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Bundu: A Conversation Between Michiel Heyns and Chris Barnard

Michiel HeynsChris Barnard

Michiel Heyns recently interviewed top Afrikaans writer, Chris Barnard, about his book Bundu, which Heyns also translated into English. The book was first published in Afrikaans a decade ago, and was met with critical acclaim and commercial success. Bundu is set on the border of Mozambique during a humanitarian crisis, where a scientist and a nurse at a forgotten outpost of a clinic struggle to maintain their failing relationship:

BunduAnybody reading this book will be moved by the evident love of the landscape depicted, in spite of all the hardships it visits upon the poor humans inhabiting it. Is this your territory?

I grew up in the Lowveld of what is now known as Mpumalanga in a time when it was regarded as dangerous territory. The time of short wave radio, dirt roads, flooded rivers, big game hunters, malaria and more than just the odd mamba. We felt cut off from the rest of the world. Most of those who lived there did so because they had nowhere else to go.

This love of landscape, of course, is here mediated through Brand de la Rey, who is a scientist, in other words who seeks to understand and order natural phenomena in terms of ‘rational’ means. Is this your own approach, or do you feel more attracted to the alternative modes of understanding dramatized in the book? I’m thinking, of course, of Vusi, whose conversations with the ancestors are deliberately contrasted with Brand’s experiments, but there are others, too, for instance Father Johnny and Sister Roma.

I’m no scientist, but I read science and will always be fascinated by it. Where would we be without it? At the same time I’m intrigued by the supernatural. Although nearly nothing of the latter can be understood and explained, not all of it should be regarded as nonsense. The problem with sangomas, for instance, is that many of them are chancers. I think it’s foolish to reject and belittle something simply because you don’t understand it.

The last words of the novel are “Now I’m no longer so sure.’ Would it be correct that that is the one lesson Brand learns in the course of the novel: not to trust his own insights too much, and not to be dismissive, for instance, of Vusi’s beliefs?

Yes, I think that is correct. In the end, maybe sadder, but also a tad wiser. There are more things in heaven and on earth, Horatio, than science has ever dreamed of.

I’m particularly intrigued by your use of the baboons, especially the sentinel Malume. How do you see the relation between humans and baboons in this book? Could you say something, for instance, about the strange relationship (attraction? antipathy?) between Malume and Strydom?

Because baboons can be dangerous and unpredictable, most people are afraid of them. So is Strydom. Malume senses this. And probably, I guess, regards him as an intruder. Due to the time they have spent together, Malume sees De la Rey as an ally and confidant. There may even be a degree of possessiveness.

Is it your intention to imply that there may be a connection between the baboons and Strydom’s disappearance?

Your guess is as good as mine. My guess is no. Maybe Strydom had merely “seen enough. That, after all, was that”. (p 203). This was Brand’s guess, but he was closer to the scene than the author and the reader.

Do you see your novel as ultimately pessimistic about the potential of human beings to make contact with one another, and with non-human species? Is the search for understanding, which Brand so movingly shares with Malume, doomed to failure?

Yes, I think it is. Charity begins at home, they say, but so does loneliness. And it will never change. Unless we eventually become what Brand de la Rey calls Homo intuitivus.

Your novel, is among many other things, a moving love story. I found myself rebelling, though, against Julia’s leaving, just when she’d found the one person who could make her happy. Why could she not have stayed? Or is she constitutionally incapable of being happy?

Or is she, above all, simply yearning for lasting happiness? Most people keep on making the same mistakes. Others don’t. I hated that sentence the moment I wrote it. But I knew, as she knew, there was no other way out. Maybe she was scorned once too often, or maybe she had seen enough to realize that a life with Brand de la Rey, a dedicated recluse somewhere in an endless nowhere, would be the end of her mission to serve a greater cause.

Brand talks of ‘that deep concealed place to which everything is connected and where everything interlocks and from which everything radiates in invisible trajectories’, and calls it ‘unreachably far’. Are there intimations of that place in your novel? Or is it known only by its absence?

In more ways than one I see Bundu as a story about absence. And, if you like, about the so very near and the ‘unreachably far’, and the unbridgeable abyss in between. Eugene Marais believed that baboons are human in the sense that they have this inkling there is something they do not know. That is one of the human race’s most powerful driving forces. Malume and his kind is not there yet. That may be the reason why, every day just before dark, they lapse into hesperic depression, the sadness that comes with the evening star.

To quote from the novel: ‘What is this thing, between one human being and another, that is so vertiginous that it makes the last step towards each other impossible?’ Does your novel attempt an answer, say, in the case of Brand and Julia?

I wish I could answer this question. But then the story would have ended differently.

What is this thing? Will anybody ever know?

One of the most striking things about your novel is the cast of very original characters you assemble: Vukile, Strydom, Jock Mills, De Gaspri, and of course Brand and Julia. Would it be fair to say that they are all in the bundu because somehow they didn’t fit in in the ‘ordinary’ world? Is the bundu an escape or an attraction?

An escape, I suppose. And therefore an attraction. The question remains, though – what do we mean by the ‘ordinary world’? Gauteng? Manhattan? Putsonderwater? Or the wilderness of northern Natal?

The description of the drought and the fate of the Chopis is harrowing in the extreme. Could you comment on its place in the larger scheme of the novel? (Or, for that matter, in the large scheme of things, as presented by the novel, whether we call it the Great Process or the Grand Design?)

I sincerely believe, and science acknowledges this, that nothing in nature happens just for the fun of it. Often it baffles us, it causes pain and distress, but in the greater scheme of things, nature always knows best.

Yes, I think it is Brand who reflects that the drought is as much part of the Great Process as any other natural manifestation. But isn’t it true that nature has been interfered with so disastrously that she no longer knows best? The drought and subsequent flood in your novel could be seen as brought about by climate change, which most scientists regard as caused by human intervention?

Then how do we explain the droughts and floods in all the previous ages? As far as I can gather none of them were caused by human intervention. We are merely precipitating the process.

Would it be fair to say that ultimately you see something heroic in the quest for meaning that all the characters in one way or another share? Or is it merely sad that they seem doomed to failure?

The world is full of unsung heroes. Heroism is an integral part of the story of humankind.

An unfair question: do you have a favourite character in the novel? (I think mine is Strydom.)

I have more than one favourite. Vusi, because he kept on sabotaging my carefully planned plot; Strydom, because he slipped through my fingers time and again, the moment before I thought I had him pinpointed; Jock Mills, because he was such an unlikely hero; and Julia simply because she was so totally unattainable.

You would seem to imply, then, that your characters have some independence, develop along lines that don’t necessarily follow your intentions? Is this more true of some characters than of others? And if so, could you attempt to explain why?

All my main characters have a degree of independence. They must manipulate the author, not the other way round. If not, they become predictable. And predictable characters will always bore readers. Plotting a novel before you start writing it, is fine and even essential but can only be a point of departure.

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Photo of Barnard courtesy the University of Pretoria

 

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