Thursday, 12 September 2013
Living on the Edge: White Dog Fell from the Sky
This is a large, capacious, generous novel which celebrates human staying power, courage and honesty. White Dog Fell from the Sky (Penguin), by Eleanor Morse is set in Botswana in 1977, and takes in the vast landscapes of that dry land - "this world of interminable blue sky, heat that scoured your brains clean".
It takes us to some remote places. It moves from the lives of the !Kung San (the name used in the novel), struggling to survive on the edge of the Kalahari, to an old woman digging for tubers in the sand, to the rather more comfortable lives of the expatriate community in Gaborone, to the stark terror of torture in an apartheid prison. Morse tackles these different experiences with an unflinching honesty.
The novel owes a great deal to the author's experience of living in Botswana in the mid-1970s. She is an American who lives on Peaks Island, Maine. This is her third novel (and the only one set in Africa). One senses that it must have been brewing in her mind for a long time. The setting (Botswana) enables her to move beyond the ordinary securities of suburban life. Her citing of Faulkner's Nobel address is a clue to her approach to the writing of fiction: "I wanted to write about the human heart, its losses and joys, its separations and connections".
This is an ambitious project, and the novel does not fail. Essentially, it is the story of three intersecting lives (the author admits that her novels are driven more by character than plot).
At the novel's centre is Alice Mendelssohn, an American who works for the Ministry of Local Government and Lands: her work partly explains her concern with the fate of the San/Bushmen (and in particular their claim to the land and to a way of life that has been theirs for thousands of years). Early on in the novel she discovers that her husband has been cheating on her (although their marriage seemed to be heading for failure anyway) and they separate.
Into her world comes Isaac Muthethe, a South African refugee (or illegal immigrant) whom she employs as a gardener. Isaac is a fourth-year university student. "The smart one", the potential provider for his family, he had started training to become a doctor. Circumstances forced him to flee to Botswana: he escaped hidden in a hearse and his arrival in Botswana is a kind of rebirth. He knows no one and has to rely on the kindness of strangers.
Along the way he is adopted by a white dog, who seems to come out of nowhere, and remains faithful to him, even when he disappears. A chance meeting leads him to accept shelter with an old school friend, Amen, now a member of MK. Isaac has no interest in joining the ANC; he simply wants to save his own life. Politics inevitably enter this novel, but it is not a political novel. Alice refuses to be addressed as "madam" by Isaac: she wants a relationship of mutual honesty - although, of course, theirs is not in fact a relationship of equals.
References to the !Kung San, their language and culture, their way of being in the world, run like a subtext through the novel. This helps to create a link with the third character whose life intersects with Alice's. Ian Henry doesn't respect the constraints and conventions of a "civilised" life.
He studied anthropology and fine arts at Cambridge, and has developed a passionate interest in Bushman paintings. He cares deeply about things (about the animals trapped by the fence, about the vanishing culture of the !Kung San). This marks him as different from most of the other expatriates in Botswana - and it is what draws Alice to him.
For his part, he senses how different she is from most of the other "expatriate wives", who come to Botswana as "appendages". Their honest and often difficult interactions point to the possibility of a different kind of relationship. He offers an uncomfortable perspective: "Freedom comes from knowing you're a dot. Smaller than a dot." At times he almost becomes a spokesman for the alternative way of life represented by the San, but since his observations arise from his developing relationship with Alice, the novel just manages to avoid didacticism.
White Dog Fell from the Sky deals well with intimacy, such as those moments when you discover your partner's infidelity, and you see her (or in this case him) with new eyes. Alice is uncompromising - or, put differently, she wants more than a marriage of comfort or|convenience. On a larger scale, the novel shows that bad things happen to good people, for no apparent reason: Isaac's little sister dies of malaria; his older brother dies in a mine; Isaac is tortured and almost dies. The SADF raid the shack in the informal settlement where Isaac stays with Amen, killing Amen's wife, Kagiso, and the other|occupants. The only survivor is her little girl, Ontibile (whose name, perhaps ironically, means "God is watching over me" - there is not much evidence of God watching over anyone in this novel.)
Is Isaac idealised (a fate that befalls many black characters, in the mode of Alan Paton's writing)? Not really. A strength of the novel is the author's ability to get inside the heads of her characters, and to understand the life circumstances of someone like Isaac. She does this in ways that are simple but convincing, and that gives credibility to her characters. Here is a short example of the unobtrusive strength of her writing:
"His mother had said nothing about herself in the letter. She did not have anger towards him. She wrote that it was better for him to be alive in Botswana than dead in South Africa. He picked up the spade and went back to work, standing at the top of the hole. With each shovelful of dirt, his anger grew, until he felt he could fill this whole hole with his fury. He felt he could hit someone's neck with a spade, break their neck the way he had broken the neck of the snake."
This is a man at the mercy of forces beyond his control.
Morse specialises in extreme experiences. These range from the struggle of the San to survive on the fringes of the Kalahari, to the death of a man who risks his life by cutting the fence that dooms herds of wild animals to death by thirst and starvation; it moves from torture in an apartheid prison, to the perhaps more "ordinary" human experiences of love, loss and desolation. The novel is haunted by an awareness of the precariousness and transience of human life. The old San woman digging for tubers and extracting a few drops of water from the dry earth is perhaps an example of this:
"Over her shoulder was slung a rough bag, made from the hide of a duiker. The bag held two small tubers and the hollow shell of an ostrich egg. In her left hand was a digging stick. Her feet were bare, her belly wrinkled with age. As she dug, her small breasts swung in rhythm with her stick?"
In the novel, Morse explores the frailty and fragility of human relationships - Ian comments at one point: "My whole life is a temporary reprieve, running out every day" - but it also affirms the tenacity that enables human beings to survive. It asks questions about home and belonging. Is home wherever one finds love and acceptance? This open-ended novel proposes a possible future where Isaac finds acceptance and possible healing living (for the time being) in a tent in Alice's garden. And Alice? Where is her home? And what consolation can she find for the almost unbearable loss of the man she loved?
One hesitates to extract a message from this rich and rewarding novel. But if there is one, it is perhaps the need not to drift through life (and relationships) "half-awake" or "half-there", or semi-insensible to the plight of others. Alice, it turns out, is not a drifter. - published August 18.