Playing the Game of Camouflage Sometimes life seems to be all about being able to blend in, whether it be through staying at the back of the crowd, or standing at the front. Life seems to become a sort of game of who can be the most unique, or the most different. In Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One, Peekay, a boy with a passion for boxing, undergoes the struggles of growing up in a racially divided South Africa and develops his camouflage to survive the hardships of life. Peekay’s adaptation and camouflage are symbolic of his mindset and how he changes his way of thinking to ultimately achieve the power of one.
Peekay receives his first lesson of survival when he attends a boarding school, where he is the only English boy. He is subjected to constant torment and torture by the others, who are lead by an 11-year old, whom Peekay calls “the Judge”. Peekay stands out among the rest and is attacked because of his differences, which leads him to adopt a camouflage in order to survive. He mentions, that he must “adapt, blend, become part of the landscape, develop a camouflage, be a rock or a leaf stick insect, try in every way to be an Afrikaner. (24)
Peekay’s rapid listing of these necessities instills a feeling of panic and desperation as he seeks a way to survive. Peekay is the prey in an environment of animosity, only the environment is that of a boarding school, and he must hide his English background, blending in as an Afrikaner. He also learns that he must hide his intelligence, as his teacher Miss du Plessis attacks him after he reveals his knowledge of the times tables.
Afterwards, Peekay tells himself, “Look what happens when you forget your camouflage, Pisskop. ” (35) His reference of his name as Pisskop” shows that he doesn’t seem to have his own identity — even his name is given from someone else. Peekay’s experience with the hostility of not only the other children but the adults as well serve to enhance his idea that he must disappear and become invisible in order to survive, even though he suffers. In his first encounter with boarding schools and older children, Peekay is forced to try to slink into the shadows in order to survive. However, with the help of several mentors he is able to work his way out of this mindset.
Doc, along with the other mentors, begin to break down Peekay’s camouflage, and allow him to start to feel more comfortable with himself. Peekay says, “I quickly earned a reputation, rather unjustly, for being clever. Doc had persuaded me to drop my camouflage and not to play dumb. ” (167) However, he calls the compliments “rather unjust”, showing he is not as secure as he should be. Peekay says that he has “dropped his camouflage”, but in fact he gains a replacement camouflage, one that protects his vulnerabilities by overemphasizing his strong traits.
Peekay’s “enormous need to win touched on a whole heap of other responses… While I didn’t think of it as camouflage, I know now that it was, that I kept myself protected by being out in front. ” (370) Peekay, for the first time in his life, extends his knowledge and strength beyond himself and leaps forward. However, he still retains a small but profound fear of losing, and his way of protecting this vulnerability is by being too far in front of everyone else. The feeling of being the best is its own camouflage, one that hides his lesser side but still is not Peekay’s complete self.
The camouflage fails once Peekay is unable to earn the Rhodes scholarship, which no one expected — he seemed to be a winner, but now that he had finally “lost”, they remain unable to accept that he had simply failed, and “quickly convinced themselves of some sort of plot. ” Peekay was built as an extension of his mentors and their advice and commitments towards him. Even though he finally fails and reveals the other side of himself, they are still fooled into thinking that Peekay is invincible when he still has weaknesses.
Though Peekay reached success using his camouflage of winning, he feels disconnected with his true self, as he was not himself but built by those around him. In his work at the mines, he feels his camouflage beginning to fade, as he doesn’t feel the pressure of accommodating to what others want him to be: “My camouflage… was now threatening to become the complete man. It was time to slough the mottled and cunningly contrived outer skin and emerge as myself, to face the risk of exposure, to regain the power of one. (488)
Though he acknowledges that his camouflage was clever and effective, it hid the truth of who Peekay really was — in his words, “the masquerade had become more important than the truth. ” (488). Peekay had become all too focused on mastering his camouflage, protecting himself when there was no need, and hiding the truth. He must face the “risk of exposure”, or disappointing his mentors and family for not following their expectations, but it was in order to “become the complete man”, one that camouflage would not be able to show.
Camouflage was useful for Peekay to survive the various systems he was forced under — school and a racist society. However, the true way to survive was not to just live with it, but for him to shape himself into the person he wanted to be, instead of adapting to what others forced him to be. Through the course of his life, Peekay learns how to use camouflage to survive whatever life throws at him. He begins by blending in with the crowd, being able to seem like any normal child and masking his differences.
Then, he learns how to camouflage and adapt himself to his mentors’ expectations and succeed, a complete change from his past self. Neither of these grant him control of the power of one, however. Skills of camouflage are useful, maybe necessary to simply survive, to get by in life. However, as Peekay learns, in order to truly succeed, to go beyond the boundaries of society and achieve greatness, for others or just yourself, it is necessary to break free of camouflage, to understand yourself, and to create your own destiny.