Although I’ve read quite a few books from South Africa, most of them have been written in English. I’ve read nearly everything J.M. Coetzee wrote before he migrated to Australia; some by Nadine Gordimer and Gillian Slovo; the Martha Quest books by Doris Lessing; Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, and in recent years I’ve tried to keep up with the work of Damon Galgut because I find his books intriguing.
Shortlisted for the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, Bundu by Chris Barnard is one of the few books I’ve read that has been translated from the Afrikaans. Barnard (b.1939) is a highly regarded author in South Africa, winning multiple prizes including a South African Literary Award for Lifetime Achievement. According to Wikipedia he (along with André Brink, an author whose unforgettable 2001 novel The Other Side of Silence I read back in 2004) was a prominent member of Die Sestigers (“The Sixty-ers”), a literary movement which was influenced by contemporary English and French trends and used the Afrikaans language in protest against the apartheid government.
But times have moved on since the 1960s and the battle for democratic government, and Barnard’s short novel of only 219 pages is more concerned with social issues. In one of the most misleading blurbs I’ve come across, the publisher calls it on the book cover ‘an unforgettable African story full of romance and adventure‘ – but anyone expecting a bodice-ripper will be sadly disappointed by this melancholy tale of drought and starvation in the bundu. It’s actually a most unsettling book which left me sleepless after I finally finished it.
By coincidence yesterday I heard Rev Tim Costello talking about Australia’s foreign aid budget on The Religion Report on ABC Radio National. Australia is a long way short of contributing 0.7% of GNP which we signed up to do through the international Millennium goal. We give only 0.35%, but even so, that miserly amount last year saved the lives of 200,000 men, women and especially children. With a federal election later this year and politicians of all stripes talking cost-cutting measures, Costello spoke up on behalf of our aid agencies to advocate that there be no further cuts to the foreign aid budget which has become progressively meaner since the 1950s under Robert Menzies.
What Bundu does is to bring the need for foreign aid into sharp focus. Brand de la Rey is an environmental researcher living in a remote region near the fluid border between South Africa and Mozambique. He lives a monastic sort of existence with his assistant Vusi, a Zulu who experiences life in a mystical sort of way which causes occasional conflict with Brand’s evidence-based way of looking at the world. At the hospital some distance away there is Vukili the (possibly not really qualified) doctor, a couple of nuns and Julia, a quixotic and headstrong woman who is volunteering in order to work off her feelings of worthlessness and rage about the politics of South Africa. Yes, there is an instant but fraught attraction between Brand and Julia, but trust me, it is not the focus of the book.
The region has been in drought for ages and the story begins when this small community is suddenly overwhelmed by a crisis. The Chopi people have survived somehow for a couple of years but now they have come in to the hospital from southern Mozambique, seeking help. They are pitifully weak:
There was a baby in the woman’s arms, about three months old and reed-thin. The child was dead still and every now and again the woman tried with jerky movements to drive the flies from its face. I stood looking, stirring the pot, at Julia trying to get some soup into the child’s mouth with a piece of reed.
‘Come and have a look.’ I didn’t realise at first that she was talking to me. ‘Brand, come and have a look.’ I could see, when I reached her, that there was something like bewilderment or perhaps even a touch of anger in her eyes. ‘Who’s going to decide how many we can manage? You or I by any chance? Look at this child. He’s …’ She shoved the plate of soup into my hands and grabbed the child and pressed it to her. ‘This child is dying.’
The child was lying with his cheek against her shoulder, his naked chest grey with dust, his mouth and nose and eyes caked with sticky green flies, one hand twitching feebly. I went and stood behind Julie and looked at the child’s face. There was not much life left in him. But suddenly, in a single flicker of life, he lifted his big head and opened his eyes and gazed straight at me. In all the months after that, through everything that happened, even in the moments of my greatest anger, I could not think away those dark eyes. How long could it have lasted? Perhaps two seconds, maybe five. But all the hungry children of Africa, all the helpless passion and rebellion and anger of all the dying people of the world were captured in those five seconds. The child vomited up the few scraps of soup in his throat – there, take it, it’s too late – and closed his eyes. The woman on the ground stretched out her arms to the child as if she wanted him back. But Julia put him down on the ground, because he was dead. (p. 12)
The numbers go on increasing until there are more than 200 people in need of help. Even though some die every day, more arrive. Brand is roped in to help but what they need is medical and food aid, and the South African government won’t take responsibility for disputed territory. The only possible solution is an airlift in a dodgy restored Dakota DC-3, piloted by an unlicensed alcoholic to Durban airport where they don’t have permission to land…
It’s not a tale of derring-do. It’s a tale of difficult choices, being made by people who have no alternative but to try, because to fail to try is unconscionable. They are exhausted by the struggle, and handicapped by difficulties in communication: Sister Roma doesn’t speak Afrikaans, Julia doesn’t speak Zulu, Vusi doesn’t speak anything except Zulu and nobody speaks the dialect of the Chopi. I found this extraordinary, that there doesn’t seem to be a common language with which the ‘rainbow nation’ can communicate …
Barnard doesn’t labour the point but Brand, the narrator, feels each death personally, and the drought isn’t just killing all these people and the animals of the bundu, it’s also destroying years of important research. There’s a neat little irony at the end of the story with funding – so inaccessible for saving human life – being very readily available for him to start again. Then the community which has come together in the crisis separates, and the brief flicker of love for Brand vanishes.
Bundu is an allegory for the way things so often are in Africa. Its peoples are left to cope with its endless droughts as best they can without any help until finally they can manage no longer and they walk, often hundreds of miles, to a relief camp. There is a flurry of activity till the worst of the crisis is over, and then things go back to the way they were. There aren’t any long-term structural solutions, because there isn’t enough money to make them happen, and the good people who try are burned out and exhausted by their harrowing experience.
I read this book as a member of the Shadow Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Jury. To view other reviews of this and other nominations please click here or on the IFFP graphic.
Author: Chris Barnard
Title: Bundu (first published as Boendoe in 1999)
Translated by Michiel Heyns
Publisher: Alma Books, 2013
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond.