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South African novelist Brink (Cape of Storms, 1992, etc.) again revisits the past to tell a picaresque tale that is also a heartfelt but clumsy mea culpa. Drawing on sources as varied as Cervantes and period histories, Brink appropriates the bare outlines of French-born Estienne Barbier's life and turns them into a tale weighted with symbolism and myth. The suggestion that Barbier was an ""eighteenth century Cape social bandit"" provides the political and moral heft for a character who otherwise is a liar, a shameless seducer, and self-seeking adventurer. Barbier, awaiting execution for fomenting rebellion and defying local officials, relates his life story in the form of a letter to Rosette, a slave he had helped escape from the Cape. Once the ill-treated property of the odious Allemann family, Rosette is also a mythic storyteller. With the spirit of Joan of Arc and a copy of Don Quixote as his trusty companions, Barbier offers contradictory reasons for his coming to the Cape, but he becomes more credible as he recounts run-ins with the local Dutch authorities, his seductions, and his growing sympathy for the indigenous peoples. Betrayed by friends, with a price on his head, he ventures into the interior searching for Rosette and for the legendary kingdom of Monomatapa, as well as a way to ""break the cycle of hate and vengeance."" Many of the living and dead he meets forgive him, but others demand punishment. ""It is a terrible via dolorosa, yet I exult. This is my necessary purging on behalf of all of us who have invaded this space to subjugate it with our presumption and visit with our devastation."" Ready now for death, Barbier remains an unlikely -- and unconvincing -- voice for reconciliation and contrition. Despite some brilliant moments, the novel is more a creakily schematic reworking of history than a persuasive illumination of South Africa's tangled past. Disappointing.

Pub Date: Aug. 17th, 1994
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: "Little, Brown"