Jacket Notes | Eben Venter on his novel ‘Decima’

26 November 2023 - 00:00
By Eben Venter
Eben Venter
Image: Supplied Eben Venter

Sometime during 2019 I held a giant “tietie” bottle with milk-formula for an orphaned rhino calf. Into its amber eyes I looked, and at that point I decided to write a story about the life and times of the rhinoceros, specifically the Diceros bicornis or black rhino, which became the most threatened of the species.

Into my research I jumped: black rhinos browse, they don't graze, and their midden or dungheap acts like a nerve centre of signals for the entire crash of rhinos. A ranger walked me to the bleached, clean-picked remains of a rhino that died a natural death, and in Hazyview I drove past the eerily deserted villa of a kingpin, while in Motherwell, Eastern Cape, I consulted a sangoma.

This I learnt: to tell the whole story of the rhino, I needed many voices. This novel, unlike any of my previous work, demanded multiple narrators. There was my own voice telling of the rhino reserve in the Eastern Cape with its wealth of spekboom; or my visit to the Museum of Africa to view the exploitation of the Congo by King Leopold II of Belgium; and there was my mother’s voice: “If someone doesn’t like animals there’s something wrong with them.” There were the voices of the two researchers setting off to Hong Kong to see why and how traditional Chinese medicine men use rhino horn in their concoctions. There were two poachers, one white and one black, both driven by poverty to take their chance and enter the reserve on a moonlit night. All the time, these voices were weaving together the tale of the black rhinoceros.

Decima by Eben Venter.
Image: Supplied Decima by Eben Venter.

One voice was still missing: the voice of Decima, the black rhino mother. Can I really suspend the disbelief of the reader and let the rhino herself talk in the book? My partner read the first draft of my novel and, when he got to Decima chatting away with Skalpie the vulture, exclaimed: “Oh, this sounds just like a Disney cartoon.” Maybe, and that was OK too. I distorted and made up words to get Decima’s voice right; I wanted the reader to experience the world through her eyes (rhinos don’t see that well), her ears and her nose. Because the rhinoceros is a sentient being, a creature who musters an entire catalogue of wisdom about the bushveld and about the history of the crash that came before her.

Oh, you’re one to talk,” Decima snorts as Skalpie tries to convince her that the Cape vulture has become a victim of poachers too. Poaching, I am at pains to show, is but a part of the rich, long life of the black rhino. In the space of just under two hundred pages, Decima will, as she lives through the phases of the moon, show and tell her fellow megaherbivores, as well as all the humans who at times care, at times dismiss her crash, that they are an essential part of our precious Blue Planet.   

Decima is published by Penguin Random House. Click here to buy a copy.