Heike Becker reviews An Ounce of Practice by Leo Zeilig, discussing the themes of love, resilience and pragmatism across varied theatres of activism.
Writer and Researcher Leo Zeilig’s new novel tells a gripping tale of an intellectual leftie from London, a group of southern African activists in Zimbabwe and England, and the emotional battles of living and acting in the struggles of the 21st century.
Viktor lives in London. His life is bedevilled by inertia, a sense of dying really. His family life disintegrates. It doesn’t help much that he spends his days immersed in his computer. He connects with the world through Facebook and Twitter, writing blogs and posting them on a website of radical politics.
He longs for practice, for life in action. But he remains stuck in theorising, with his comrades at the university, even in his connection with his young daughter.
Tendai is Viktor’s friend. Now trailing a London university campus as a reading worker and strike organiser; he’s been steeled through a life lived in the southern African struggles against colonialism and apartheid. Tendai believes in practice to prevail over theory. He challenges Viktor: “If you haven’t seen and lived, what good are you?”
Anne-Marie is in Harare. She works with the development NGO set of expats, though deeply cynical about their politics and lavish lifestyle. Her life finds more clarity and radical action through her involvement with the “Society of Liberated Minds”, a small band of self-styled revolutionaries who rename themselves “Lenin”, even “Stalin”, but also “Biko” and “Cabral”.
Anne-Marie’s double predicament is her prominent Congolese family’s expectations towards her womanhood and her unpredictable lover, the Society’s leader. Biko is an activist in Bulawayo. He burns with desire, rage and action. Biko lives the practice and action that Viktor longs for and, at once, shirks. In his personal life he craves connection with his family, his past, his throbbing loneliness driving him to more and more dangerous action.
Zeilig’s characters connect, at first tentatively, in virtual space. Then Viktor, pushed ever deeper into his crisis and persuaded, cajoled and seduced, travels to Zimbabwe. There he hopes to find “some bloody practice”, grabbing a chance to write “at last for a movement, a people struggling against dictatorship and neoliberalism”. And to meet Anne-Marie …
The action heats up in Harare and Bulawayo. Hotter, more raging, more engaging, more dangerous, more violent than he could have ever imagined.
As in his 2013 debut novel Eddie the Kid, Zeilig draws his characters with a close eye, deep psychological insight and extraordinary empathy. When I interviewed him, he emphasised that he wanted to avoid portraying activists as “iron Lenins”, which he sees as “an unfortunate tendency in left-wing fiction”.
His characters are enormously credible. Description and dialogue convey inner reflection and outward expression in words and action. In their different ways each of the left-wing activists – from the bumbling Viktor through to the passionate if somewhat dangerously zealous Biko – is well-meaning and flawed.
Even the white Zimbabwean businessman and coffee shop owner Louis, who befriends Viktor in Harare, while portrayed as crudely racist is also vulnerable and capable of love. This appears as the main thrust of this beautifully written novel: in the end, it’s love that’s at the heart of resistance and revolution. Of life itself. This is vividly imagined in Viktor’s loving relationship with his young daughter, which, even though somewhat hapless, is depicted in scenes of moving tenderness.
Zeilig’s novel breathes authenticity with a superbly crafted cast of characters and poignant dialogue. He also impresses with acute, sensuous observations of place. The sights, smells and sounds of Harare take the reader into the dilapidated resilience of this once opulent, colonial city.
For An Ounce of Practice, Zeilig – who has been an academic and an activist in left-wing politics in both the UK and southern Africa – has drawn inspiration from two seemingly unconnected social and political struggles. When he was working at the University of London a few years ago, he became involved with a strike of cleaners at the university.
His second theme is the “catastrophic fall” of Zimbabwe, caused by the “twin evils” of IMF/ World Bank structural adjustment policies and President Robert Mugabe’s dictatorship. In Zimbabwe he also witnessed the courageous resistance of small groups of activists. In the novel he connects these stories through crafting a cast of Zimbabwean migrants at the heart of the labour action in London. Zeilig explained during the interview:
the story is about the connections of the Global North and South, the link between how we live, love and struggle. It also looks at the ‘neoliberal’ hurricane in both parts of the world.
