To review this book requires a balancing act. Not merely to midwife its delivery to the waiting reader, with due attention to all fingers and toes, but to give some indications of its demands, and to be honest about how those played out subjectively. To get this balance right is far from easy because one thing can be said; it will stimulate heated debate.
The brew released by this corkscrew of a book is potent. It presupposes a discerning palate, a robust stomach, but more critically a mind freed of easy judgement, but rich in associations, one that relishes complexity, and rejoices in myth. The terroir from which this wine is pressed is unyielding, flint-stony, windswept, baked. The small and unpromising Catorba grape has a black skin so strong and sour it serves only to pop the green savour on the tongue, in sharp bursts of bitter sweetness. Fermented through memory the aroma is, at first, astringent, with hints of pepper trees, metallic scrap yards, chicken manure, chained animals and African sweat. Later the richer scents of longing and sharp reminiscence makes its poignancy harsh and builds up so many interpenetrating layers that it must be both sipped and gulped (sometimes holding one’s nose) in turns.
Enough of extended metaphor. I must come clean and admit that I know this country as the author does. As a child I experienced the unrelieved tedium of the Platteland, with its rusty mill blades creaking, the fast scudding clouds that seldom deliver, the repressed Dominee that opens farm gates in his Sunday black like a carrion crow. All these senses drive its people to a kind of madness. So beautiful, so poignant and so thirsty. Unlike the settled Boer, with his belief in heroic privation, the poor-white Afrikaner belonged nowhere, his hatred and alienation turned inwards and found necessary victims in powerless farm ‘kaffirs’, defenceless maids; his self loathing festered like the rinkhals at the root of the ant spire, that muscular serpent lurking to rear when suddenly exposed.
It is this atmospheric, historical richness that has, I suspect, urged the author to lay it bare. The newly sanitised South Africa, basking in post-Mandela sharp shadows and blinding light has obscured that complex, tortured, crude, assertive striving, its casual cruelty, its repressed Calvinist certainty of Divine Right. Against this is the nobility of the rural African, invisible to his oppressors, powerless against a demolition gang, but in a crucial scene in the book generous and forgiving, because held in a tradition of tribal respect.
There are so many strands of allusion, the plot is as tightly woven as a Zulu basket, the characters are so sharply defined that they strike sparks from interaction. Every moment spills into dangerous possibilities. Small moments of kindness, like the baking of bread, or the dream of a striped umbrella by the sea stand out like beacons. Humanity is hard to find, except in a few memories of the narrator’s tragic childhood. The photographer, Adrian Erasmus (Rian) takes you with a very firm grip into darkness. His narcissism and obsessive fantasies of sexual abuse are trying, trying to read and deliberately building towards explosive consequences. Being in his close company is like living with an uncertainly buried land mine, any step could blow it all to smithereens.
The events of the book will shock, they are meant to. By the end of the work these casual and degenerate impulses find a kind of logical inevitability. Underneath the events are more interesting suggestions, but like the ant spire they need careful exposure for their structure is intricate. The character of Bamford, a repellent, shunned and lonely palaeontologist with an interesting hypothesis- that modern Man has degenerated from earlier and more intelligent beings is borne out not only in his own crudity, but the world about us all. If Africa remains the cradle of Man, and Bamford’s black discovered skull all that remains of Man’s earlier and more civilised incarnation then the accelerating bestiality of recent South African history has an inherent logic. There is an evangelism that underscores what at first will repel. I can only urge a reader who begins it to persist to the end to find ‘The Soul of the White Ant’ and understand Eugene Marais, and many like him, who loved enough to find solace in the society of termites and then to blow his brains out.
This book introduces a non-South African (and the new minted South African) to the conflicted torture of being part of that history, its guilt, its affection, and its inescapable summons, like the gentle Kudu spiralling horns against the sky, and then gone.
There is ambivalence at every turn, and through every viewfinder. No single interpreter is sufficient.
It is an extraordinary book, a brew steeped in reflection, spiked with anger, never easy, but a personal and honest corrective to simplistic ideas about a heart rending country that calls to anyone who belongs there. We all still do, and can never escape. This book is a lens to light a wider understanding. The ending leaves the reader reeling, but perhaps newly sober about almost all history, and the rinkhals waiting to rear in each of us. It needs courage to read it, and to match the author’s courage in setting it down.