David Caute Isabel Raphael - Essay

Isabel Raphael

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In David Caute's The K-Factor] K stands for kaffir, in Zimbabwe, 1979. Kaffirs, in the eyes of white coffee-farmers Charles and Sonia Laslet, know nothing about their own country, and only take kindness for weakness. Yet, despite their contempt for "munts" and "gooks", the Laslets admit that the K-factor is something they cannot beat. It is the unpredictable element that forces Sonia "afraid most of the time", to isolate herself in a neurotic dream world where she communes with Isak Dinesen, guards a mysterious baby which may or may not be hers, and indulges in a safely sterile lesbian affair. It drives her husband to the opposite extreme of personal indifference and racial brutality. The country they have chosen as their home is a battle-ground for survival, national and individual. Other writers may show war drawing from men unsuspected strength and humanity; in Caute's Zimbabwe it drags them to appalling excesses….

All this makes for uncomfortable reading. Caute's theme is aggression, and his writing is deliberately provocative, even offensive…. The war between black men and white brings the races into conflict with each other as well as their opponents. The terrorist struggle is reflected in the games of musical beds played by Sonia, her husband, her actress lover and journalist brother….

Caute tells a good, tense story, and writes sharp, fast-moving dialogue. But he tries to keep too many balls in the air at once, and presents an uneasy combination of characters and themes. Connexions and coincidences seem altogether too pat. But the atmosphere of mounting panic and slipping control is effectively, and frighteningly, conveyed. In The K-Factor dog eat dog, and the fair country that is their bone of contention is buried beneath hatred, self-interest, and lust for power.

Isabel Raphael, "Black and White and Red All Over," in The Times, London (© Times Newspapers Limited 1983), May 26, 1983, p. 15.∗