Authors: Laurens van der Post,Prefers to remain anonymous
TO BE PROOFREAD
A Story Like the Wind
Laurens van der Post
Van der Post’s incomparable knowledge of Africa illuminates this epic novel, set near the Kalahari Desert, about a boy on the verge of manhood, his experiences with the wonder and mystery of a still-primitive land, and his secret friendship with the Bushman whose life he saves. The narrative of A Story like the Wind continues in A Far-Off Place.
begin with the extract from a statement made by a Bushman convict a hundred years ago, which appears as my Testament on the page opposite because it shows that he was sick even more for stories than for home or people. One of a doomed fragment of the first people of Africa, he had been sentenced to work on the breakwater in Table Bay which, at that time in the Cape of Good Hope, was considered the heaviest punishment for crime, short of death. He had been sentenced thus because when hungry he had taken a sheep from the flock of a man of a race who had stolen all his own people’s great land.
The statement from which this extract is taken is for me one of the most tragic and significant utterances to come out of my native country, but I have given only this much because it is enough to show, as nothing else I have encountered in the literature of the world, how the living spirit needs the story for its survival and renewal. It was this universal consideration which made me take up the story that follows. But I had another reason as urgent to me personally, for writing it.
Men have written a great deal about the history of Africa: the horror of the past, the racial, social and economic problems; the dirt, the dust, the heat, the fever, the mosquitoes and many other painful and enigmatic aspects of the land. But no one, as far as I know, has ever recorded the aspect of Africa with which this story is concerned. It is an aspect which cannot be rendered by any purely rational means or any merely documentary or factual processes. However imaginatively written, it cannot even be rendered just as history. It can only be done in the way in which Africa itself excelled and transmitted it from unrecorded time to the present day through stories, myths and legends. They alone can reflect what I can only describe as the magic which life in primitive Africa seems to me to have possessed before we arrived from Europe to spoil it.
I was lucky enough to be born just in time to experience some of this ancient Merlinesque world of Africa. I was so close to it as a boy that all I had to do was sit and listen for the heroic dead and their magical age to live again on lips of living men who had experienced and even made it. As a result, all the fairytale characters of my childhood were not the pale faces of the breed to which I and my family belonged but the yellow, copper-coloured and black indigenous peoples of the land. They were so for all members of my family. I was one of fifteen children. When the few of us who are left alive of what was once a large pioneering family meet and recall our relationships with the despised coloured peoples of our childhood, I am struck how warm our voices become, how lively the conversation and quick the imagination.
For example, we had a man, half Bushman, half Hottentot, who worked for us and first came to us as a boy, already dis-missively named ‘Vet-Kop’ (Fat-head), since his first employers, when they took him away, did not think it necessary to ask him what his parents called him. The amputation from his own society was so brutal that he himself lost all memory of his original name.
He was always in and out of our local gaol for minor offences against a one-sided code of law and always came straight back to us. There would have been a mutiny in the army of children in my home had my parents turned him away. Fortunately, they loved him as we did and he had an influence on my imagination that no minister of the Dutch Reformed Church could equal. To this day I grieve that he is not alive in this grey moment of time to colour it for me as he coloured my childhood with his rainbow spirit.
The truth is that children like ourselves were lucky enough to be in touch with this past through such people as Fat-head, before the slanted Calvinist spirit of our society could convert us into sour creatures of disapproval and acid judgement. We were therefore wide open to the wonder of Africa. As a result, this flow of a primitive world into my imagination was so rich that even I have been surprised by its wealth. I constantly turn to it again and again as a person might on a cold winter’s night to a fire for warmth. The older I have become, the greater has grown my awareness of the debt I owe to this fast vanishing world of Africa and the greater my conviction that somehow it must be recorded, so that it should always be there to help thaw the frozen imagination of our civilized systems so that some sort of spring can come again to the minds of men.
