Book of the Week: The Institute for Taxi Poetry
In Imraan Coovadia's latest novel, The Institute for Taxi Poetry, protagonist Adam Ravens narrates the streets of Cape Town in what he claims is the "hardest week" of his life.
Adam compartmentalises his seven-day narrative into certain problems, some of which include: Zeb, his errant son who has a gift for evading his father's watchful eye; the potential of a student protest, led by the fiery Antonia, within the Institute for Taxi Poetry, where Adam is a lecturer; and what Adam feels is the undeserved awarding of a literary prize by the Taxi Institute to Gerome Geromian, an expat who addresses people as "pudding" and "buttercup".
Adam's most perplexing problem, however, is the murder (or perhaps even assassination) of his mentor, and doyen of taxi poetry, Solly Greenfields. The novel begins with Solly's end and the mystery of his death is the novel's key preoccupation. Characters refer to him, hate him, revere him, yet it seems that we have been introduced to this colourful personality before it was too late.
Early on, the novel explains that Solly was unpopular among the Taxi Owners Association not merely for his position as a taxi poet - taxi poets' philosophies differ from those of taxi owners - but also because of his founding of the Road Safety Council, an innovation not looked upon favourably by taxi owners.
Did they do it? Are taxi poets being targeted? Despite the novel's dark subject matter, Coovadia takes the refreshingly less common road of illuminating his text with humour, especially in his handling of the taxi industry, an industry which has not entered the South African literary canon as pervasively as it has our lives.
Coovadia's world of Cape Town's taxis, a corrupt business with dubious connections to the country's ruling party (which the novel names the Congress Party) is one that is simultaneously familiar and new. The author occasionally pokes fun at the dilapidated state of the rickety South African taxi and its seemingly miraculous ability to seat up to three times its legal capacity.
However, Coovadia also shows that Cape Town's taxi industry is composed of fierce hierarchies. Firstly, there are taxi drivers. Drivers are promoted to sliding-door men, and the most gifted among these are the taxi poets. Adam is a taxi poet. But what, exactly, is taxi poetry?
Taxi poems are poems which are stencilled onto, mostly, Toyota Hi-Ace minibus taxis. In the book it is an art that is taught at the University of Cape Town's Institute of Taxi Poetry, a high academic environment which is constantly undercut, but with great affection, by Coovadia's prose.
Coovadia characterises the world of academia as a place that is hysterical, detached and preoccupied with reading the world in abstractions. Take, for example, Judy, a lecturer at the institute who hardly travels on taxis and speaks of "minibuses of the mind and conceptual routes rather than the physical thing".
Taxi poetry specialises in making heroes and heroines of the city's most lowly residents, and in seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary.
In this novel, poetry gains a kind of accessibility in its publicised animated state whereby all members of the city are privy to artistic representation. Art, Coovadia seems to infer, possesses the ability to traverse our racial, cultural and intellectual schisms.
Coovadia attempts to prove this point in ways that are complex without ever feeling heavy, and is proficient in his handling of these themes while linking them to an entertaining plot. His skill is especially evident in the novel's final chapter in which many of the narrative strands are elegantly tied together.
This is a fun and insightful ride, and is a fine follow-up to Coovadia's great High Low and In-Between.
- The Institute for Taxi Poetry, published by Umuzi, R195