Thursday 11 April 2013

Bundu by Chris Barnard (Review - IFFP 2013, Number 12)

It's always nice to try something a little different, and today's book is certainly not the usual translated literature fare.  We're heading off to South Africa, for my first book in Afrikaans, and we'll be going out into the African wilderness.  A word of warning - watch out for hippos...

Bundu by Chris Barnard (translated by Michiel Heyns - from Alma Books)
What's it all about?
Brand de la Rey is an ecologist living in the bundu (the South African equivalent of the outback).  Working hard on his projects, he prefers to keep himself to himself, but a visit to the local mission station brings an unwelcome interruption to his routine.

After years of drought, the land is bare, and refugees come flooding across the border from Mozambique, hoping for some food and help in South Africa.  The doctor and nurses at the station try to help the newcomers, but the more they do, the more people congregate outside the buildings.  The South African army, regarding the far-flung province as part of Mozambique, refuses to help, forcing Brand and the mission staff to think of an alternative plan - which is where a crazy man and an old plane come in...

Bundu is an interesting adventure story, with an exotic backdrop and a love interest thrown in too.  The text is peppered with Afrikaans and Swahili, and when you read Barnard's stories about a hunt for an injured hippo and donkeys trekking to the nearest settlement, you can almost feel the stifling heat and the dust.  Oh, and let's not forget Malume, the enigmatic leader of the baboons...

While the main focus of the story is the plan to save the dying refugees, one of its strong points is its depiction of the strains and stresses on the mission staff.  The overworked nurses collapse from exhaustion, only to get right back up again - they have no choice.  Death is all around, yet there is no villain here, just the harsh reality of a land without rain.  As the ordeal draws on, the characters become painfully aware of the fragility of human existence:
"Julia and I were standing washing our hands and faces in a basin in front of her back door.  I stood watching our hands and our arms while we were washing; I saw her bare shoulders and her neck, the tongue brushing the lips, and realized that under Julia's tanned skin, under all the youthful softness and unblemishedness, there was a pale white skeleton washing along, participating invisibly, a skeleton preparing itself slowly but surely for the day when it could cast off the winding sheet to show its true face."
p.178 (Alma Books, 2012)
Of course, times of trouble often have the effect of breaking down barriers, and it isn't long before Brand and Julia, one of the nurses, seek comfort in each other's arms...

Bundu is also a novel which explores the concept of communication and silence.  People go to the bundu to avoid human contact, and many of the characters (Brand, Julia, madman Jock Mills) are running away from something.  Even when they do talk, they often prefer to be sparing with their words, and in a country of many languages, conversation can become even more complicated.  Several of the characters conveniently fail to understand when talk becomes too involved, while others switch languages to better express themselves (or, in one case, to swear more strongly!).  Of course, mere words are the least of the walls preventing mutual understanding:
"Vusi's Afrikaans was even more limited than my stunted and stilted Zulu and that in itself was enough reason to put a damper on a natural exchange of thoughts.  But in addition we were both still victims of the society in which we'd grown up and in which black people and white people had to coexist on either side of an invisible wall, like fish in the same pond but separated by glass.  It went much deeper than a language problem or a superficial prejudice - it was a blind assumption that the other one thought, felt, experienced things in a different way, was different." (pp.109/110)

Bundu is an entertaining read, an interesting glimpse into another world, but if I'm honest, it isn't really my kind of book.  On the whole, it read more like genre fiction than a novel from a literary fiction longlist, and it definitely favoured plotting (and romance) above the writing, especially in the first half of the novel.  I also thought that the first-person point of view led to a lot of info dumping, especially regarding Julia's back story.  While the old chestnut about showing, not telling, isn't always appropriate, I definitely felt that Barnard could have introduced the information more subtly.

Which is not to say that it's a bad book - far from it.  I enjoyed it, and I think most people would get something from it.  I honestly can't say though that it's one which will stay in my memory for long...

Do you think it deserves to make the shortlist?
Not really.  It's a nice story,and there's more to it than the first half would suggest, but the writing is nothing special.  Many people will like it, but that doesn't make it a book to shortlist.

Will it make the shortlist?
I wouldn't think so - I think the longlisting was probably a surprise.  A word of caution though: I was very negative about an Alma Books entry last year, and we all know what happened there...

By the time you read this, the shortlist will finally have been announced, and my predictions will (I'm sure) have been shown to be the ramblings of a deluded, bitter old man.  Join me next time for a commentary on the choices - and we'll continue with our journey next week :)