Cape Argus - - METRO - 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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