Regular readers will know that the first thing I usually do when the
Man Booker International Booker Prize longlist is announced is to put out a few posts summarising the titles I’ve previously read and reviewed. This year, however, that won’t be necessary. Why? Well, that’s because (surprisingly) I haven’t actually tried any of them 😦
As a result, we’ll instead be heading off on the first leg of a thirteen-stage journey, a vicarious trip around the world with no passport required. Today sees us heading off to South Africa, but our tale takes us back to a time before the modern country existed, and we’ll be roughing it in a dangerous border region in the company of a man who is best described as larger than life. Saddle up, then, oh, and watch out for the hippos – we don’t want any casualties on our very first outing for the year…
Red Dog by Willem Anker
– Pushkin Press, translated by Michiel W. Heyns
(Review copy courtesy of the publisher)
What’s it all about?
As the eighteenth century ticked over into the nighteenth, the region now occupied by the Republic of South Africa was a land in flux, contested by a multitude of indigenous rulers and foreign interlopers. As the Dutch and English struggled for control of the Cape, further inland the local tribes crossed the ephemeral lines of the border at will, engaging in their own conflicts and taking off with the white settlers’ cattle for good measure. It was a harsh life out on this African frontier, and it took a special type of person to survive.
One man who not only survived but thrived, though, was Coenraad de Buys, a semi-legendary figure whose mere name sent shivers down the spines of respectable Cape-dwellers. Having left his family behind at a tender age, Buys spent his life flitting back and forth between the colonists and the natives, occasionally setting down for a while in a crude farmhouse, only to inevitably burn it down and head off on a trek. His fearless nature and command of local languages also made him welcome in the settlements and villages of the local tribes, where he never shied away from helping to attack enemies – including the Dutch…
Red Dog is less a novel than a stylised biography of a fascinating individual. From humble beginnings, Buys (very much a real historical figure) outgrew his origins (which is hardly surprising given that he was reputed to be almost seven-feet tall!). By the time of his death at the age of around sixty, he was already a living legend, and the lack of technology, leading to indifferent communication and plenty of rumours, only added to the myth. Imagine, if you will, a Davy Crockett or Ned Kelly, but one who stayed alive until old age – that might give you an idea of the stature of Coenraad de Buys.
In terms of a plot, despite the frequent moves and skirmishes, Red Dog has a fairly simple one, just the story of a man on the veldt. The tale is told by Buys himself, or his ghost (the first-person voice frequently refers to himself as ‘Omni-Buys’ or ‘Omni-I’), and while he takes us through what the history books say happened, he also allows us to come closer, telling us what the historians don’t know. The truth?
Why are you fidgeting so uncomfortably? Of course it never happened. The truth is never like anybody’s gaudy fantasies, it’s always greyer…
p.130 (Pushkin Press, 2019)
Well, truthiness, anyway – a far more colourful picture, as befits a rather colourful character.
So what picture do we get of the big man? Well, his liking for women is one aspect of his nature that certainly cannot be ignored. Over the years, he takes three wives of different races, but that’s merely scratching the surface of his sexual adventures; at every camp he visits, he takes advantage of local customs (and nubile young women). Even glossing over one other ‘marriage’ to the mother of Ngqika, one of the more prominent local kings, that’s a lot of sleeping around, and (as you might expect) with very little thought of birth control. Old Coenraad had a *lot* of kids…
In spite of (or perhaps because of) all his bedroom antics, he still had plenty of energy for violence and seemed perpetually unable to avoid conflict. Like any true outsider, he was reluctant to be controlled by the authorities, and the first parts of Red Dog feature constant skirmishes and dreams of rebellion. Buys was prone to dreaming up schemes to find more ivory, more cattle, and delighted in urging his temporary partners to attack nearby tribes. However, from rather shifting alliances, these fast friends often became mortal enemies.
