Heart of the Hunter
Deon Meyer
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Heart of the Hunter

Deon Meyer
Little, Brown
512 pages
July 2005
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Government surveillance is activated when an old acquaintance contacts Thobela Mpayipheli, asking for his assistance in delivering a computer disk at a certain place and time; with this action, the agency starts tracking all activity, assessing security and setting interception teams in place, so finely tuned an operation as to be considered error-proof.

Thobela Mpayipheli, a six-foot-three giant of a man with a gentle heart, is a former member of Umkhonto we Sizwe (“the spear of the nation”), part of the South African black resistance when the country was fighting for racial balance and equality. Thobela, aka Tiny, has made a covenant with himself and those he loves to put the violence forever behind him; he has finally attained a level of comfort with his tumultuous past, living quietly with his woman and her young son. But when his old friend makes a request, it is a call to honor that must be met.

Thobela, as would be expected, acts as his conscience dictates, aware of what is at stake: should he allow his natural instincts to resurface, the violent self could reassert itself, obliterating the work of the last few years. The unknown quantity in the equation, Mpayipheli is the one man to challenge the raison d’etre of a yet untested government agency, one designed to address just such a security emergency.

The complex security of the South African government, after years of internecine warfare and destabilization, has finally combined into one agency, the PIU, Presidential Intelligence Agency. Developed by the PIU from an intelligence-specific prototype, the Reaction Unit (RU) falls somewhere between a counter-terrorist organization and hostage rescue unit.

While waiting for an opportunity to activate the RU, its creators entertain dark dreams of redemption from a shameful past in South African human relations and envision new beginnings for this struggling nation, using priority-specific teams to tackle individual security and intelligence problems. Like all bureaucracies, once activated, everything proceeds according to plan. Regardless of human complications, these intelligence units are incapable of subtlety, nor can they change direction to adapt to exigent circumstances. Whatever and whoever is in the way is simply collateral damage.

“Contact. Action. Control.“ Tiger Mazibuko, the leader of the Reaction Team, has been training his unit relentlessly, preparing for action under orders from a single supervisor, Janina Mentz, the only white woman in a powerful and visible position in this government. Tiger lives for the thrill of the chase and the perfect adversary, a man who challenges all his impressive skills. For him, Mpayipheli is a worthy opponent.

As long as Mentz pursues her methodical dehumanization of Mpayipheli, Tiger can make dispassionate decisions in good conscience, placing his team in advantageous positions, their only task to stop Thobela and intercept his delivery. Throughout, Mentz perches in the catbird seat, answerable only to her Director, monitoring the machinations of the RU as it cranks into overdrive tracking Mpaypheli. While Mpayipheli’s only desire is to fulfill his mission and return home, circumstances conspire to isolate him, forcing him to inhabit that state of existence he endured as a killing machine. This is a high-stakes chess game, and it is deadly serious.

The contretemps between the individual and the power of the state balances in fragile stasis before chaos erupts and the forces collide, as special interests, driven by self-preservation and motivated by an arrogance bred of power, are corrupted by an insidious moral decay that destroys the integrity of the agency itself.

Meyer’s complex characterizations are beautifully rendered, both introspective and compassionate, revealing the underlying humanity that is at war with rigorous indoctrination. These people are multi-faceted, dealing with the demands of duty versus personal integrity. Unfortunately, their human flaws render them fallible, albeit far too powerful for the security of the individual. Meyer uncovers the infinite capacity of the heart for forgiveness, juxtaposed with the violence that destroys innocence and foments intolerance and distrust.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Luan Gaines, 2004

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