This review was written for and first posted on Bookmunch.
Leo Zeilig’s An Ounce of Practice is a sweeping exploration of human connections and a search for meaning beyond mere existence. It is a journey driven by sex, politics and idealism. The flawed characters are radicals fighting for personal freedom and a better way of living. They are striving for a Promised Land, unable to be present and satisfied, unwilling to accept.
The protagonist is Viktor, a member of the teaching staff at a London University where he is prevaricating over completing his PhD. Viktor struggles with his everyday situation and seeks a cause to champion. Having befriended members of the outsourced cleaning staff, many of whom are illegals, he becomes involved in their campaign for worker’s rights. His contribution is to document their protests on his blog.
Through these workplace connections Viktor is put in touch with a group of resistance fighters in Zimbabwe and acquires an interest in their struggle. Eventually he will be coerced into visiting, to gain his ‘ounce of practice’.
In London, Viktor lives with Nina. They embarked on a passionate love affair but soon grew discontented. Viktor has detached himself from Nina’s attempts to facilitate understanding of her needs, leading to rows that drain his energy. Despite moments of clarity when he recognises his flaws they serve only to pull him further into self-contemplation. For all his efforts to make a positive difference in the world, his focus remains on himself. Even their daughter, whom Viktor adores, struggles to maintain his attention.
When Viktor travels to Harare he is perturbed by the crumbling infrastructure and disparate living conditions. He joins a small group of socialists who eagerly pontificate on revolution. He meets NGOs enjoying their pampered lifestyle whilst ‘helping’ poverty stricken locals. He is told of the former socialists who gained power but then grew out of touch, travelling the world fund-raising, always business class.
The sweeping narrative can at times feel bogged down in the details of the radicals’ polemic. It is worth wading through these sections for when the pace once again picks up. The section set in Bulawayo is tense and pivotal, although does little to improve Viktor’s naval gazing and insatiable need for affirmation.
Viktor is not the only conundrum. Biko, the cogent student radical, the future hero of the movement, trades the fine jacket his dying mother worked and saved for a year to buy for a few moments on a sofa with a girl. Details are shared of sweat, phlegm, mucus and semen. The reader is offered little respite from the messiness of being alive.
Although this is partly a tale of a white man’s attempts to save Africans, there is no glossing over the locally endemic corruption. Easy answers do not exist for a problem centuries in the making.
Their flaws may make many of the characters difficult to like but they add depth to the complex personal and political situations.
Any Cop?: There is little to raise the spirits in this tale despite the many well meaning efforts. What it does provide is rich food for thought.