He emphasised the connection of personal and political crisis and, “the hope, if we are to become truly human, of breaking down the barriers to action, connection and hope”.
Engagement with political activism
An Ounce of Practice succeeds as an imaginative engagement with the predicament of global political activism today. It elegantly weaves nuanced philosophical reflections on the opportunities and dangers presented by social media and the precarity of existence in the neoliberal academy through a vivid narrative of an individual journey, intimate love and life that never loses sight of the “bigger us”.
As the main protagonist of this African Bildungsroman slowly begins to live by a saying attributed to Friedrich Engels that, “an ounce of practice is worth a ton of theory”, Zeilig shows the exhilaration and hope that comes with activism. At the same time we see excruciating pain, despair and loss emerging in the encounter with violent dictatorship and repression.
An Ounce of Practice is a brilliant work of literary imagination that takes the reader to new realities in an engaging, moving read, hilariously humorous at times. Zeilig’s new novel is a page turner for readers interested in the profound questions of radical politics and humanity in today’s world.
An introduction by the author
An Ounce of Practice takes place during a strike at a London university by outsourced cleaning and security workers. The strike is supported and organised by a group of militants, Wayne, a young, radical student from the States, Gary, from the UK, Moreblessing, who is from Zimbabwe, working without papers in London, and Tendai, a firebrand socialist originally from South Africa. Viktor is also involved. Viktor, who is a central character in the story, is well-meaning, but he is lost, distracted by theory, and his own personal crisis. In this scene, the core group of union activists discuss how to respond to the anger of their members to the bullying and intimidation of management. Do they help to lead an unofficial strike that looks like like it is about to take place?
In a case of life imitating art, today security guards, members of the IWGB, a radical union at the University of London, are striking to end zero hour contracts and for the payment of backpay. Their action, militant, determined, vital, is a major theme in An Ounce of Practice. RS21 encourages its supporters, readers and members, to support the strike. – Leo Zeilig
An excerpt from An Ounce of Practice
When Viktor returned to the office, Gary, Wayne and Moreblessing were sitting together, lined up on the swivel chairs. Tendai sat on the table, his empty shoes on the floor like giant upturned shells echoing with the sound of the sea. Moreblessing was speaking.
I had to argue with Audrey, Emma and Geoffrey not to leave the union. ‘Three months in the union,” they said, “and nothing has changed.” Audrey nearly hit the hall warden yesterday when he told her to finish cleaning the room even though she was at the end of her shift.
“Three months and nothing,” she kept repeating. BCW owe us overtime. At last count sixty of us had not been paid for two months. Two months. And when Terry takes this up with them – at the Partnership Forum – they say they’re having problems with their payroll department, that the systems are down. We’re going to lose members. Three months in the union for most of them and still nothing.’ Moreblessing’s hair was straight, shoulder-length, with a centre parting. She sat on the edge of her chair. When she stood she reached Viktor’s chest, yet she was broad, her shoulders square, her neck ringed with faint lines, her skin dark, with a small but prominent mole under her nose.
‘Patience is a vice,’ Tendai said.
‘Three months, and they already want to leave the union.’ Gary was a stalwart organiser and union representative, but in these meetings – the Militant Caucus – he posed as the liberal union man, always seeking the counter-argument, imagining himself in an agony of contortion and metamorphosis. ‘We need to defuse the anger – go round and talk to them. I am available. I will lean on Terry to pressure BCW.’
Viktor sat by the door and listened to Wayne’s handsome American English, the short, informed sentences always clear. ‘You heard Moreblessing, Gary, the system is broken. It’s a joke. The forum is a joke. It keeps Terry, senior management, BCW and the vice chancellor happy, but it has delivered nothing. The system is broken; we have to do something now.’ Wayne was the youngest in the room. He was also the anomaly, a twenty-five-year-old MA student dispatched by his well-connected family from New York, his idiomatic Spanish learnt from the family’s Mexican maid and nanny. He was Moreblessing’s height, with a stubbled chin, receding, short-clipped hair and red, dry, blotched skin.
