters appeared.

The language in these descriptions of Zimbabwe avoids cliché, while still describing the poverty and difficulty of a nation brought to its knees by political corruption and economic devastation. As the book gathers momentum, the writing responds with new intensity and power to match the events that bring the novel to a terrible climax.

Viktor’s experiences in this novel highlight the dilemma we all face in responding to the injustices and suffering in the world around us. How should we act? How much of our personal lives can we sacrifice to help others? Often Viktor’s revolutionary friends, so much wiser and more experienced, will lecture him to snap him out of his naiveté. Viktor is constantly having to face his own prejudices, especially his idealised notion of the ‘African revolutionary’:

No sooner had Viktor built Tendai up, turned him into a colossus of the liberation movement, an eccentric genius of the continent’s great, tragic history of revolt and plunder, a one-man freedom fighter who joined the global South with the crisis ridden North, than Tendai veered off and plunged headlong into the garbage. Why couldn’t Tendai just be an honourable goddamn stereotype, a cliché, a figure of unequivocal righteousness – drawn in bold realism with a jutting Lenin jaw, beautiful and serene?

In a scene where Viktor witnesses a dog knocked down by a car, he experiences intense grief, followed by joyful epiphany,

“The dog had reached its pinnacle of existence, the apex of its dog-being. It had evaded capture. It was almost flying,” he tells Anne-Marie, who chides him, patiently, “Don’t be a benêt … It was sad – you should have seen the faces of the children. But it was a dog. The only message is that we mustn’t concern ourselves with animals.”

Anne-Marie’s verdict on the fate of the dog, that “its time had come”, has resonance for Viktor also, struggling to make sense of how much of his life should be political and what the personal cost of this dedication to the struggle might be. His separation from Rosa feels cruel and difficult even though he has experienced much love and acceptance in Zimbabwe. We wonder with Viktor, what does it mean to say that ‘our time has come’? How much longer can we continue to live in an unjust world without taking political action? Can we stand by and watch the human rights abuses and suffering without stepping up?

Here then is a novel that feels both urgent and relevant to our global world: we don’t have to be a left-wing academic to see that the poor are getting poorer, the precariat are stressed and tempted by right wing rhetoric, and that without extreme vigilance, the ideals of revolution are easily tarnished by corruption and violence. Viktor sounds a call to political action. As he journeys to Africa, the novel forces us to question our own values and ask what the personal price may be for an ‘ounce of practice’. And are ready to make the sacrifice?


Notes:

[1] See Binyavanga Wainanina’s essay in Granta (2006) ‘How to Write about Africa

[2] Zeilig interviewed in https://www.rs21.org.uk/2017/05/04/review-an-ounce-of-practice/


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