These tales of frontier life may sound fun (and they are, in parts), but beware: in truth, Red Dog, with its unsanitised version of a turbulent life, can make for uncomfortable reading at times:
I suppose I should have warned you: If you want to see me, you must be prepared to see too much. I know what you want to read. I know what to whisper to you, what excites you, because that is what makes my breeches bulge. We’re not that different. In fact, we become more and more alike. But beware, there’ll come a point on this road we’re so companiably walking together when it will be too late to turn around. (p.175)
I’m warning *you*, dear reader. This is a book dripping with misogyny, racism, sex (with men and women) and murder, so if that doesn’t sound like your thing, I’d think twice about opening it. There were times when I wasn’t sure if this was for me, and I have no doubt that other readers will find it even more disturbing.
Yet, it’s not a tale of a complete monster, just of a man of his time (and place). Buys is aware of his excesses and occasionally ponders his life, wondering what else is out there. At the heart of the novel is a friendship with an old missionary, and while our friend may sometimes mock the old man, he actually admires him at heart, and the embers of Buys’ faith never go out entirely. This helps him to remain faithful (in his own manner…) to his wives and keeps the odd family structure together even when he’s absent.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the man’s nature, though, is his complete inability to settle down. He builds a fair few houses over the years, and even manages to spend a decade or so on a farm after receiving an amnesty from his many crimes. However, the urge to move on eventually returns:
The hassle with my neighbours was merely the spark in the powder keg under my butt. My arse had been itching for a long time to trek. It’s as if my guts and my arsehole throb along with all the world; the contractions and then the expulsions, the coil and release. The whole world breathes in and out and I along with it; I can no longer hold my breath. How can a man sit still if the peristalsis of God’s creation makes his rear end crawl with all the cramping up and letting go? (p.237)
Perhaps, then, the key to Red Dog is the travelling, Buys’ constant treks into the wilderness, and Anker’s lyrical descriptions of his Wanderlust and the land his protagonist roams. Coenraad knows full well that he has no destination, and that there’s nothing he really wants. He just needs to be on the road until it’s time to rest for good.
That’s exactly what happens. At the end of Red Dog, we see a man with his tribe, a horde of hundreds of people, a rag-tag, mongrel mixture of peoples, black, white and mixed, family and followers. And following at a distance, the pack of dogs that have surrounded Buys since his early days, a distorted mirror-image of his own tribe, with the blood of hyenas becoming ever thicker in their veins. The story comes full circle…
Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
As difficult as it is to make judgements so early into the journey (or should I say ‘trek’), I don’t think this will be among my favourite six books. There’s a lot to like about it, not least the larger-than-life protagonist, and I suspect that in terms of the writing, this will be right up there. Heyns has done superb work, and it’s refreshing to read an English very different to the mid-Atlantic hybrid we often find in translations. His version was clearly written with a South African audience in mind, and in addition to sprinklings of words from Afrikaans, there’s also the odd grammatical (for me) novelty, such as the use of ‘or’ to mean ‘when’.
However, Red Dog was a hard book to get into, and it did drag in places – and if you’re looking for a plot, well, there isn’t one, unless you count the big man’s path from cradle to grave. More importantly, though, there’s a lot here that will disturb many readers, with violence, murder and racial comments that aren’t always what you would want or expect. Yes, this was a different era, and Buys treats most white men with just as much disdain, but there are times here where the reader may be tempted to leave the old man to carry on the trek by himself.
Will it make the shortlist?
It’s possible. As mentioned, it’s very well written, and I could well imagine trying this again one day, perhaps at greater leisure. In addition, with a good number of books from French, German and Spanish, something a little different may well stand out for the judges – and Buys is nothing if not different 😉
Let’s load up the carts and bid the Buys clan farewell as it’s time to head off on the next leg of our journey. This time we’re off to Europe, and even further back in time, but there’s no escaping the guns and slaughter, I’m afraid. Still, even in the darkest of hours, there’s always laughter, and if you’re looking for someone to cheer you up, I know just the fellow…