A Bushman Abroad: South African Novelist Searches for the Heart of 'Darkest England'

Fairy Tales often are overlooked when one thinks of serious fiction, but the most memorable ones contain the three key elements of good story writing: a compelling main character, a perilous and important quest, and an engaging plot to propel the tale.In "Darkest England," white South African writer Christopher Hope ("Serenity House") has written a modern fairy tale. The novel tells the story of David Mungo Booi, a South African Bushman who travels to England to confront Queen Elizabeth and hold her to the long-ago royal promise to protect the Bush people and "kick the arse" of the South African Boers "all the way from the Snow Mountain to Murderer's Karoo."Booi is a compelling enough main character, and his quest to see the queen is certainly worthy, but Hope has forgotten to send his little Bushman off with a plot in his duffel bag. This is not a case where two-out-of-three equals "ain't bad"; it merely adds up to "blah."Booi's Bushmen, or San people, claim the original ownership of South Africa. They were displaced by the Zulu peoples, who came into the country from the north, and later by the British and the Dutch Boers, who came up from the southern coasts."These early visitors," Hope writes, "rose from the sea, crept up the beaches like waves and, looking into our slanting eyes, pronounced us to be 'Chinese Hottentots.' The longer the visitors stayed, the more names they gave us: we became 'Egyptian gypsies,' or 'wild' Bushmen, as well as vagabonds, foxes, vermin, devils."Looked down upon by both black and white, homeless, driven from any place they try to make camp, forbidden even to gather firewood by the side of the road, the Bushmen remain one of the last wandering hunter-gatherer peoples of this earth.The setup for a wonderful study in irony and cultural contrasts is all there. In the 18th and 19th centuries, British invaders swarmed over Africa, raiding the continent of its riches. Booi, in fact, is named for two of those explorers, David Livingstone and Mungo Park, and he has been raised on tales of their conquests.Booi models his British expedition exactly on the British exploration of Africa. He plans to hire some British "natives" to carry his bags and to help him explore the countryside at his leisure for possible homesites for his people; he makes sure to carry along beads and other trinkets to dazzle the British Queen when he finally meets her.We are promised -- and Hope often delivers -- a fresh look at British "civilization" (in many ways, of course, very similar to our own) through the eyes of a "simpler" people. Hope seems to know the intricacies of British life very well, and if he doesn't have a similar knowledge of the Bushman culture, he does an awfully good job of faking it.The mix is low on clichŽs and high on surprises, such as Booi's account of his discovery of the not-what-we've-been-led-to-believe differences between the British and Bushman sense of punctuality: I was amazed by the civil way in which the travellers tolerated ... delays [in the trains]. [My British companion] was puzzled. Surely, when setting out on a journey [the Bushmen] left the arrival time to chance and the gods? Certainly not, I replied. When setting out on a march of several days between waterholes, a journey that took a band of fifteen people across mountains and deserts, the travellers would know, to within an exact position of the sun, when they would expect to arrive. Well, said [my British companion], in his country individual freedoms far outweighed group expectations. And the most cherished of freedoms was the right to set one's own pace. And if this resulted in lateness, loss or failure, why, these setbacks were likewise cherished. ... Italy had suffered terribly for making the trains run on time. It was different, thank God, in England. Perhaps when [the Bushmen] people had reached a greater stage of technical advancement we would begin to appreciate that hard-and-fast demands were luxuries we could no longer afford.Unfortunately, good dialogue and the creation of intriguing scene-by-scene cultural conflicts are not enough. Hope would have done well to study (and copy) the technique of the great fairy talist L. Frank Baum, who never lets Dorothy take two steps in any direction unless it will further her goal to get back home.By contrast, Booi pursues two not necessarily compatible goals: to see the Queen and to explore the countryside. Too often, the latter gets a little too leisurely a treatment, and pages and pages and pages go by, like Lewis Carroll's Alice and the Red Queen, simply running in place. By the time Booi reaches Buckingham Palace -- well, it's anticlimactic to say that the final confrontation with the queen is anticlimactic.Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass" are two fairy tales that succeed in an incident-to-incident format, with hardly any plot line to hold them together. Perhaps they served as Hope's models. But Carroll made up for his lack of a plot with some of the cleverest writing ever produced in the English language. Christopher Hope is not so clever.Pity. This could have been a good one.

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