The recording seems all the more urgent because the ancient way of keeping alive this aspect of life has itself been lost in African societies and it is no longer passed on from generation to generation in the shape of stories. Africa, when I was a child, had at its disposal for this purpose an immense wealth of unwritten literature. But we, just through the radioactive fall-out of the nuclear split in the European spirit, have killed contemporary Africa’s respect for its own great spoken literature of the past. Modern African societies, I regret to say, have so lost their own natural way that they even tend to distrust anyone who tries to redirect them, as I have tried to do, to what is valuable in their own beginnings. To tell them that the balance has never been fairly struck between the primitive and the civilized in any society as yet is believed, by many in Africa, to be just a form of intellectual paternalism, if not a trick, to keep them in a ‘backward state of mind’ for selfish European ends. One of the most reprehensible things we have done to the people of Africa is to make them ashamed of the working of their natural imagination. We have made them like children who are ashamed of their own mothers; ashamed of the natural spirit that gave birth to their unique character and once made them so vivid.
Part of the complex of personal reasons that made me try to preserve in the form of a story something of what was wonderful and honourable about primitive life in Africa, is the hope that it may help to restore the self-respect to African imagination, of which it should never have been deprived. Another is the belief that this story may, even at this late hour, awaken some awareness of how much the despised primitive values deserve to be honoured by the most civilized of men, not only for thek own sakes, but so as to help them on the way to honouring African man in their societies as they wish to be honoured themselves.
Finally as a story, its setting is not photographic. It is a painting of only part of an immense landscape, and even in part is not complete because, like all paintings, it chooses for its canvas only what the painter finds significant in the scene. For example, the Matabele people in this story are not representative and are described only in so far as they carry a particularly electric charge of what is representative in African man. They were] chosen as conductors, because a Matabele clan, almost untouched by our own time, still inhabited the ‘far-off place’ which is the raw material of this story, when I rediscovered it some years ago. I found them still telling their stories in the ancient way. Theirs was one of the voices I had in my ear as I wrote, compelling my story to be a thing not so much of pen and predetermined pattern, as of the spoken word I once had direct from their burning imagination.
omething happened to François when he was barely thirteen, without which the story that follows would not have been possible. He was fast asleep in his bed in his own room at the far western end of the farmhouse at the time, when a tense, high-pitched whimper from Hintza sounding right in his ear woke him.
Hintza was François’s own special dog and one of the most important characters in his life. It had been given to François by his father when he was eleven years, six months and seven days old. Life at Hunter’s Drift was always so packed with interest for François that he did not measure it just in years, or even half-years, as the time-weary grown-ups of his world did, but in days, if not hours. For instance he would never have a birthday or experience a Christmas without wondering how he could possibly endure the strain of having to wait twelve months before it came round again. He always remembered the shock that went through his system when he heard grown-ups exclaim, as they seemed to him more and more inclined to do, that it was fantastic how quickly Christmas came round again. It struck him as so grossly inaccurate, if not incomprehensible, an observation that he secretly regarded it as a downright lie.
Hintza was a magnificent young ridge-back. It was the finest puppy in a litter of six born to a couple of the most famous hunting dogs in southern Africa; a bitch called Nandi and a dog called Dingiswayo—`Swayo for short to his friends. Both mother and father had received their names from the man who owned them—the chief ranger of one of the greatest game reserves in Africa. This reserve lay to the west, some fifty miles beyond the crescent of hills that enclosed Hunter’s Drift to the east as a half-moon does a star between the tips of horns. It declined into two sharp points of sheer cliff that cut into the banks of the river near which the homestead of the farm stood. This ranger, before he took up the work of preserving the vanishing game of Africa, had been one of the greatest hunters Africa has ever known. He was the son of the legendary hunter whom John Buchan made, thinly disguised, into the hero of two of the stories which François found by far the most exciting of all the many books he wrote. He was known all over Africa as Mopani Theron, although he had Christian names of his own which he kept to himself—but more of that later. He appeared in François’s life as Mopani Theron and was just called Mopani by everyone who was his equal, or a polite ‘Oom’ (Uncle Mopani) by young persons like François.