People, Viktor thought, are simple, well-meaning, goodwilled. We want to be treated fairly and if we are, we glow. It takes so little to make any of us feel the community and solidarity of our species. The thought made him feel proud: that he’d given Tendai his office, that he had, even with his mute presence, now played a part in this worthy battle to demystify oppression and expose the university.
Tendai spoke after Wayne. ‘Gary, man, our role is not to defuse the anger of the cleaners. Do you understand that, when we’re not paid, we don’t eat? That is not a metaphor.’ He turned and looked at Viktor. ‘When the cleaners and security guards are not paid, how do we send money back for our families? We need to strike, we have to.’
Some sentences are meant to hang in the air. Tendai had thrown down the word strike as if placing in front of them a complete, fully built crossroads. Wayne and Gary blinked.
Tendai brought them back to life with a deep laugh. ‘You Brits, you fools! I mention strike action and it stuns you into silence and paralysis. Don’t do a Terry on me – the strike weapon as last resort, we don’t want to disrupt the Forum, our good relations with BCW and Human Resources. Bullshit, man. You know, years ago in South Africa I remember wondering why, after more than a hundred years of working-class struggle, the UK had not delivered us from capitalism. We looked to the trade union movement in the UK, but you are completely enslaved!’ Tendai’s tone was severe and bitter.
‘I’m American,’ Wayne asserted.
‘You’ll be denounced,’ Gary said. With his pure activism, free of party dogma, he saw the union’s only purpose as its members. The hectoring full-time officials were occasionally useful, normally not. If the cleaners, security guards, Tendai and Moreblessing decided to strike, then by virtue of this simple, democratic formula he would support them.
‘Denounced by who?’ Moreblessing asked. ‘The union will support us.’
Though Wayne did not really understand Viktor, he appreciated his passive support, the blog posts he’d written on the campaign and that Wayne had edite – removing the references to philosophy, the long descriptions of slavery, the master, hermeneutics, the call for therapeutic violence – and turned them into leaflets. Wayne also understood practice, shorn of ideology and political obfuscation. To this end he had, more than anyone else, recruited members to the union,
spent months with the cleaners, speaking in Spanish, preparing multilingual leaflets and translating union propaganda. His strange hybrid family of wealthy New York liberals had taught him discipline and perseverance. His mother, a brilliant organiser of soup kitchens, charities and campaigns, was always holding on, waiting for Lefty, for a new campaigning leader of the Democrats. Someone more like Roosevelt, like JFK. Wayne was committed to changing lives today and realising small, possible dreams tomorrow – not the tomorrow of theory, the New Era, the Promised Land, but the simple day-after-today. He didn’t understand Viktor’s abstractions.
‘Will the outsourced workers support the strike?’ Wayne asked.
‘More than that, if we don’t strike now, soon, we will lose members, dozens, and then they will strike anyway.’ Tendai’s goading was never cruel. He stretched and yawned loudly, clicking his back, then flipped his shoes up and pushed his feet in.
‘I’ll spread the word. The cleaners are meeting at lunch. I will need Wayne to translate for Maria, Juliette and the others. The union will be behind us,’ Moreblessing said as she stood. She lifted her hand above her head for a high five and Tendai slapped it.
Viktor stayed by the door, still distracted. ‘What do you think, Vik?’ Gary asked. Viktor was staring at the group, his eyes stinging. He imagined the men’s penises, each sliding in and out like trombones, unaware as they carried on speaking. Maybe this is what Tendai meant, the cock as a metaphor for the strike, a code for organising, for expansion, for growing the struggle.
‘Viktor?’ Gary repeated.
Viktor surfaced. ‘I am with you. All of you. I will write a piece, a satirical article attacking the vice chancellor.’