cover image How to Be a Revolutionary

How to Be a Revolutionary

C.A. Davids. Verso, $19.95 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-8397-6087-7

South African writer Davids (The Blacks of Cape Town) pulls off a complex tale of political upheaval on three continents. Beth, a South African former revolutionary, accepts a diplomatic role in Shanghai, partially in order to escape her crumbling marriage in Cape Town. There, in her lonely apartment, she is entranced by the hammering sounds of her neighbor’s typewriter and is eventually introduced to the man himself, Zhao, an enigmatic, often brusque figure who comes alive at the mention of poetry. The two bond over a love of Langston Hughes, but Zhao soon disappears, leaving behind for Beth a manuscript, written in Chinese, that might contain verboten material such as reflections on the Tiananmen Square massacre. The narrative dips into Beth’s teenage years fighting apartheid in South Africa, as well as Zhao’s search for his lost mother. Interspersed are fictionalized letters written by Langston Hughes to a colleague from South Africa that touch on his McCarthy hearings and accusations of communism. Davids successfully grapples with the heavy historical material by tracing the silencing effects of political repression: “One didn’t know where another stood, only that discussion would not be welcomed, was maybe forbidden for a Chinese citizen,” Davids writes of Beth’s trepidation talking with Zhao. The result is exquisite and eye-opening. (Feb.)