Tales of the metric system

December 30, 2015 in Uncategorized


I have just finished Tales of the metric system by Imraan Covadia. What a wonderful read.

It is not an easy who-dunnit, but if you know your history, it certainly is worth every bit of effort.

Any author should to be jealous of someone like Chanette Paul who can turn a political thriller like her latest, Offerlam, into such an easy read that one actually forgets the political shenanigans brimming below the surface. Pual’s wonderful Offerlam is like a Bugatti Veyron – a hyper car, but as easy to drive as a Golf.

Tales of the metric system is a bit more like an older Lamborghini – it has a brutal V12, it screams around the corners and for the enthusiast there simply never is too much, yet you have to keep it in check. Tales of the metric system offers no traction control and no automatic gearbox.

Unlike Paul’s silky smooth ride, Tales of the metric system was written for the enthusiast and it makes for adrenalin-pumping fun when you are willing to work for it.


The story is told in ten instalments. In each the reader is allowed to go out and drive laps into secrete pockets of our history, each one offers us a few options to zoom down the home straight of our yesterdays. The book makes total sense when all the courses have been driven and all the points added up.

Each new instalment poses new winners and losers, and new challenges. As any motorsport enthusiast would know, one eventually gets to know the faces and by the end you can predict the final scene; as had been the case when Schumi would grab the lead after four laps. The rest was history, even before it happened.

Read Tales of the metric system, you too will predict the final scene… Coovadia sets you up, you want to look away, but you cannot.

Actually, this book has nothing to do with cars, well, maybe an old Jaguar and a few flashy Merceds Benzes play a role, but one has to constantly to look in the rearview mirror to make sure that you get to understand all the characters who keep appearing. You’d also need a proper political context as navigator.

We only see brief glimpses of each character and most of the story is not told. Yet, when we read of important times, we get to experience them intensely.

Coovadia even uses a trick from car racing… At critical moments he switches perspective and we stop looking at the lead car from a bank of cameras, we experience the situation from within.


Enough metaphor.

This book takes us from 1970 to the evening of the opening of the Soccer World Cup in 2010. We get to read about passbooks, mixed marriages, communist spies, double agents, necklacing and eventually the shenanigans of the the new Elite. We even experience the President who was an Aids denialist and his rogue doctor who believed in vitamins.

Tales of the metric system takes us back to experience fascinating chunks of our history, as seen through ordinary people’s eyes.


I loved this book, but I am not sure that people with no interest in the political dealings of the past forty odd years would get it. I have lived through this history, but I wonder what a younger generation would think of it?

My sister in law, who has no political bone in her body, loved Offerlam, despite its quite obvious political subtext. I somehow do not think she’ll get this one.

Coovadia writes about fictional characters, but to me the true beauty of this book was that I was able to link real events and people to the story.


My summary? Brilliant, but not easy.

If you love politics and you love reading the newspaper from side to side, this one has your name on it. I really rate it very highly.

But, unlike Chanette Paul, I do not think Coovadia would be accessible to a public with no interest in the recent history.

Tales of the metric system by Imraan Covadia was published by Umuzi and comes highly recommended. I loved it.


9780799377118Offerlam, by Chanette Paul, was published in Afrikaans by LAPA. A very successful Dutch translation was published by Uitgeverij Lannoo. An English translation is in the pipeline. It too has strong political undertones, but one does not need a road map into the past to understand it.

If you do not know the work of Paul, start here. It is her best book by far, and it looks at the race, religion and expats. In the end, though, it is a story of belonging; all packaged in a thrilling crime novel. There are big similarities between Offerlam and Tales of the metric system; read both if you enjoy political intrigue.

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