Strangers in a strange land

28 January 2014 - 02:00 By Darrel Bristow-Bovey

In 1782 the Grosvenor, a three-masted, square-rigged East Indiaman en route home from Madras, ran aground off the coast of Pondoland near the Umzimvubu River.

A total of 123 castaways set off on foot for the Cape, shoeless babes on Caliban's shore. Local writer James Whyle's second novel, Walk, tells what happened.

It's less a story than the chronological narrative of an expedition even more primal than the one in Whyle's first novel, The Book of War, which cheekily reimagined Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, relocating it to the bloody Xhosa Wars of the Eastern Cape. As in that book, Walk is told through the third-person perspective of a nameless boy, and again Whyle makes it inhabit an earlier work, the way a hermit crab takes over a shell. This time it's the journal of William Hubberly, one of only 18 of the 123 to survive.

The castaways soon encounter local people. They don't know it but they've stumbled into the early stirrings of what Whyle will describe in The Book of War. They seek help but they're robbed and blood is shed, as bewildering and unexpected as the rocks that opened the hull of their ship. They encounter unspeakable cruelty, but they aren't much better themselves. They hold cursory discussions before the strong break off in groups, leaving the women and children and sick behind.

They shuck the codes of their civilisation even before they've lost their clothes and watches and gold. In one of the few encounters that doesn't end in violence, they trade for a bullock, and "their hosts sat among them with their intricately braided hair like a people much advanced in culture that had come by an accident of time into contact with their own savage and pale and apelike ancestors".

In other hands these encounters between Europe and Africa would be lousy with meaning and allegory and retrospective wisdom, but there are no morals here. Everything is an inexplicable sequence of often terrible events without cause and effect, the way life can be. Things just happen, one after the other like feet walking, and the sand and salt scour away symbolism and significance until what's left is a brutal poetry of indifference, another verse of a violent song of a violent land, neither consoling nor too pessimistic.

Whyle's writing is lean and spare - a much abused phrase when describing male South African prose stylists - but it generates hard beauty: "They were weak and very thin, like assemblies of driftwood draped in tattered cloth and knocked about by the wind . jerking puppet mendicants on a fine firm sandy beach in the rain. Each one carrying fire."

Depending on your taste, Whyle's weaknesses are the same as his strengths. He takes lack of sentiment to Cormacian or McCarthyish lengths. There's no interiority or consciousness, no backstory or character, none of the upholstery of storytelling. People are only what happens to them, and sometimes how they respond.

The writing is masculine in the old-fashioned sense, but perhaps the halls of South African literature are spacious enough to accommodate even an old-fashioned man.

We are left, really, with images: the castaways as some strange order on an unhappy pilgrimage, single file in the salt haze and half-light, holding aloft their smoking brands, fading and insubstantial as the patterns made by drifting sand.

  • 'Walk' is published by Jacana and available from Exclusive Books for R138