Book review: The Institute for Taxi Poetry
Review of The Institute for Taxi Poetry
Published by Umuzi
Reviewed by Yazeed Kamaldien
Working class characters have never carried such an air of middle class about them as in Cape Town-based writer Imraan Coovadia’s latest offering.
Perhaps this appears as a result of becoming so accustomed to ‘poverty porn’; depictions of the working class as pitiful illiterates who do not care much for refinement. Yet this is the beauty of a book that aims to reflect a working class story without allowing readers to feel sorry for the misery associated with being poor.
Coovadia’s strength is in creating believable characters like this novel’s narrator Adam Ravens. The author locates these characters in a mix of real and imagined worlds.
Ravens is employed at the fictitious – and oddly-named – Jose da Silva Perreira Institute for Transport Poetry based at the University of Cape Town. He is a former taxi poet who is troubled by the murder of his mentor Solly Greenfields who was found dead in his Woodstock home.
The reader follows Ravens from his mentor’s funeral while discovering along the way that he has a dislocated affection for his rebellious son Zebulon who is a “sliding-door man” in the taxi business.
Ravens meanwhile also has to play host to Gerome Geromian, a pretentious but respected taxi poet, who happens to be his mentor’s rival, in the same week that he eventually discovers who killed Greenfields.
Coovadia does not offer much else in terms of the storyline. He keeps the narrative simple, avoiding twists and turns generally expected after a body turns up dead on the opening page of a novel.
Coovadia writing is brilliant. He strings together words to form lyrical sentences. He creates endless memorable one-liners. He entertains with his wit and irony.
His shortcoming though is that he does not paint enough descriptive scenes with his words. The taxi industry where his story is located screams with colourful characters and dramatic episodes. But this novel, for example, does not describe the taxies that would carry the poems penned by taxi poets.
One finds very little visuals to grasp. We fail to be lured into the visual setting where these romanticised documentarians of the working class experience played.
Likewise, Coovadia references Cape Town alongside the city’s humourous edge on every other page. As a local, one locates the context with ease. It elicits a pleasurable satisfaction. Like when you watch a film, and spot Table Mountain, and feel that you’ve been in that film.
But without the detailed or descriptive writing there is not much meaning to the references within our backyard. I wanted to feel the words breathing while engaging them. I longed for the visual and visceral Cape Town to be shared with the world.
This does not detract though from Coovadia’s ability to leave one with memorable left-wing characters who talk truths about townships that vote for electricity.
On an ordinary day, these characters might come across as terribly ordinary losers. But Coovadia’s taxi poets could stand in front of an elite audience and teach them a thing or two about poetry. They can reference, as they do in this novel, the greatest pens that ever wrote. And that makes them terribly posh working class heroes.
PS. This book review was published on 11 June 2011 in the Cape Argus newspaper (see photo below by Mishqa Rossier)