Saturday, November 14, 2009

That Old Homesick Feeling

I may be biased, but I think South African history is one of the most fascinating I have had the opportunity of learning. Learning the Groot Trek year after year got old, but that was much preferable to the annual onslaught of Holocaust videos.

There, at the point of the world, the stormy nexus of Indian and Atlantic oceans, the Portuguese adventurers Bartolomeu Diaz, Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan rounded the tip. The Dutch sent South Africa's own Columbus, Jan van Riebeeck, in 1652 to establish a trading station for the Dutch East India Company. The French Huguenots settled in the seventeenth century, leaving a lush valley of vineyards and chocolatiers. The British arrive in 1812 to annex the Cape to the Empire, sowing the seeds of the Boer War, which was to introduce the first concentration camps. Bloodshed and diamonds, covered wagons and massacres, and endless exploitation.

History may be a treasure trove on her own - but sometimes the story is only ever as good as the teller. My mother, a once-budding historian, lost interest in history on account of a droning lecturer. There are many excellent books on South African history; excellent and dry. I started one in 2006 and still haven't finished it; I petered off somewhere in the early nineteenth century. That's why, when I saw the translation of Dominique Lapierre's exciting and energetic work, A Rainbow in the Night: the Tumultuous Birth of South Africa, published at the end of October, I bought a used copy as soon as it came in. It begins with gusto: with the Dutch fleeing the flames of the Inquisition that swept through Europe in the seventeenth century. For what? "The Bible!"



Lapierre packs the first three hundred years of South African history into two or three chapters and spends the majority of the book on the policy of apartheid and the recent process of reconciliation. It looks like a good read: a tightly-packed, vivid visit home.

Recently, I've experienced a resurgence of pride in my mother country. Earlier this year I read Vladislavic's Portrait with Keys: the City of Johannesburg Unlocked, a poetic homage to a city I'm not too fond of. Despite it's ugliness, grime, and poverty, Vladislavic explores the layers of memory embedded in the city's physical and social structure. I don't usually think of South Africans as a poetic or especially literary people, barring a few (Coetzee, Gordimer, Breytenbach), but this book proved me wrong.

As the days in Seattle shorten and the sun dies at 4.45, I think about the lengthening days at home. The gradual yearning and pulling towards summer, towards the beach and school holidays and Christmas. Instead of getting on the plane for a New Year's Eve flight south, I will have to settle for curling up with Rainbow in the Night and three blankets, drinking rooibos tea with a Frenchman.

3 comments:

wwvuillemot said...

My father has spent some time in South Africa on various excursions with Rotary International; I almost joined him for 3 weeks a few years back but unfortunately planning fell through. That said, I was interested to learn of this new book that hereto now I was unaware of.

I recall the many times my father has said similar things about South Africa; that its history and peoples are far too complex for simple ruminations. He has also been told by South Africans that too often, especially Americans, tend to see their (your) country and its history simply as a mirror'd African sibling with its apartheid; but, that such analysis is both shallow and insufficient on the more substantial issues of religions, governments, and cultures.

I will need to get copies so he and I can discuss it in more detail. I will be interested to read your final opinions on the book after you are done canoodling with the Frenchman.

Christy Edwall said...

You should both a) go to South Africa and b) read the book. I exhort you! So, your last name - are you French yourself?

Ward W. Vuillemot said...

My apologies for missing your reply! This is a bit belated, but ...

My father very excitedly read your review and ordered a copy. He is back East so he ordered from Amazon (good for me), but bad for Third Place books (you). You win some, you lose some. :)

Both a) and b) are very good ideas, indeed!

My family heritage is French; albeit, I have enough German blood in me to keep the good ol' Bismarck afloat. We tend to pronounce it as "Villa-mot". Some in the family, especially those in Michigan, pronounce it as "Villa-mont". My father has visited the original family village in France; I have not (yet) had that distinct pleasure, though.

You are of Swedish descent, correct? Your last post verily confirmed this, but your reference to Santa Lucia was a very strong clue that made me suspect such. I deduce that you came, in part, to the PNW from South Africa due to family in the area? I know from influence of Swedes on PNW fiddle that they have a long and illustrious influence on the region.

At some point we need to determine all the various threads to your story: South Africa, Swedes, and PNW. And your reference to Minnesota makes me wonder if you do not have Lutheran in your family, too. :)