A political novel that gives new perspective on world

The World Turned Upside Down

The cover page of the book 'The World Turned Upside Down' by Leo Zeilig.

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • This book is a thriller, if you like; it is a political indictment of capitalism, if you prefer.
  • It is about love and hate, heart-breakers and heart-broken, if that is what interests you.

Book: The World Turned Upside Down

Author: Leo Zeilig

Publisher: Books Farmhouse & Publishers

Year: 2021

Pages: 342

Reviewer: Issa Shivji

This is a political novel with a novel approach; not amenable to a normal kind of sober academic review. There is nothing like this I have ever read before. It is a thriller, if you like; it is a political indictment of capitalism, if you prefer; it is about love and hate, heart-breakers and heart-broken, if that is what interests you.

Bianca Ndour is a brilliant academic. A persuasive rabble-rouser, a detective out to solve serial murder of the global elite; a conspirator or an accomplice or simply a reveller of these murders, it is hard to tell. She is an insatiable lover, a cruel heart-breaker, a dare-devil out to confront and expose the ignominies of the system.

She refuses to see the world the way you and me and others are accustomed to see. She shows you the world turned upside down as she sees it and, at the end of it all, succeeds in her mission. You begin to imitate her, not mimic or mock or ridicule, which is your first reflex. She makes you overcome your reflex and makes you reflect instead.

The novel is racy. Its plot is crazy and insane – that is what you feel as you race through it. But when you are through its 342 pages, reluctantly put it aside and take a moment to reflect, you cannot help but conclude that it is you, the reader, who is crazy and insane in your failure to see how insane, inhuman and irrational is the capitalist order under which labours the world you inhabit.

I failed to write a normal review; instead I reproduce my notes that I wrote spontaneously and sent them to the author, Leo.

Here then is my Review Note.

“What a novel Leo! What shall I say? Anything sober, academic would fall far short of what I feel. I’ll say things crazy, probably not crazy enough to match the nuanced craziness of the book. So here we go.

"Just finished reading it in My Little Room (MLR). No insult intended. Read the whole of Mahmood’s there. MLR is silent, not necessarily serene. Welcoming. Relieves me of toxic; of the hustle and bustle, the pretenses and pollution, the hypocrises and hypertensions, the greed and the cunning of the fisis (hyenas) of the world. Gladly takes away the faeces, where it is disposed of, is in the hands of what MLR calls: PmPs (profit-motivated-polluters) or pimps. Mercilessly kills marine life. Unashamedly billows stench deep from its bowels. Alas! laments MLR. ‘My fate is sealed by sprawling cities. My sisters in the fields, open, relaxed, free of the prejudices of privacy act responsibly, committedly, relieving the likes of him/her, fertilising mother earth to enhance fertility. I envy my sisters’, MLR sobs.

Hey!Hey! What am I saying! What about TWTUD? Well, what about it? Is this not what tweetletud has done to me? Dragged me into Bianca’s language classes - here I am learning her language, hopefully not her ways and means of tweetletud (Turning The World Upside Down). Anyway, who is Bianca? A Revolutionary, anarchist, communist; marxist, blanquist, polpotist; egoistist, therapist, serial murderer of lovers’ hearts…. internationalist, racist. Who is BB? Who knows? Does EB know? No. Does Kaarina know? No. Does Andrew Ashley the custodian VC of all CVs know? No. Does the burly bullying Marc know? No. Does Jenny, half-lover, half-investigator, know? No. Who knows Bianca? Do I, the reader, know? No. Does Leo, her creator know? No.

Who is Bianca? A frankestein let loose to destroy the world? To turn it upside down. To re-create it right side up. To fire it to ashes. To birth it anew. Which world? The world that she inhabits in London, in Johannesburg, in Cape Town, in Senegal, in the Shell compound in Nigeria? Which world? None of these? The world that lives in her fantasy or her fantasy of the world she lives in? Which world? Does it matter? After all which world does Bianca live in? The world that you and me and Leo inhabit or the caricature of the world Bianca has created? What does it matter? After all don’t we all live in and live Bianca’s caricatured world while hypocritically pretending otherwise? The caricature is the world we live in. There is no other real world - the real is the caricature, the caricature is the real.

Does TWTUD have a message? No. Why should it? I read 1981 and I read The Present Day and I read the Present Day and I read 1981. Emotions ebb and flow. Adrenalin rushes in the veins. Pressure rises. Pressure subsides. Love and hate, rage and anger, anguish and anxiety, all mixed together and remixed. I keep reading, I want to read more and more, new or not, always exciting, never boring until MLR gently and politely nudges me out: ‘Your two-penny worth of time is up.’ I close the book. Sentence after sentence of response, of comment, roll out on my mind’s notepad as I’m brushing my toothless gums. None of it can I recall now. No sooner am I done, emotions have evaporated, thoughts have flown away, the mind is clouded with mundane things-to-do notes. Bianca has all but receded into the oblivion of the subconscious until the next early morning when I recluse in the comfort of MLR. Does that speak to the fate of the book? Perhaps. If so, so what? In turning the world upside down aren’t you pulling the subconscious to the realm of the conscious? Isn’t that precisely the mission of the book!

When I wrote the above, pinpointing that the book had a mission, but no message, I was only a few pages - 20 to be precise - away from the end. Those 20 pages changed my take. The book has both a mission and a message. Whether the message - that acts of individual murders (remember Naxalites of India) and the incredible bravado of an indivudual can birth a social movement - is credible is a different matter. On the other hand, just as the mission is mixed so is the message. Reading between the lines - like the idealism of students and the materiality of the working people and their place in a revolutionary movement, moment - the message, too, is brilliantly mixed. By pausing a mixed mission and a mixed message, it leaves the reader, after wandering over diverse, conflicting, contradictory, crazy, insane 342 pages, to ponder. A brilliant structure for a work of fiction, the result of magnificent imagination yet not a figment of imagination, to let the reader wander and wonder and then ponder and keep pondering.

You have produced a great political novel, a biting social satire, a wonderfully crafted artistic caricature, more real than the real, all in one, comrade. To end with congratulations would be an anti-climax. So let me end where we may rest on the crest of the climax.

Issa Shivji is a Professor Emeritus, University of Dar es Salaam

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