The back cover reads: “A slave woman is the only survivor of a failed expedition into the depths of Africa. She shelters in the hollow trunk of a baobab tree where . . .”
I was hooked. A slave narrative. A failed expedition. A baobab. But Wilma Stockenström’s third novel goes much deeper than a mysterious and fabulous tale. Expecting something of a fable, (also mentioned on the cover), I found to my delight not a story with a moral, but a story incorporating elements of myth and legend—a more pleasing type of fable, for sure.
The Expedition to the Baobab was written in Afrikaans in 1981 and translated into English in 1983 by J. M Coetzee (see blogposts 8-16-14 and 8-21-14) which is recommendation in itself. Since then, it has been translated into seven other languages, winning the Italian Grinzane Cavour Prize, and becoming a French stage play. In this work, Stockenström has written much more than a slave narrative or a fable.
She is the foremost, living Afrikaans poet; this novel, even in translation, is solid evidence. She uses a type of stream-of-consciousness which pursues non-linear abstract thought. When our fascinating, unnamed slave girl says, “There are more tracks criss-crossing in my memory than I ever actually saw in a lifetime”, a picture of the dry wastes of interior Africa spotted with baobabs shimmers into our mental imagery.
First the reader must willingly suspend disbelief and accept the possibility of a slave girl with the self-awareness and articulation to express these intricate, philosophical concepts. An uneducated, kidnapped and sold while still very young girl without any formal training except as a sex object—to live through four owners (harsh and malicious, self-absorbed, greedy, and protective) and gain wisdom from living in a seaside town during the era of rampant slavery. Not very likely.
The South African timeframe for this fable is still apartheid. So the premise is fantastic in the extreme. After we release our doubt that a slave could progress beyond the basic elements of survival, we realise that we are not hearing a mere slave narrative. In fact, her slavery is incidental to the themes she raises and cycles back on. Two of her “companions” in her life journey are time and fear. She interacts with them and learns from them as they accompany her. This is not a propaganda piece against slavery, although that point is mutely made. It is a journey into ‘what is ubuntu?’ without using the word itself. As she interacts with slave traders, other slaves, and owners, she explores what makes us all human.
In her lonely, desert refuge, ubuntu comes out in her relationship with the little people (presumably bushmen who do not know what to make of her, her size, her existence in their realm). She tries to communicate, but their clicks sound like the language of lizards and geckos to her. She withdraws. But her awareness grows:
. . . for now I perceive that dreaming and waking do not damn each other, but are extensions of each other and flow into each other, enrich each other, supplement each other, make each other bearable, and that my baobab is a dream come true, and when I see the little people I know they are dream figures that really hunt and really provide me with food and that they really see me but also do not see me because I exist in their dream, and they feed their dream by caring for me. We meet each other and know nothing of each other. We go our ways separately and depend on each other, they on me in that I am as I am, and I on them in that they act as they act.
A reader would expect more Robinson Crusoe-type explanation of survival details in a story about life in a baobab tree in the bush. But our story-teller is on a different plane. She has lived a richly varied life and continually returns to bits of her past, searching for cohesion in her final place. Quite a few readers complained about the confusing chronology: starting at the baobab, we are only able to piece together the life by random mental excursions into the slave’s past. She doesn’t give the people of her past names: they are the Stranger, the Protector and so on, identified by qualities.
This book is lyrical, even in translation. For someone looking for historical authenticity or a genuine slave narrative, this is not the manuscript. In this work, Stockenström has chosen a marginalised narrator to develop some complexities of relationship and individual identity. By using a female slave who had all her children taken from her when they were weaned, she reinforces that using others in inhuman ways reduces the humanity of us all.
Although philosophical in nature, the book is still full of simple stories of interactions. She learns what she knows by connecting with and observing others. The story does not lag: her capture, a violent hurricane, the doomed expedition—provide continuous forward motion, even as she reflects. This fable is the work of a truly gifted author.