Andres Laszlo Jr.
The Challenge is inspired by my father’s (Andres Laszlo Sr.) bestselling My Uncle Jacinto/Mi Tio Jacinto which was also a blockbuster movie (starring Pablito Calvo & Antonio Sica and directed by Ladislao Vajda). About the original story, a prominent Paris newspaper wrote; "Nothing like this has been written since The Little Prince." In my hands: Madrid becomes Cape Town; La Quinta, Mandela Park; 1940s, 2010s; bullfighting, boxing, and 17,000 words, 75,000. However, it very much remains a book for children of all ages. Watch the VIDEO.
Though this has been designed for "children of all ages," if the child is very young - as the text sometimes treats of delicate subjects – the story should be read by a grown-up. However, that oughtn’t to be a problem, because my intention has all along been to make the text leveled and as entertaining for the grown-up as for the child. See the 70 illustrations here.
The Challenge is about Baba and his nephew Tiger; it covers a decisive day in their lives. The hero is the bond between the two and the heavy is separation. The setting is Cape Town in South Africa: downtown, Mandela Park Township, Hout Bay and the Old Stadium.
The characters. (i) Baba - a prematurely old, rheumatic, not too bright, drunken used-to-be prodigy boxer with only a bit of imagined honour, a fantastic speed and the upbringing of his nephew left to justify his existence - erroneously gets selected for the champ-part in a ‘Challenge-the-Champ boxing extravaganza’, where old used-to-be champions can be challenged by the public. Baba, confronted by paradox - mainly to prove to his nephew, whom he believes he is looking after, that he is not the down-and-out drunkard that he very well knows everybody tells the boy that he is - accepts. (ii) Tiger- a cuddly, bright, fast and fun-loving eight-year-old who has so far successfully dodged school and who by far is the more street-wise of the two - knows that it’s he who is looking after his uncle.
The beginning. In the township, it rains, and Tiger builds a waterwheel, nearly drowning his sleeping uncle. The letter from the boxing promoter arrives but is not taken seriously. Tiger and Baba travel to the town center for their usual scavenging. Collecting cigarette butts, they spot a poster proclaiming Baba to be the champ to be challenged. This can no longer be neglected, and an upset Baba calls in on the promoter to protest but ends up accepting the champ-part. Baba, too proud to accept assistance, pretends he has got the required boxing-gear.
The middle is about the exigencies, tricks and petty crimes by which they try to acquire the money required to rent the money, all while the danger of separation - in the guise of a fake-watch-puller, a musician, a police, a children’s court, a real criminal, a professional hit-man, etc. - gets ever more real. Their day is seen against a background of the whole spectra of Cape Town criminality: from reusing stamps to a million-dollar diamond scam. As a last resort Baba, dishonoring himself, attempts to sell a fake watch with Tiger’s assistance; they are caught. Baba is about to go to jail and Tiger to be sent to a children’s court. Dishonour and separation seem a fact, the gear shop is about to close, and Baba is - amicably and logically enough to convince us - told that he should ‘give the poor kid a chance’: that he’s no good for Tiger.
The end starts as Baba, devastated, is sent off with a warning. Next Tiger wangles out of trouble, soft-talks the gear-renter into giving Baba credit, locates his uncle, and gets him to the clothes shop. Now we follow them, Baba dressed to fight, on the bus to the stadium where Baba nicely deals with the first opponents – he’s still fast. But then he gets carried away by his desire for honor, and he makes the mistake of accepting the challenge of an athlete twice his size who’s sent to kill him; in this challenger, the danger of separation takes its final physical shape. Baba puts up a famous fight, but is, eventually, down, out and made a fool. Baba has lost what justified his existence - his honor – and Tiger has witnessed his ultimate humiliation; Baba hesitantly walks up to take farewell of his crying nephew.
Don’t be silly, of course, it has a happy ending if you chose to read it that way.
‘Drugs!’ the detective exclaimed, ‘This is enough to put you away.’
Sipho’s father looked as if trying to look unworried, ‘Cool it man; it’s just a few grams of weed.’
‘Few? There are at least ten.’
‘It’s exactly four point nine, it’s just for my personal use, and you’ve got no proof I’m dealing.’
‘Shall we take him in?’ asked the police officer who was kneeling down next to Sipho. ‘I mean he’s obviously guilty as hell.’
‘There’s not enough to charge him, and he knows it.’
‘Shouldn’t we check the weight?’
‘No use, his scales are probably better than ours, so unless we can find the rest…’
‘But we can prove he was here, the wholesaler.’
