By ARJA SALAFRANCA
The Afrikaner by Arianna Dagnino
It’s always interesting to see ourselves, as South Africans, reflected through another’s gaze as author Arianna Dagnino does in The Afrikaner. A multi-cultural author with roots in Italy and now resident in Canada, this novel is based on time she spent in this part of the world.
It opens in the mid 1990s. Democratic elections are over and the new ANC government is in power. It opens with a bang, literally, as Wits-based Italian palaeontologist Dario Oldani is shot in a hijacking in Johannesburg’s CBD. He was the lover of Zoe du Plessis, another palaeontologist, also based at Wits University. She is ‘the Afrikaner’ of the title and the story is focused on her after the events of the tragedy.
She struggles to move on from the death of her lover. And she is snagged between the present and the past – caught in the pages of the diaries left behind by a series of aunts. These are women who died unmarried, women who had been loved once – but the men died early, and the threat of a curse hangs through their deaths.
Zoe and her brother, Andre, lost their parents young to a car accident. He has inherited and runs the family wine farm, Finistère, a place where Zoe retreats after Dario’s death to read through diary entries – again, to try to come to terms with the senselessness of Dario’s death.
Back in Johannesburg, she asks to take over Dario’s research in the Kalahari, where he had been excavating a site hoping to find evidence of early humans. Some of the most moving, picturesque scenes of this novel take part in this hot, scoured part of southern Africa. Zoe is accompanied by Sam Kaleni, a Rastafarian, and Koma, a shaman Bushman who she met years ago while excavating in another part of the world. Both men provide her with her some entry into a world that is not familiar to her.
Dagnino describes the beauty of this coruscating place with a depth that brings it alive: “It’s there that, for the first time, she encountered the power of geographical emptiness, the non-place where, as the Bushmen say, you can hear the stars sing.” The months pass as her team digs and yet, there is little evidence of human life in the caves, and morale among the team becomes low.
Interspersed with time in the desert are her trips to Finistère, where her brother André is bringing a black partner on board, a man named Cyril. The ‘new’ South Africa is barely born – and few farms have black partners in this deeply conservative part of the world, still. André is deeply aware of the changes that must be welcomed and that, “We are destined to become a cumbersome minority.”
There’s a deep sense of guilt in Zoe. Guilt at her Afrikaner origins, and at the fact that she did nothing to oppose apartheid and racism while studying in the 1980s. And musing on her relations with those who are not white, the painful truth comes to light, the lack of knowing that causes more guilt: “She grew up in Africa, but she doesn’t know them. There are millions of them in her country, yet – except for her interaction with a bunch of researchers and medical students – she hasn’t shared much with them. She doesn’t know how they reason, what they really think of whites, how they judge whites, or how much they hate whites.”
Enter too, a brooding Afrikaans writer, a stealer of stories from the silences, a man who has been in prison for his opposition to the system and for marrying a woman a woman who was not white, now dead. He is Kurt, an enigmatic man, a friend of her brother, who exerts a pull over Zoe as she starts to move out of her own grief, and so, in the midst of all, begins a slow, curious dance towards something more with this man.
The story is beguiling – with its elements of paleoethology, the deep need to find out more about our origins, mingled with the newness of the country where the people who have been separated for years are now circling each other with a mixture of hope and confusion. Continuing to be dodged by personal demons, Zoe is invited to take part in a shamanic healing by Koma and another resident Bushman shaman under the Kalahari night sky in prose that brings the strangeness of human experiences alive.
The theme of past and future, of searching for meaning in a past, even while that past might feel redundant, runs strongly through the story. Palaeontology serves as a metaphor – Zoe excavating her past and her past guilt as thoroughly as she excavates the sands in the Kalahari.
And so, an outsider shining a light on some of our stories – does it succeed? At times I felt the points were hammered home a little too unsubtly and Zoe’s immense sense of guilt doesn’t always ring true. Or, at least, I wanted more interiority to justify Zoe’s feelings. I also wondered about the choice of the title, which suggests that Zoe is emblematic of all Afrikaners, whereas one character cannot stand for all of a particular group. I would have preferred a title that was less abstract and did more justice to the beauty of the novel, the rich writing about landscape, palaeontology, and the birth pangs of the ‘new’ South Africa. So yes, this entertaining novel succeeds on many levels, shot with deep understanding of the complexities of this land at a particular time. Dagnino’s writing on landscape and the country, and the injustices inherent in Johannesburg’s geography, is acute.
The book works as a love story, as exploration both within and without, and as paean to a time in our country’s history when we were emerging into something new, with problems that still tentacle into the present.