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Peter Harris’s first novel rings as true as any history, writes Ray Hartley

Published in the Sunday Times

Peter Harris, more used to chronicling the facts, gives us new insights into what’s going on behind the scenes with a novel about a mining magnate, writes Ray Hartley

Bare Ground
****
Peter Harris, Picador Africa, R260

I arranged to meet Peter Harris at the restaurant 10 Bompas in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs. I chose the restaurant because it was where I had met Harris before to interview him about his previous work, Birth. Like his first book In a Different Time, Birth was nonfiction, telling the story of the 1994 election. Harris had been head of the Independent Electoral Commission’s monitoring directorate and his insider’s account read like a thriller.

The book I wanted to discuss with him over lunch, Bare Ground, is a work of fiction. But so intertwined are its characters, locations and plot with contemporary South African life that it rings as true as any history. As if to confirm this, I discover while finishing the book that 10 Bompas is one of its locations, a place where dealmakers and power brokers lunch.

After we have sat down, I point out this coincidence and Harris laughs, uncertainly, as if laughing and then deciding to withdraw the laugh until he has thought it through more carefully.

“At the next table,” he says motioning with his head. I turn and, as if on cue, one of Joburg’s rougher businessmen can be seen at a table where deals are made.

I opened Bare Ground with trepidation. How would a chronicler of the transition manage the infinitely more complex task of writing fiction, which requires pace, character development and plot?

A few pages in, however, I was lost in the world Harris has conjured up. It is a world both familiar and revealing, where the powerful, greased by whisky, fuelled by steaks, embalmed in wood panelling, and blissfully ignorant of the consequences of their deeds, decide the fates of their corporations and, sometimes by accident, sometimes deliberately, that of the nation.

Harris has brought this world out of the shadows where it has lurked, largely unobserved, for the last 23 years and beyond. The set is the mining town of Johannesburg, now evolved into a place of commerce, but still carrying the rude DNA of its origins.

“Johannesburg is a central character, a living, breathing, passionate character. It’s an organism with all its contradictions,” says Harris. “You pitch up at the robots and you’ve got economic refugees from Africa. A blind guy being led by a lead. There’s a part of Johannesburg that keeps its mining town mentality. People are bribing, stealing, grabbing, pushing – 1994 did not change any of that.”

I tell him that it reads like a thriller.

“It’s the pace of Joburg and its politics. The moment that they hear there’s a deal in the offing, they come sniffing.”

The novel tells the story of one such deal in which the head of a mining house, which has come late to the empowerment party, seeks to bring aboard partners who will not threaten control, but will keep the doors to political power open.

The head of this business is Max Sinclair, a complex man with a troubled history. By the time the deal is done, lives will have been upended; some will be rich, others poor, as Sinclair orchestrates the details with a sociopathic detachment from the consequences of his actions.

“Max is cold, ruthless. Betrayal is in his blood,” says Harris.

What makes Bare Ground compelling is that Sinclair’s motivations extend beyond greed and the desire for power. There are events in his personal history that explain his choices and his emotional isolation.

I ask Harris if his is a bleak world. He is anxious to dispel the notion. There are characters, he points out, who are not prepared to sell their souls. One such character will find himself tested to the limit as the deal unfolds. He is a human rights lawyer, and an adviser to the rich and powerful.

It is possible to see real people in these characters – or bits of real people cut apart and reassembled so that they are not immediately recognisable. Harris’s own background as a human rights lawyer and one who has witnessed the churning wheels of post-apartheid power first-hand shows in the authenticity of these characters. In a Different Time and Birth documented the recent past. He has managed the transition from nonfiction to fiction so seamlessly that Bare Ground seems the logical third book on the state of contemporary South Africa.

Harris has avoided proselytising and has maintained the pace and complex development required of a thriller.

“You can’t give a state of the nation by banging on a drum,” he says. @hartleyr

Bare Ground

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