‘Yes, but not that he bought from him, and this doesn’t look like wholesale packaging; all we can do is to confiscate it.’
‘It’s repacked; that’s how he sells it; he’s made these packages himself.’
‘We know that, and he knows that, but how do we prove it?’
The police officer looked at the boy, ‘Can’t we question him?’
‘He’s just a baby, I’m not sure we’re allowed to.’
‘You stop that!’ Sipho’s father exclaimed, ‘you have no right to question him! He’s only five and too young to give evidence!’
The detective, from behind, carefully lowered his baton so as to rest on the protesting man’s shoulder.
Sipho’s father immediately silenced.
The police officer looked at Sipho with a big smile, ‘You look like a good boy; you don’t mind if I ask a few questions, do you?’
Sipho – five, lean, long black hair and big brown eyes – said nothing but glared at the police officer angrily and suspiciously.
‘Your father met with a man here yesterday, a big white man with a ponytail, didn’t he?’
‘No, he really didn’t. There was nobody here – there really wasn’t.’
‘We know that because three of your neighbors saw him.’
‘Yes, both as he came and as he left.’
Sipho looked down and bit his lip.
‘And we’ve found this paper wrap. Inside it, there’s some really bad stuff.’
Sipho looked away; away from the paper wrap, his father, and the police officers.
‘What’s inside probably came from a plastic bag; did you see where your father hid that bag?’
Sipho didn’t answer.
‘Did you see if the man who sold your father that plastic bag sold him anything else?’
‘I… I didn’t see anything.’
‘But you must have seen the man who sold your father a bag full of drugs; the man who promised to bring you a bicycle next time.’
‘I…’ Sipho stopped dead and looked suspiciously at the police officer. ‘I didn’t see anything.’
‘But you live here…’
‘So how come you didn’t see anything?’
‘Because they what?’
‘Because they… they threw me out.’
Sipho pointed at his father, ‘He! He threw me out. He does it all the time!’
The police officer looked angrily at the boy.
‘He did,’ Sipho assured the police officer, ‘he did,’
As the police officers could find no more drugs, they eventually left the boy and the dealer.
Sipho’s father looked lovingly at his son, ‘You’re such a good little boy,’ he said lovingly, all while pretending not to notice Sipho’s inquiries about the bicycles and gears, ‘and I will always look after you.’
As the police car could be heard driving off, Sipho’s father peeped through the window to make sure both police officers really were in the car, they were. Then - after quelling a violent coughing attack and carefully checking that no other representatives of the law were staying behind - he surreptitiously opened the front door and approached the remains of an old “Volkswagen Beatle” that was parked in the front yard. Sipho’s father opened the hood and - after performing some rather advanced acrobatics – managed to recover a plastic bag from deep inside the back of the wreck. Back inside - having locked the door behind him - he opened a wrapper from inside the bag and with shaking hands, he mixed some of its content with tobacco.
Sipho watched the paper that his father had coughed in; there was blood on it - lots of it.
The hands of Sipho’s father shook violently as he started to roll a cigarette.
His father had told Sipho that the blood was from having swallowed a diamond at his work in the mines that sometimes cut him in the stomach.
Sipho couldn’t understand why anyone would swallow a diamond. Why, when we could have sold it instead and gotten lots of money?
His father’s hands shook even more as he tried to finish rolling the cigarette.
At first, his father’s coughing had worsened by the month then by the week, but now, Sipho felt, it worsened ever faster, and today it seemed to be troubling him even more than yesterday.
‘This time… this time I might be gone…’ Sipho’s father watched the smoke tunneling out through his mouth and up his nostrils – looking really silly – ‘this time I might be gone for a long time… a very long time.’
‘You m… m… m… mustn’t go, I…’
‘Hey! You stop that!’
His father told him that the coughing was nothing to worry about – that it came from the dust in the mines and the diamond he had swallowed – and that he soon would be all right again. Though Sipho very much wanted to believe his father, he didn’t. His father often lied to him, and the constant complaints seemed to contradict his father’s optimism. Also, Sipho remembered his mother; he had liked his mother very much and he still sometimes nearly believed his father when he assured him that she would one day return. She too had coughed, more and more, until one day she had just disappeared. ‘What “that”?’
‘That silly stuttering.’
‘I’m not stuttering!’
‘I’m not going to leave you, so you can so stop that!’
Sipho had missed his mother very much right from the beginning, but it was only as he realized that she probably would never come back that he had first started to stutter. It wasn’t a bad stutter, and he only did it when he feared that maybe his father too didn’t like him and was about to leave; Sipho only stuttered when he felt that he was about to be left without anybody. ‘I didn’t; I really didn’t.’
