The Slap (book review)
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Last week I was at the Joint Conference of academic societies in the field of Religion and Theology in Pietermaritzburg, and the theme of the Southern African Missiological Society’s track was Migration, mission and theological education. I bought this book to read in the evenings before going to sleep, and found that in several different ways it reflected the theme of the conference. It was largely concerned with migrants, and it made me think of migrants and migration.
The book also changes in character and direction, as the viewpoint character changes, so that one is never sure where it will end up until one actually reaches the end.
It is set in Melbourne, Australia, and it begins being seen through the eyes of the host at a suburban barbecue. One of the guests slaps an obstreperous child, whose parents accuse the man of child abuse and call the police. The people at the barbecue (braai) are in some ways a cosmopolitan bunch, representing various diasporas of immigrants to Australia. It seems horribly middle-class and suburban, and in some ways familiar, like a white-middle-class South African suburban braai. But it has overtones of My big fat Greek barbie. Many of the families are Greek immigrants, or children and grandchildren of Greek immigrants. And that is familiar too. The Greek diaspora in Australia is not all that different from the Greek diaspora in South Africa, or in North America, for that matter. If you change the accents, the film My big fat Greek wedding could easily have been set in South Africa, right down to the hair styles.
Most of the characters are “wogs”, which in Australia seems to refer mainly to people of Mediterranean ancestry. The Australian vocabulary takes some getting used to. There are also “bogans”, which the wogs, or these particular wogs, despise — being lower-middle-class Anglo-Australians with a penchant for kitsch. The South African equivalents were perhaps those referred to in Jeremy Taylor’s song The balld of the southern suburbs.
So there are all these Diaspora people, and that links up with our conference theme of migrants and migrations.
The story is told from the viewpoint of different characters, and their views and backgrounds are very different. Some are suburban housewives, some are their husbands, some are teenagers, one is an old man — My big fat Greek funeral. But the action moves forward, so the characters do not see the same events, but rather each stage of the story is seen through the eyes of a different character.
There are also rather disconcerthing gaps. The book goes into great detail about the sexual encounters and fantasies of the characters, almost a throwback to 1980 novels with their obligatory shag (which often seemed to be there only because the publishers demanded it), yet in these suburban families we are not told the ages of most of the children. The boy who was slapped was 3 going on 4. And the teenagers are 17 going on 18, but the other children’s ages are unstated, so when we are told of the parents contemplating their sons or daughters sleeping or playing DVDs, it is difficult to form a picture of the size of the child they are looking at – somewhere in the 5-12 age range, but children grow a lot between those ages. So at some points there seems to be too much detail, and at others too little.
The book makes one aware of the Greek, Arab, Indian, Vietnamese and other diasporas in Australia. And that inevitably makes me think of other things that are not mentioned explicitly in the book, but perhaps are part of the the background: the obsession of the Australian media with “suspected asylum seekers”, for example. But though it is not mentioned in the book, there is also a South African diaspora in Australia. That particular one wasn’t mentioned at all at the conference either, as far as I am aware — most of those at the conference were concerned with migrants coming to South Africa, rather than leaving it.
Never having been to Australia, I have no idea how accurately it reflects Australian suburban life, but, as portrayed in the book, it seemed rather empty to me. Like the old man in the story, who reflects on his life, and how he migrated to Australia from Greece, It makes me look back on my own life, and make comparisons. And the outstanding difference was the struggle against apartheid, which dominated the greater part of my life. There seems to have been nothing like that in Australia. Of course there has been evil, there have been bad things, but they seem so petty by comparison. The child abuse of a man slapping a child at a suburban barbecue pales in comparison with thousands of children suffering from kwashiorkor, marasmus, pellagra and other nutritional deficiencies.It all seems so banal that they have to take refuge in booze, drugs and adultery.
On finishing the book one thing is pretty clear to me: I won’t be packing for Perth any time soon.
And I still haven’t made my mind up about the book. In some ways I want to give it four stars, but in others two. I think I’ll compromise and give it three.