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Literary criticism (2010) by June Nandy (based upon <> published by, 2010, ISBN 978-81-8253-168-0, 208 pages, paperback, US$25, GBP £ 16, € 20, INR 400).

<> is the fifth novel in the series of the boisterously merry Zapinette stories by Albert Russo that illustrates the symbolic diversity of South Africa's cultural, ethnic and racial groups through the eyes of an extremely precocious young girl: Esmeralda McInnery nicknamed, Zapinette by her Uncle Berky and her travel to the rainbow nation of South Africa. Russo gives the first hint of the contents and his views of the novel in the title itself <>. According to the Wikipedia, the term was first coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to describe the post-apartheid South Africa, after South Africa's first fully-democratic election in 1994. Abandoned by her parents at a young age, the teenager-narrator Zapy, with her overtly curious mind, travels to the land of the Zulus with her uncle and typically records the experiences of the places of her visit while continuing to observe with a travel writer's sensibility.

The story follows Zapinette as she recounts the South African adventure from morning through to late night, letting the reader experience Zulu culture, the place and its people through her eager eyes. From Olifant's camp at Kruger National Park to Savanna grasslands and from Durban to Cape Town, she fills up her log-book with not only the local geography and history but also records the life of commoners that is rife with crime, violence, AIDS and post-apartheid racism in the form of Black Economic Empowerment. Subsequently, she cannot help but draw parallels to the newer forms of racism cropping up in the developed nations against the gay-communities and the region-specific dress-codes like wearing head-scarves by the Muslim community in France etc. Zapy is evidently not in sync with the grown-ups who rule the world (she chooses to call them growl-ups), busy creating disharmony, discrimination and unrest with the laws of nature.

There are many passages that reveal the humanitarian and compassionate elements of Albert Russo through the twelve-year old narrator, who phonetically transcripts the words in her own wise way. A few follow:

Page 25 <so fork and so gong, coz oftentimes, and more often than not, it's the law of the jungle that prevails, which means it's the fittest who only survive, a rule good ole Darwin proved scientifically, he didn't die for nothing that one, in spite of them rabid creashionists who keep crashing biology classes flaunting their goddamn crosses as if the teacher was the devil hisself. >>

Page 39 <growl-ups, is why they kick up such a fuss where setchual matters are concerned. Like religion, sex oughta remain private, and should be none of anybody's business, except of course, if you do pig stuff with kids, then they, the growl-ups deserve the heaviest punishment the law metes out - yes yes, that's a verb.>> 

Zapy is hypnotized by the animal kingdom which, unlike the human world, is not in conflict with nature, and stands unique in their diversity, unified and in harmony with their surroundings.  

Page 22 << The elephants were standing for us three hundred meters away - but, hey ho, don't get too near them - they tend to get quite susceptible, on account that they might think you're a poacher, going after their tusks - they can reduce you to a mush of red porridge. Yet, it's amazing to see them wander freely in their natural element. It's like the whole world belongs to them, since, apart from the nasty humans, they are scared of nobody and have no predators.>>

And there are hippos, antelopes, giraffes and the mighty panthers too in their true beauty and elements, besides vultures and hyenas that Zapy finds herself attracted to. 

She believes:

<< The gorgeous panthera - I'm sure it was a she, coz that beautiful animal can only be a lady! - was resting on the middle branch of a leafy acacia tree. She was dominating the scene with the tranquility of a mistress of the savannah. What a grandee she was! The sunrays danced on her pelt like a ballet of fireflies - this must be a poetry winner, uh! Even when she yawned she looked lordly. >> 

Russo, in few words, indicates his reverence for the female tribe in such exalted terms. Lastly, he explains the relevance of uncle Berky's niece's name as Zulu Zapy in the following passage:

<<...of all the warriors the Zulu were the bravest, but also the fiercest, since they fought with everybody around them: the colonialists - who, by the way also waged bloody wars against each other -, the Xhosa, as well as the other tribes they didn't fancy. That is when my nerd of an uncle called me Zulu Zapy, on account that I don't let anyone walk over me. >>

Finally, through the metaphor <>, this book depicts the present national and cultural identity of South Africa that has been formed by a resultant amalgamation of the unity of multiculturalism and coming together of many different nations, in a country which was once identified with the severe division of white and black.

-- June Nandy, 2010, Calcutta.

June Nandy is an internationally published poet, novelist and a reviewer from Calcutta and her debut novel, Ideospheres of Pain has been recently released by India.