Mopani Theron was seldom seen without one or both of his dogs on the patrols he was constantly carrying out against the poachers of ivory, rhinoceros horn, leopard and other valuable game skins. The poachers, from hideouts skilfully concealed in the dense bush that covered most of that remote country, were for ever raiding Mopani’s reserve, which was almost the size of the France from which his ancestors had come. One of François’s earliest and most vivid memories was his first glimpse of Mopani riding up the stoep of Hunter’s Drift in the heat of a summer’s day, his long legs dangling loose in the relaxed, natural stirrup that all long-distance riders used in Africa, and the lively little Basuto pony on which he was mounted, looking much too small for its tall rider. The right image for describing the effect he made on François at that precise moment did not come until some years later when he saw, in his father’s illustrated edition of Cervantes’s great work, a reproduction of a Daumier painting of the elongated Don Quixote. Mopani Theron, François was to realize then, with his long, wiry frame, ascetic features and neat pointed beard, had looked like another Knight of La Mancha come to tilt against evil in the bush of Africa. The parallel was most marked that same evening long ago when he had galloped away to ambush some poachers, who moved mostly at night, his tall sunset shadow, dark as ink, travelling in the scarlet dust at his side. Only unlike the Spanish Knight, he had two superb alert and highly dynamic dogs trotting at the heels of his horse as easily as any of the wild dogs who never know what walking is. They were, of course, Nandi and !#grave;Swayo.
When he noticed how interested the boy was in the dogs Mopani Theron had told François that he had called the bitch Nandi after the mother of the greatest warrior Africa has ever produced—Chaka, the king of the Zulus, whose general ‘Mzili-katze had founded the Matabele nation on the perimeter of whose lands both Hunter’s Drift and the game reserve lay—because he was certain the bitch would be the mother of great fighting dogs. He called the dog after Dingiswayo, the founder of the Zulu nation and therefore ultimately also of the Matabele, for he was equally sure that !#grave;Swayo would be the begetter of more great dogs.
It must not be imagined from all this, however, that Nandi and !#grave;Swayo were black. Like all ridge-backs they had coats like lions, so much so that when out hunting in the bush that crowded in on Hunter’s Drift as it did on the great game park, one had to be always on guard not to let a partial glimpse of their tawny electric colour flickering in the undergrowth trick one into the assumption that they were indeed lions about to attack.
Hintza, one of the couple’s fourth litter, was a superb blend of his father’s and mother’s best qualities. When François first saw him as a puppy, he glowed like one of the nuggets of virgin gold occasionally found in the dried-up banks and beds of the rivers, which cut deep through hill and bush to join the powerful Zambezi far to the north.
It had been a cold winter’s evening when François’s father brought Hintza home. The sun, red in a turquoise sky, was just going down over the immense desert which started abruptly some fifty miles beyond on the edge of the bush to the west of the farm. At one minute a person was apparently deep in bush country, the next stepping out of it on to a desert stretching for close on a thousand miles to where it ended in a swell of dunes of piled-up sand, so fine that the lightest wind raised a spume of dust like smoke from their curling summits, moaning faintly in the process, until the sound was lost in the reverberation of the great breakers of the cold South Atlantic, levelling out a satin-yellow beach at their feet.
François and his mother had begun to give up hope of his father’s return that night. They were not unduly worried because no one could tell precisely how long any journey from the capital, some four hundred and twenty miles to the east, would take. It was merely that they were both disappointed because, with luck, François’s father could have been home two days before. Indeed, for two afternoons François had repeatedly climbed the highest point in the hills at the back of the homestead to look out for any sign of dust on the track of crimson earth that wound in and out of the bush. This third evening had been no exception. When there was only half-an-hour left before the sun would plunge swiftly below an horizon, dark blue and from the hilltop a circle perfect as a ripple, travelling rhythmically out over the surface of a deep, still pool, and there was yet no spurt of dust on the track, François climbed down the hill and started home despondently. He was more disappointed than he would care to admit, because he had woken that morning with a hunch that his father would definitely come home that day. But no sooner had he found the footpath at the bottom of the hill when he was startled by an outbreak of barking from the five large mongrel watch-dogs they kept on the farm.