Roger Owen

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 481

The K-Factor is set in Zimbabwe during the violent period between the internal settlement and the election of Robert Mugabe…. David Caute strikes at once that characteristic note of sardonic superiority present in Under the Skin—the Death of White Rhodesia, his blockbuster of impressionistic rapportage which was published earlier this year. The K-Factor is in fact a re-working of much of the material of that book.

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The theme of both books is the same, namely "the myths, legends, reifications and strategies of false consciousness". Inevitably the rationalizations and fantasies with which the Whites sustain their view of the world present the larger target, and it is against these that the full force of the author's odium is directed.

The novel tells an action-packed and violent tale with a dazzling display of know-how…. The burden of this information-giving is carried by dialogue. This has the effect of undermining the verisimilitude it seeks to establish, because people keep telling each other things which in reality they wouldn't need to. We are also exposed to some simplified potted history…. There is a good deal of highly schematic political debate.

The plot is complicated. Sonia, a rich grass widow, drinks whisky behind the security fence of her farm. Beyond the fence terrorists and radicalized Jesuits go about their business. Helicopters whirr overhead. Bizarrely, in these circumstances, Sonia discusses feminism with her lesbian lover from London and attempts to seduce her other house-guest, who, even more bizarrely, is a young, black, sophisticated Marxist (he uses words like "re-ify") and a local boy at that. Bewilderingly, even for one whose behaviour is so deviant, Sonia persists in bandying around words like "munt" and "kaffir" in the political colloquies which ensue. These usages he in turn accepts, with inexplicable sang froid. Perhaps these exchanges are supposed to indicate some extraordinary degree of liberation and unconventionality on the part of both of them. But the meaning is murky, and the situation improbable.

The story turns on the abduction of Sonia's baby by the blacks. It seems, however, that this might be a fantasy object, the function of which is to legitimize White indignation, and therefore a product of "false consciousness". We have to remind ourselves that white and black babies were really murdered, and that there were grounds for indignation on both sides. There is also a rape scene—now almost mandatory in novels about Africa—in which Sonia's "false consciousness" might again be at work. The black guerrilla leader has an "enormous penis". Is it a real one? Is its enormity imagined? The combination of this kind of puzzle with strong surface naturalism poses some difficulties.

But it is the partiality of the author's sympathies which damages the book most seriously.

Roger Owen, "Chipping at the Baobab," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1983; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4183, June 3, 1983, p. 562.

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