THE GREAT THIRST by William Duggan


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A first novel that's a history of the Kalahari Desert region of South Africa told in the anecdotal style of a tribal campfire story; it covers the coming of the Boers, the English, the diamond and gold mines, a war, and finally a massive drought. There ought to be enough in this material to guarantee Duggan a brimming, lively tale, but an overabundance of whimsy and digression strands the story in the sands of tedium. Duggan pins his tall tale on the legendary figure of the BaNare tribe, young Mojamaje, whose exploits are usually less than fantastic but are exaggerated by his contemporaries to serve the tribe's need for a hero and savior. Also, his feats make splendid entertainment, as this song about him indicates: ""First he ate a rock. Then he ate a bullet. Then Mojamaje ate a Boer."" It is typical of his story, and one of the better things about the book, that all the boy really did was huddle against a cliff during a battle. But with heroic deeds predicted of him, Mojamaje sets out fulfilling his promise by becoming the first BaNare to learn to plow--one of many Western inventions our hero will peer quizzically at before adopting. He travels into South Africa's Wild West-era frontier, learns Boer and English, lives with a strange half-breed family led by a sultry woman, Drift. He woos Drift's daughter Maka for years--and even marries her--before they consummate their love affair, all the while running guns to the BaNare while posing as missionary converts. The cast of characters and their various matings and migrations make Duggan's four genealogical charts useful reference material; less useful to the novel's momentum are the biographical tales the author has supplied for everyone who makes an appearance--there is only so much ""begatting"" that a reader should be asked to take, outside of the Old Testament. The drought is by far the least dramatic action in The Great Thirst's whimsically-meandering narrative. The story itself is often fascinating, overcoming the disadvantage of being recited in a tongue-in-cheek tone that mixes folklore and pop psychology. But it is uncertain whether Duggan actually intended to spoof this family saga in the oral tradition, or to use the incantatory power of myth to add majesty to his ambitious tale; this ambiguity is ultimately the reader's loss.

Pub Date: Oct. 25th, 1985
ISBN: 059521956X
Publisher: Delacorte