NOT TO BE MISSED
"Le Baobab", a novel by Wilma STOCKENSTRÖM
Paris: Payot et Rivages, 2000. (170p.).
Translated into English from Afrikaans by J.M. Coetzee. "The Expedition to the Baobab" (1983), and into French from the English translation by Sophie Mayoux. Original title: "Die Kremetartekspedisie" (1981)..
Ce compte rendu en français
This novel is interesting in more ways than one. First, it tells a poignant story; one that combines to perfection, lyricism and a tale of epic proportions that follows the long trudge of a slave, in thrall to her masters, a few centuries ago. But this novel is also one that proclaims that beyond enslavement is freedom of the mind; one that challenges common perceptions of human values, linearity of time and memory recollection. Interestingly, this version of the tale is twice removed from the initial narrative as the translator, Sophie Mayoux, did not re-tell Stockenström's story straight from the Afrikaans original, but from J.M. Coetzee's English translation.
As the story begins, Portuguese merchants venturing along the African south coast in their caravels have been on the increase, and the local ruling elite is keen to do business with these foreigners from afar. Whatever the mariners need in terms of food, water, labour and other goods, they are ready to supply, taking full advantage of the opportunity. Trading is brisk and for most of the local intelligentsia entertaining the sojourners, and listening to their tall tales offer ample opportunities to satisfy their curiosity about distant lands. But for a few adventurous minds, seeing for themselves the country mentioned by their visitors, becomes an obsession.
The eldest son of the wealthiest trader of the region is one of these men possessed by an indomitable spirit of adventure. Upon the death of his father, he decides to finance and lead a large overland-expedition to the mythical and oft-mentioned city, shining on the other side of the world. To increase his chances, he joins forces with a "stranger" who made his fortune criss-crossing the seas before settling down in their city.
We are not told if some of the party eventually reached its elusive goal, but the story is not about the ultimate fate of the expedition. Rather it is on the life of the young slave-woman who follows the "stranger" like his shadow, and finds herself at his side when he is abandoned to his fate in the middle of nowhere, shortly before his demise. Providence then guides her steps towards a hollow baobab tree where she takes refuge, and eventually settles with plenty of time on her hands to reminisce about her life, the people she met along the way, her fears, the meaning of life, and the shattered existence she had to endure, as a slave: that is, a person with "no links backwards or forwards" (p.55). The chain linking her to the past had been broken when her village was raided, her parents killed, and the survivors taken away before being sold and dispersed in different cities and countries. As for the children she bore to different masters, they all had been taken from her and sold in their infancy.
Cultural practices of the past have to be put in the context of their time, but that does not make slavery less inhumane nor the behaviour of the older man, de-flowering the narrator and countless other young girls, before selling them, less abhorrent to contemporary morals and sensibilities. Nor does it render his crime more palatable to know that the concept of children's rights was still many centuries away. Thus the harrowing nature of the story that emphasises the hopelessness of slaves, whose fortunes depended largely on the luck of the draw. Transferred from the ownership of one person to the next, according to their successive masters' whims, personal needs or demise, slaves never knew what tomorrow would bring. The narrator is no exception.
Separated from her first baby and sold to a new owner when she was still a very young girl, she is then bought by a wealthy older man keen to soothe his declining vigour in her juvenile company. At the death of this master, she fell to the share of the man's younger son as part of his inheritance, but she changed hands again as her young master also passed away; and it is the "stranger" the man who decides to take her with him on his ill-fated expedition, who buys her in turn. What would have been my life had I not been a mere "possession" (p.55), an interchangeable "labour unit" (p.38), she wonders: "What would have become of me in the land of my origin? Would I have walked, sat, stood differently? Would I have entered into other kinds of friendship, accepted wholly different opinions? Would I have cloven to religion? Would I have had a husband, and children by him only? Children I would have raised till they could stand on their own feet" (p.55)?
