I just finished a book called Zulu by French author Caryl Férey (due to be published by Europa Editions in May) and now, with apologies to South African readers, I am never going to go to South Africa. Zulu won France’s Grand Prix for Best Crime Novel in 2008 with good reason – it’s a flat-out brilliant crime novel, but ultimately it rings truer as an exposé of the current socio-political climate in South Africa – and, sorry, but it is not fucking pretty.
Ethnic Zulu, Ali Neuman is the quintessential product of apartheid violence – driven from his home after the brutal murders of his father & brother, he has spent his adult life hiding his deep emotional scars working as a detective in Cape Town. Cape Town’s streets are rife with gang violence and rampant drug use – a product of the vacuum left in apartheid’s wake that opened the floodgates for southern Africa’s poor, criminally-minded souls to enter the newly “free” society. When a white girl’s body turns up (with her face and skull smashed to pieces with a hammer) Ali and his two white partners – fresh-faced, innocent Dan & the gritty, angry Brian – begin to investigate, rather routinely at first, digging into the fringes of a post-Boer society that still harbors resentment over their loss of power. But there’s something else simmering beneath the surface of their investigation – in the form of a horrible new meth-based drug being introduced into Cape Town that seems to whip it’s users into a violent, murderous frenzy. The questions pile up almost a quickly as the false leads do. Who is producing this drug? Who is selling it? How is this related to the white corpses that keep turning up? Were they killed “by accident” or is there a much more sinister plot afoot?
Once the team is down the rabbit hole though, all bets are off as far as standard crime novel fare is concerned – don’t let your hands get cut off by that machete, friend. I think what disturbed me so much was that the violence never felt gratuitous in any way – it just felt real, which is a lot scarier. You learn about halfway through that this is one of those books where no character is safe – just like it would be if this were a true story. Once the gang that Ali & Co. are chasing realizes that cops are, in fact, touchable, the whole game is turned on it’s head and you really never know what will be lurking in the next set of shadows.
It is by no means a perfect book – the characters are a bit wooden and some of the clunky prose can be chalked up to the translation, but not all of it – but Férey delivers a terrifying look into a society that has struggled so hard to mask the dark underside of its history, only to leave it all simmering just below the surface. Anybody have any World Cup tickets they want to unload now?