Sequels of apartheid
Marvelous. Arianna Dagnino takes the reader into some very diverse regions of South Africa and Namibia, and much deeper into their history (the protagonist is a paleaontologist seeking and finding evidence of the earliest human settlements, possibly the earliest in the world, hundreds of thousands years ago). Most importantly, she takes us just below the social surface to glimpse the raging contradictions exploding in a country that, until just recently, had kept them sealed tight under the Afrikaners’ state-supported myth of themselves as a single, homogenous people and the only rightful and righteous sovereigns.
The author has chosen to let us experience these sudden, post-apartheid changes through the eyes and feelings of an Afrikaner, an intelligent and sensitive young woman whose mother tongue is Afrikaans, who is acutely aware of the history that produced this new tribe (a mix of Dutch-origin farmers—”Boers”—, French Huguenots and others), and who, like other Afrikaners, is trying to cope with the new demands of other, far more ancient tribes, including Xhosa, Zulu and San.
The images of different landscapes, Johannesburg’s CBD, a coastal paradise near Table Mountain, and — with greatest detail — the Kalahari, are rich enough to make you feel that you have been there. And the stories, not just that of Zoe Du Plessis, the Afrikaner protagonist, but of the people she works and deals with, are sometimes startling. Particularly the old San (“Bushman”) shaman, a former tracker for the South African army, and his timeless insights into sorrows and healing; the Zulu driver who is a half-recovered veteran from the traumatic war in Angola, and the “thief of stories,” a poet and writer once celebrated as a hero of the Afrikaners but then punished when he returned from exile to oppose apartheid.
There is yet another story, revealed in a secret diary bequeathed to Zoe by a great aunt (in a rather improbable chain of coincidences), to show us other, sexual consequences of the Afrikaners’ tortured history.
If I ever get there, I know I will be looking for the places and encounters she describes; but I also know that, unless I were to devote long years and a very open heart to the project, I could never see it with my own eyes as sharply as I’ve sensed it in this reading. The whole is an especially impressive performance by a gifted writer who is not herself South African (born in Genoa, now living in Vancouver), and a demonstration of great empathy and research.
The ending, which I shan’t reveal, is particularly lovely.