The Miramichi Reader is an excellent site that champions Canadian Literature and small publishers, with a focus on Atlantic Canada. For the third time, James Fisher and I are doing a book review swap for which James has chosen to read and review The Afrikaner by Arianna Dagnino.
First guest post: Mountain by Ursula Pflug
Second guest post: The Madrigal by Dian Day
Having known and worked with many white South Africans (or, Afrikaners) over the years, I was familiar with their reasons for choosing Canada as a place of permanent residence, but what I was not that familiar with was the past history of their peoples. Arianna Dagnino’s The Afrikaner (2019, Guernica Editions)* does much to inform the uninformed reader such as myself as to the changes brought about with the abolishing of apartheid as well as the collective guilt felt by so many white South Africans over the past enslavement, subjugation and displacement of its Indigenous peoples. “Unsure about its place and identity, a whole nation was made to believe that ethnic pride and culture could only descend from race” a Xhosa man named Cyril Kunene observes.
The main protagonist of The Afrikaner is Dr. Zoe Du Plessis, an anthropologist who, like all researchers dreams of finding a skull, or preferably a skeleton belonging to an ancient race of peoples. She desires to shift attention to South Africa as the possible “cradle of civilization” rather than Tanzania or Namibia. The novel opens with the car-jacking and murder of Dario, her co-worker and lover. Dario is the only man Zoe has ever loved and is grief-stricken at being alone. There is reason to believe that his death is the result of an old curse put on the Du Plessis family generations ago in which the first-born female would produce no children due to their husbands dying prematurely. Of course, Zoe, being a scientist doesn’t truly believe this but past family history has borne out the apparent validity of the curse. She is given a few days off and decides to head to the family home and estate winery, Finistère.
She has left the city in an anguished rush. Johannesburg, to her, will never be the same again. It has given her so much, but has also taken away everything in one fell swoop.
On one of her stops on her way home, Zoe meets a solitary man, a writer who tells her “I steal stories from silence stories waiting to be told.” This enigmatic stranger also tells her presciently that they may meet again:
“Meetings in the desert are never by accident,” he finally says. “We might see each other again.”
This “thief of stories” has made an impression on Zoe, but she still has Dario very much on her mind. His death is still fresh in her mind. She moves on to her immediate destination of Finistère.
Zoe has no interest in the family winery, which is being capably run by her brother André. He has hired the aforementioned Cyril Kunene as the first black man to be the director of a South African winery.
Her desire is to escape to the desert where she can be alone with her thoughts and be away from people. “The healing power of deserts — that little obsession of yours” taunts her brother André. She requests to be sent to the Kalahari, to continue the work Dario started. His death has left the project without a lead scientist. She is granted six months to find her “Homo.” In the Bushmanland is it quiet and she sleeps out under the stars at night. She has a “Rainbow Nation” of assistants to dig and take care of her small camp. Her time in the Kalahari is spent searching, not just for fossils, but for her past, which is contained in a dairy that belonged to her Great-Aunt Charlotte. She visits a shaman to try and rid herself of the family curse.
Does Zoe ever meet up with the “thief of stories”? Yes, and he turns out to be SA writer Kurt Van der Merwe who was imprisoned under apartheid for treason. (There is a lot more to his story!)
There are several subplots that unfold over the 240 pages of The Afrikaner, not the least of which is racism, and the scar it has left on white/black relationships after apartheid was abolished. Ms. Dagnino’s writing is authoritative and a pleasure to read. The pacing of the novel may be considered “slow” by some, but for me, this is modern literature at its best. As an aside, at one point in the story, Zoe is gifted a book to read in the desert by Kurt, Conrad’s The Secret Sharer, which blew me away because I was thinking at the time what a Conradian story The Afrikaner is. Kurt writes Zoe:
“In the desert, in prison or out at sea, Conrad can be a good companion. I found in his pages a way to exorcise, at least in part, the darkest moments of my life.”
Kurt intuitively senses what Zoe needs and thoughts of him gradually replace her thoughts of Dario. Halfway through the book is Chapter 17, “Breath of the Moon” in which Sam, her Zulu driver talks openly (a la Conrad’s Marlowe) about his involvement in the Border War against the background of a Bushman’s trance dance which gradually grows in intensity along with Sam’s story. Spine-chilling, with beautifully executed writing!
The Afrikaner is a superb book. I enjoyed it very much and it is a satisfying literary read. Highly recommended for those looking for a good story in a setting outside of the Western world.
*I agreed to Ms. Dagnino’s request for a review of her book in exchange for a fair review.