Jonathan Amid - 2011-11-08 Untitled Document
Author: Chris Barnard
Translator: Michiel Heyns
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As one the so-called Sestigers, a group of Afrikaans literary titans, Chris Barnard found critical acclaim. With the release of his novel Boendoe in 1999 Barnard continued this trend. Now, twelve years later, heavyweight translator Michiel Heyns has vividly brought the novel to life in English. The result is Bundu, a deeply affecting, contemplative novel that has lost little in translation.
As a way into the novel, into its evocation of wilderness and wildness, one might consider the following telling phrase from the novel: “What is this thing, between one human being and another, that is so vertiginous that it makes the last step towards each other impossible?”
Gesturing towards the dizzying heights of emotional affiliation, the fickleness of human nature and the whirling, uncertain axis of self-preservation so prevalent during times of extreme uncertainty, Barnard’s novel is a lyrical examination of absence and loss. It is a meandering but carefully crafted meditation on the nature of need and the allure of the unknown, slowly unravelling the great mysteries that define our time as mortal beings.
“Where do you end, and I begin?” the characters in Bundu seem to ask.
Barnard situates a motley crew of outsiders, loners and outcasts on the border of Mozambique – dangerous and uncertain territory to be sure. Surrounded by the call of the wild and harsh conditions, a solitary Roman Catholic mission station and rudimentary clinic is run by an incompetent but spiritual doctor, Vusi, supported by the compassionate Father Johnny and Sister Roma, and the nurse Julia, who we learn has turned her back on the church and has suffered much at the hands of men. These damaged souls each have their own stories to tell, while their actions speak of courage under fire.
While we learn of the tremendous suffering of the Chopi people, many of them certain of death, we journey with the central protagonist and focaliser, Brand De la Rey, an ecologist, a man of science and rational thought. Brand has entered the wild to escape from a world that he doesn’t understand, and he seeks to become closer to the natural world and to the baboons of the area, particularly the sentinel Malume.
Concurrently to the burgeoning relationship between Brand and Malume we see the cautious bond that develops between the scorned Julia and the battle-weary Brand. Heyns’s translation in these sections is particularly smooth in handling the delicacy of the interactions between the pair; the moments of tension and fractious understanding they come to share are both stirring and sensitively rendered.
The biggest driver of plot and action comes in the form of a master plan, aiming to successfully transport as many of the sick and dying as possible to a place of sanctuary. This great adventure relies on a man of action, of course, with this role ably fulfilled by the reclusive alcoholic Jock Mills. Once Mills takes charge of an abandoned Dakota, left in the bush by the South African National Defence Force, the stage is set for an adventure that few of those in the bundu will ever forget.
Most striking in this translation is the way that Barnard’s original love for the landscape, and the palpable sense of space and place captured years ago, is brought forward by Heyns. As the novel contrasts different modes of understanding – the scientific with the supernatural, the “emotional” with the “rational” – we see Brand conducting various experiments, while Vusi communicates with his ancestors. All the while the amazing grace and raw beauty of the natural surrounds comes to awe-inspiring life.
While Brand develops relationships with Julia and Malume he learns to question his own way of perceiving the world and other people, and he discovers how much of the world (both natural and interior in every being) is an unknowable, unquantifiable abyss, with the bridge always just out of reach.
Bundu is least impressive in its adventure-story elements, which serve to entertain and engross to a fair degree without ever really exploding into life. Perhaps this is because Barnard intended for the story of adventure and heroism in the face of adversity to take a back seat to the more intimate, more universal story of human longing and the desire to understand the other.
In Barnard’s compelling, wise narrative the untamed spirit of the wild is ever present and the fictional representation of suffering is never manipulative but consistently appalling. His insistence on the mutual need to reach out to the other, to search for common ground, for the interlocking “invisible trajectories” and the radiance of the unknown to be uncovered, is admirable and very moving. Bundu is highly recommended.