Cape Argus


- PARTS UNKNOWN Zirk van den Berg Kwela Books Review: Alan Peter Simmonds

IN THE early 20th century, when SouthWest Africa (SWA, now Namibia) was a part of the imperial German empire, life was harsh under an oppressive colonial heel. As indigenous cultures were ruthlessly eradicated, an uprising by the Herero (part of the Nama peoples of the area) tribe in early 1904, continuing until 1907, was brutally put down.

It was a case of modern Teutonic military expertise against tribesmen armed mostly with obsolete weapons – similar to Italian genocide in Abyssinia and Belgian cruelty in the Congo.

More than 80% of the Hereros were wiped out: “Within the German borders every Herero, whether armed or unarmed, with or without cattle, will be shot,” heroically proclaimed General Lotha von Trotha, commander of the troops sent to put down the uprising.

Many Herero died of starvation and thirst as they fled through the Omaheke Desert; 12 000 who surrendere­d were put into concentrat­ion camps where medical experiment­s (Martin Bormann’s father?) plus daily executions occurred.

Using this ugly scenario as a backdrop, South African writer Zirk van den Berg, born in Walvis Bay, Namibia – whose grandfathe­r fought with Louis Botha in World War I against the Germans in SWA – in his 13th novel brilliantl­y traces the vicissitud­es of blacks and whites enmeshed and ensnared in a tragic horror quagmire.

Parts Unknown, set in 1905, is a compelling, if unsettling, reading. Its main characters straddle the personas trapped in that conflict as it raged across SWA.

Lisbeth Löwenstein, a Jewish woman whose destitute parents are paid by a German settler for her hand, becomes a reluctant, but then resolute, Herero “kinswoman” when her husband dies after a fall from his horse.

Siegfried Bock, a soldier seeking glory, finds his elan evaporate as he witnesses German atrocities; but cleverly the author draws him into contact and conflict with the book’s other luminaries.

A Herero man from Damaraland, Mordegai Guruseb, miraculous­ly escapes from a concentrat­ion camp, but, as normally follows with those who flee tyranny, his freedom is soon again compromise­d.

There is also the German concept of Aryan superiorit­y in a failed medic, Albert Pitzer, whose cranky eugenic theories are debunked by Nama leader and schoolmast­er Alvaus Luipert.

Set against SWA’s harsh environmen­t, characters battle to maintain their dignities and resolution­s. Like an Adolph Yensch canvas, humans and landscape merge in myopic mirages which enthral and entrap, so dedicated and clear are the author’s skills.

A fluent, bilingual writer, Van den Berg worked as a copywriter before moving with his family to Auckland, New Zealand, in 1998.

He also translated Wilbur Smith’s

The Sound of Thunder and six of the writer RL Stine’s youth stories in the

Grillers series into Afrikaans.

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