Canadian look at SA war

2010-12-15 00:00

THIS impressive novel is a Canadian take on the Anglo-Boer War, playing with and subverting a whole host of stereotypes. It draws on North American myths of cowboys and their horses; takes a hard look at ideas of male wartime camaraderie, and paints a portrait of the war that put nails into the coffin of fighting as romance.

The South African war was vicious, nasty and dirty: a fitting precursor to the filthy and unglamorous wars that have followed it through the 20th and into the 21st Centuries.

Stenson, who is an award-winning Canadian author, follows the fortunes of Frank Adams, a young cowboy from Alberta who volunteers for the Canadian forces being shipped out to South Africa to try to help the British bring things to an end.

The Canadians bring their horses, and ludicrously little knowledge of the war they are about to fight. Some of them have a mixture of Native American blood, which brings its own set of problems into a South Africa where racial attitudes are already hardening. Not that the Canadians are much better.

There is a huge cast of characters, from British generals, to Boer women, to dilettante journalists, to adventure seekers and spies. All, to a greater or lesser extent, become disaffected with the war and their lives. Some struggle to survive at almost any cost; others set out to get themselves killed.

The degree of military incompetence described by Stenson is staggering, while the way in which the public buy into the political propaganda is alarming. But those with knowledge come to see the war for what it is.

This is a powerful book, both sobering in its intent and a jolly good read into the bargain. And on the technical side, South African publishers could do worse than have a look at the way Canadians put a paperback together, though they presumably wouldn’t let “Viljeon” slip through as a regular spelling mistake.

Margaret von Klemperer

BOOK REVIEW

The Great Karoo

Fred Stenson

Anchor (Random House)

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