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Imraan Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System Launched with Pippa Skotnes at The Book Lounge

Pippa Skotnes and Imraan Coovadia

Tales of the Metric System“I don’t think anyone in our country has done anything as ambitious or extremely well pulled off,” The Book Lounge owner Mervyn Sloman said in introduction of Imraan Coovadia’s “absolutely fantastic” latest novel, Tales of the Metric System, during the book’s launch recently.

The book was written as a series of entirely separate stories, creating a non-linear narrative of South Africa over the last 30 or 40 years. Sloman described it as “an amazing patchwork, or quilt, an embroidery if you may”, with the individual stories flowing together to create an amazing craftwork.

In conversation with Coovadia was his UCT colleague Pippa Skotnes, director of the Centre for Curating the Archive, cultural historian and author in her own right. Listing Coovadia’s illustrious background, Skotnes described him as a “national treasure” and “public figure of note”, tributes which sent hums of agreement through the crowd of academics and cultural commentators gathered at the launch. Skotnes explained that she admires him as one of her most interesting colleagues who is always “resisting dullness, challenging bureaucracy, and upsetting ways of doing things”.

The discussion started with Skotnes noting that historians write stories which matter in the present, plunging the reader into moments most likely forgotten – with Coovadia writing specifically about the abstract 1970s. “How do you tackle history as a novelist?” Skotnes asked him.

“In South Africa the present seems to go by extremely fast,” Coovadia answered. “I grew up in the 70s and it seemed like such a gripping, interesting time for all kinds of reasons, yet it seems to have almost entirely disappeared now,” Coovadia said, explaining that he finds South Africa’s ever-changing, always evolving “presents” to be “very compelling”, a country where all sorts of things disappear very quickly. “I was interested in the loss of history and the loss of memory and how difficult it is to put yourself back in that time.”

As a writer and academic Coovadia has realised that “interesting novels have people caught in specific situations”, a revelation which led him to immerse his characters in their circumstances. He pointed out that in the 70s “we did not know that there would be a relatively happy ending for South Africa”, a reality which inspired many interesting situations for him to write. Skotnes agreed and said “that is one of the many successes of the book” – the mirror of the 70s created by Coovadia, reflecting the fear-tinged reality of the time, transported Skotnes to her own memories.

Skotnes pointed out that the structure of the book makes it “very mobile”, transporting the reader from different important times in the country’s history, never resting at one stop for too long as it moves between chapters written as episodes. The structure was very important to Coovadia, who wanted to write a book about “The Period I Have Been Alive”, a title and concept he found simply too long. He explained that the metric system was deployed South Africa in 1970, an already very complex time. Deciding to use it as a structural device dictated the need for 10 chapters.

Tales of the Metric System makes use of many facts to support the narrative, with various characters who are very recognisable from South Africa’s bursting history. “People read a book because they invest in the characters and the situations and then somehow their desires and fears are kept engaged, almost as if by rubber bands,” Coovadia said. I spoke to someone about why it is so difficult to remember the endings of books you really liked. I think it is because a process of disengagement happens.”

The discussion also reflected on the influence of the anticipation of criticism on a writer as he weaves his story, a very unique experience in this country. “I’m surprised at how little criticism there is. As a writer or intellectual you always anticipate what you think of as lines of well-established, politically correct questions. ‘Who are you to write about elves if you’ve never lived amongst elves?’ etc. In South Africa we anticipate that question much more than it actually happens.”

The question of what you can write about is more a question of construction than a moral one, Coovadia explained, turning the conversation to credibility and how that is achieved. He used the example of JM Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K, where the story was stripped to the bare minimum and the voice was kept very minimal, “taking out stuff so that what is left must be true”. This is something Coovadia tried to achieve in Tales of the Metric System. He later explained that writers let silence and contrast do many things for them, saying “the reader will fill in the gaps”.

These are only snippets from the fascinating conversation which touched on a wealth of different topics, including the effect of change on South Africans, the elusive great South African novel, the specifics of Tales of the Metric System and the book trailer, which Skotnes noted strongly reflects the craftsmanship that went into this formative novel.

Watch the book trailer:

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Helené Prinsloo (@helenayp) tweeted live from the launch using the hasthag #livebooks:


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