Of course, these hypothetical questions have no definite answers, but as she ponders what might have been, other challenging ideas come to her mind with regard to the human condition and the nature of things. How come, she for example wonders, "everything that has been in my life is always with me, simultaneously; and the events refuse to stand nicely one after the other in a row". Why do they "hook into each other, shift around, scatter, force themselves on me or try to slip out of my memory" (p.66)? So isn't it non-sensical and delusive to string time and memories in order "to measure what is so ridiculous to measure and record" (p.93)? she asks herself.
The Expedition to the Baobab Tree is both the account of an arduous trekking in the veldt, and an allegory for the spiritual journey of human-beings in search of meaning. It tells the vain pursuit of chimaeras that guide the rich and the poor, the master and the thrall. Depending on their social standing in the world, all characters are striving for different goals, but in the end everyone is left with "the poetic history of a crazy eagerness that was finally all we could cling to, stripped of material things and emaciated and tired to death of ourselves in the endeavour that transported us along" (p.29). Contrary to what the "stranger" and the eldest son would like us to believe, they are not in charge of proceedings; they have no more control over the final outcome of their journey than the slaves who accompany them. And it is not they, but the narrator who may well have been the last surviving member of the failed expedition.
Failing to reach the fabulous city that enticed her master into leaving everything behind is, however, of no consequence to her. The demise of the "stranger", by contrast, means that she is no longer in his clutches, even though she is lost in the middle of nowhere and on the brink of starvation. But she is free. Free to mull over her past and present condition and to understand that, as far as one may go, one always remains bounded on all sides by the horizon (p.44). This timeless truth is rediscovered generation after generation. It transcends geography and allows 21st century readers to identify with the character's life pursuits: once the varnish of modernity has been scraped, little is changing in people's fundamental concerns about life and death over the centuries. As Michel Serres once said: "we are always simultaneously making gestures that are archaic, modern and futuristic" .
The well-crafted yet piecemeal narrative structure of the novel suits perfectly the fluctuating space that separates past, present and future. It informs a non-linear representation of time and memory. But far from losing the reader in a cloud of unrelated events governed by randomness, the postulation of "every event and circumstance being polychromic and multitemporal", that is "revealing a time that is gathered together, with multiple pleats" , adds to the wisdom of the main character and the intensity of her reflection. Furthermore, in imparting her skills to the protagonist, the author who is "versed in [...] the patching together of lyric and epic" (p.29), taps both readers' fascination for bold adventurers and interest in a deep-thinker's take on life.
At the beginning of his study of The Expedition of the Baobab Tree, critic Stephan Gray argues that a passage that comes midway in the novel encapsulates its "central focus its explanation, its statement and its summary" . Reducing a rich and complex narrative to a mere paragraph seems somewhat far-fetched, but the lines he quotes undeniably capture the ideals underpinning the main character's journey to freedom: "Possession and loving are concepts that damn each other. I did not want to be as he and the others, all the others in my life, from my earliest memories of huts and mother and security in a misty, sultry forest basin, from my memories of the lascivious man who bought me to deflower me, and the spice merchant whose labours I had to endure grinding my teeth, I did not want to be as they all regarded me, all of them, my benefactor with his fatherliness and this one too, this man whom I embraced with my whole body and allowed to come into me time after time so as to be absolutely full of him, absolutely convulsively full and rich and fulfilled, floating seed satisfied, making him, self-content, part of me, of me exclusively he too, he who had just described me analytically and disposed of me like an object in a dispensation, even he, I was different from what they all thought, utterly different from what anyone might think, I rejected all the opinions, all the observations and reprimands of all women in my life, what did they know of who I was, what did any of them know? (p.51).
1. Michel Serres. "Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time" (with Bruno Latour). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. Translated from French by Roxanne Lapidus, p.61.
2. Serres, p. 60.
3. Stephen Gray. "Some notes on further readings of Wilma Stockenström's slave narrative, 'The expedition of the baobab tree'". "Literator" 12, 1, April 1991, p.51. http://www.literator.org.za/index.php/literator/article/view/745. Sighted June 5 2014.
This review is based on the French translation of the novel but quotes and page numbers are from J.M. Coetzee's English version published by Human and Rousseau in 2008.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities