Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation ***


Involved in a purposeful way

I was given this book after having seen Invictus, Clint Eastwood’s take on John Carlin’s study of the rugby and the Springbok’s part in uniting South Africa. The differences in the two were about what you’d expect: Carlin takes a measured look at Mandela’s history and the makings of the year that brough the Springboks to the World Cup of rugby, and Eastwood takes a more — and it’s weird to say this about Eastwood — emotional. It skips over much of the history in favor of the uniting tension and emotion of the game.

And that’s pretty much how it ought to have turned out, in my opinion. Packing the movie full of historical background would have been impossible for a two-hour movie, but in a book, it’s the perfect way to cultivate richness around the story and give the reader a broader, fuller perspective.

Both Carlin and Eastwood seem to err a little too far in favor of the big emotional swell. It’s easy to forget, reading this novel, that South Africa still has its problems. It did manage a miraculous feat the year that Mandela was elected, but this book adds a spin that smacks a bit too much of sunshine and rainbows. Meanwhile, as critics at Slate pointed out, Eastwood neglects to explain many of the basic fundamentals of rugby during the movie, which causes its final moments of tension to ring a little false.

But this is all fairly gentle criticism, and I believe the book was well worth the time, especially if you’re like me and don’t read as much about other parts of the world as you ought. Carlin’s book, for all its unabashedly sunshiny moments, is very pragmatic and not without a huge pile of research (not the mention the fact that Carlin spent a good deal of time in South Africa prior to writing the book). Like a good writer, he makes the mountain of information manageable, comprehensive and interesting.

Carlin’s work also has the advantage of being about a very specific period in time and not, say, the lifespan of Queen Elizabeth I (though I do like reading about that, too). By narrowing his book down to such a specific end, he makes you feel as though you are reading with purpose, towards a goal, and not just overviewing a life or period. It makes the act of historical reading proactive rather than studious. All in all, a quirky read from a competent writer and a reporter. As for Eastwood’s film, I’ll let you judge that for yourself.

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