‘It’s all right,’ his father assured, smiling and again ruffling the boy’s hair, ‘You’ll be fine.’
Sipho hated having his hair ruffled.
Sipho’s father inhaled deeply.
His father smoked one of those funny-smelling cigarettes, in part made up from what the police officers had been looking for. His father said it helped against the coughing, but Sipho figured it only made him silly.
‘Your half-uncle Baba,’ Sipho’s father said - sounding as if about to say something he didn’t really mean – ‘he’s not such a bad dude as I might sometimes have led you to believe; he’s actually...’ Sipho’s father swallowed hard, ‘he’s actually quite cool.’
Sipho adored his half-uncle Baba or ‘the black guy,’ as his father used to call him. His half-uncle lived in a very luxurious mansion, his freezer was always full of Magnum ice cream bars, and Baba was also a very world famous boxer. Sipho boxed with his half-uncle every time they met, and he always won, and because his half-uncle didn’t want the people from the newspapers to learn that Sipho could knock him out whenever he wanted to, Sipho and his half-uncle - after some serious discussions - had arrived at an agreement. They had agreed that as long as Sipho didn’t tell how easily he could knock out his half-uncle - who had knocked out somebody who was ranked the sixth best boxer in the world - his half-uncle would keep his freezer full of Magnum ice cream bars, exclusively for Sipho’s benefit.
‘Yes, he’s actually quite all right.’
Sipho gave a queering look; it was very unlike his father to talk of his half-uncle in complimentary terms. As a matter of fact his father normally only remembered Sipho’s half-uncle when in some sort of trouble, especially when in money trouble or in trouble with the police who seemed to have a special and very unfair dislike for his father.
‘I’m gonna go back to the mines soon; how would you like to stay with the Black guy… Sorry, let me rephrase that; how would you like to stay with your heroic half-uncle Baba? I actually could be gone for longer than before; a little longer. ’
Sipho wasn’t even close to stuttering but he nearly said ‘Wow!’ – he didn’t really like to stay with his granny who didn’t have a fridge and who didn’t even know what a Magnum was - yet he sensed that ‘Wow!’ would be a bad thing to say, so instead he just nodded his head and attempted to look really sad and serious, ‘Maybe that would be best.’
‘We might have to talk him into it, but that should be easy as pie; he doesn’t have the backbone to refuse you anything.’
Sipho wanted to defend his half-uncle – to say that his half-uncle had lots of backbone – but again he sensed that wouldn’t have been a good idea.
Sipho’s father stood up, hid the bag from the car, told the boy to come along, closed the door behind them and started to walk towards where the minibusses stopped. ‘He’s got no backbone, that’s his real problem.’
‘Are we going to visit half-uncle Baba?’
‘Yes, he’s fighting some young kid tonight, so you must ask for tickets.’
‘Do you think Mister Kipling will let you in?’
His father pondered the question a while, but as they arrived at where the minibusses stopped he had found the solution, ‘We climb the wall, then I’ll pick the lock to the Rolls, and we wait inside.’
“Will you tell me how he got it?’
‘The tooth that hangs around his neck.’
‘That silly thing that makes him thinks he’s better and more honorable than everybody else?’
‘And why do you think I’d tell you now of all times?’
‘Because you seem nice today.’
‘So… so you really wanna know?’
‘Yes! I want to know very much! Yes please!’
‘He took it from a leopard; he fought it and won, that’s how he got it.’
‘He fought a leopard?’
‘Wow!’ Sipho imagined his half-uncle boxing with a leopard, knock it out with a perfect uppercut and extract a tooth. Then Sipho said it three more times, rather loud and in quick succession, ‘Wow! Wow! Wow!’
‘He probably had some pal hidden in a tree with a rifle as backup.’
Then – as Sipho realized that his father didn’t like to see him so impressed by his half-uncle – he added, ‘When I grow up, then I’m gonna box with a tiger.’
Sipho’s father - his irises the size of peanuts and tears rolling down his cheeks – smiled happily, as he exhaled the smoke, ‘To hell with what they all say; you are my boy after all.’
Sipho could see that his words had pleased his father very much, so he decided to say them once more, ‘When I grow up I’m gonna box with a tiger… and I’m gonna win.’
That’s how Sipho, the day his half-uncle was about to box the teenager – a fight that would turn his uncle from Superman to a hobo with no claim to honor other than his promise never more to box - made his dying father very happy and that’s also how Sipho got his name changed to Tiger.