Big story with a vital message packed into a slim volume
Charles Bentley’s novel may be slim in size, but it offers all the potential of a big story.
The threat and exploitation of the San is an often untold story and the writer pens an immersive tale of how a bio-prospector is tasked with sourcing medicinal plants to market to mainstream society.
In so doing he makes a discovery of such immense proportions that Western dealers in the business of commercial healing would pay any price for it; even the theft of intellectual property from an indigenous culture.
At the outset, the book lures the reader in a surreptitious manner: offering a sideways account of how the narrator and a man called Haldane find themselves in a remote part of the Cederberg.
But one feels at ease almost immediately with Bentley’s style: clear and descriptive with the innate skills of a perceptive and sensitive storyteller.
Haldane is a research worker who has made detailed observations of the Khoisan.
“You could say the fate of the Khoisan had become something of an obsession with him. A people at the gate,” observes the nameless narrator.
Bentley sets the scene as the narrator and Haldane hike in a remote wilderness, through scrub and imposing rock formations in search of this ancient culture. You will feel the aura of a landscape that is evocatively described: “We’d entered a mountain wilderness of turrets and sentinels and rock formations all weathered into crazed shapes like the sculptures of demented giants.”
And further on in searching for rock art in a climb: “Until that climb I’d never really paid much attention to rock art, accepting it in a way one takes for granted familiarities of place or possession The caves were time capsules containing messages from a past so distant as to pre-date oral tradition, civilisation, everything. Windows in pre-history, ten, twenty thousand years; other side of the last Ice Age.”
It’s while arduously searching for that elusive rock art that the narrator climbs up a treacherous rock face, with Haldane waiting down below, and, as mist envelops the mountains he is trapped and we are back to the beginning of the story.
It starts innocuously enough. Four botanists are sent out “to look at the muti trade, see if there was anything we should know about”. The main character is the only straight botanist; the rest ethno botanists.
The narrator is unemployed and just about to hit rock bottom, the offer to travel back to southern Africa to source something special to trade comes at the right time.
The trip which leads him to the Cederberg is a wonderfully described, somewhat circuitous route - a road trip along which he makes many discoveries and is also given something in a Karoo town that has the potential to change his life. And it is in the Cape that he meets Haldane, who has knowledge of the San. The journey is fascinating as the narrator travels through the land, meeting people who have an indelible impact on him as he makes key discoveries about the First Nations and himself.
It comes full circle, after being stranded on the inaccessibly steep cliff, the main character is rescued and down below in the barren landscape there is a showdown between the bio-prospectors, the San and those caught in the middle. There’s a crescendo: the Khoi gather in a dance that is half trance, half frenzy, while a moral debate fuels the flames of conflict between the two sides as to what is right and wrong.
It’s a cleverly structured book, beautifully written, into which one is unexpectedly drawn.
In the introduction, John van Rooyen, the chairperson of the Gauteng Khoi and San Council and councillor of the National Khoi and San Council writes of the book: “It highlights the vast knowledge that the San and Khoi peoples had of their territories and how they preserved the land, the plants, the animals, their incredible lifestyles, living in harmony with themselves, with everything around them juxtaposed against the hardcore reality of modern life, it makes for intriguing reading.”
I couldn’t agree more. Worthwhile and highly informative with a message that is vital for us in the 21st century.