Title: Invictus: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation
Author: John Carlin
Release Date: November 18, 2009
Genre: Non-Fiction, History
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Nelson Mandela is a living legend, the man who is credited with shepherding South Africa through its difficult transition from apartheid to democracy. Many say that the only reason the country did not erupt into a bloody and devastating civil war is because of Mandela’s leadership. In Invictus, John Carlin examines the turbulent period in South African history through the prism of rugby.
Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, has quickly become one of my favorite movies, so when I found out it was based on a book, I was curious. After all, it’s easy to tell that the movie’s story has been simplified in order to be understood, so I wanted to know what really happened during the 1995 World Cup. Did Mandela actually play that big of a role? I am also ashamedly not well versed in recent South African history, so I was curious about the larger politics surrounding the event. Just how bad were race relations at the time?
John Carlin answered all my questions and more in his book Invictus: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation (originally published as Playing the Enemy). What both surprised and delighted me about this book was that it was about so much more than the Rugby World Cup. While that subject takes up the bulk of the movie, it doesn’t even come into play until the last fourth of Carlin’s book. Instead, Carlin briefs the reader on Mandela’s life and helps the reader understand how he became such an integral player in South African politics. The book begins with Mandela’s release from prison and shows how Mandela managed to work his way up to guiding and leading his country.
Carlin also puts a human face on Nelson Mandela. Mandela is such an extraordinary person, capable of forgiveness and understanding beyond most bounds. It’s the reason he was able to keep the peace, that he didn’t try to punish or exact revenge. He demonstrated amazing compassion, as well as an exceptional shrewdness for the game of politics. However, he is just a man, and Carlin makes sure the reader knows this. Carlin doesn’t try to deify Mandela; he just shows what an amazing feat he accomplished.
I was amazed at how engaging Invictus was. It’s fast paced and easy to read, unlike most history books. Carlin has a great writing style and he keeps the tension and narrative suspense heightened through the story. Even though you know what is eventually going to happen, Carlin makes sure you are hooked from beginning to end. This is a great little primer on recent South African history; whether you know the country intimately or, like me, are sad to say you know little about it beyond Mandela and apartheid, this is a book I highly recommend.