Adventure story with heart

2011-07-27 00:00

FIRST published in 1999 as Boendoe, this novel has waited 12 long years before appearing in English. However, it has been worth waiting for Michiel Heyns, that prince of translators, to create a reading ­experience that never gives the reader pause to wonder if something is really what the author said, or meant.

Chris Barnard, an original member of the group of writers known as the Sestigers, is a potent force in Afrikaans literature, and it is good to have his book made so accessible to an English-speaking readership.

Bundu is set in the remote country on the border between South Africa and Mozambique. The narrator, Brand de la Rey, is there because his scientific research has taken him there, but he, like the others in the neighbourhood, is also there because the remoteness offers a refuge from a difficult world.

But that world is about to intrude. Three years of extreme drought are driving desperate people over the border to a quiet, ramshackle mission station, staffed by an incompetent doctor, a couple of nuns, a traditional healer/general handyman, and Julia, a nurse who was once a nun.

She and Brand are drawn to each other, but the suffering of the refugees has to put all normal relationships on hold as the mission is overwhelmed by the catastrophe.

The only hope of rescue seems to lie with a strange, alcoholic recluse who has been rebuilding an ancient Dakota, abandoned in the bush years before by the South African Defence Force.

But the story is much more than adventure: it shows how people react to crisis, how they interact or fail to, and how much or how little they learn from the circumstances thrown at them by the world.

Bundu is an impressive novel, both of ideas and of action. And when Africa is suffering yet another drought disaster, it is very pertinent.

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