Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Novel of South Africa

The Covenant
The Covenant 
by James A. Michener

   "What we're looking for is beetles," old Kharu said as they searched the arid land, "but only the ones with two white dots." In fact they were not looking for adult beetles, but their larvae, and always of that special breed with the white specks and, Kharu claimed, an extra pair of legs.
   It was impossible to explain how, over a period of ten thousand years, these women and their ancestors had isolated this little creature which alone among beetles was capable of producing a poison of remorseless virulence. How had such a discovery been made? No one remembered, it occurred so long ago. But when men can neither read nor write, when they had nothing external to distract their minds, they can spend their lives in minute observation... San people had had time to study the larvae of a thousand different insects, finding at last the only one that produced a deadly poison..." —Rule of 33; The Covenant by James Michener

  James Michener built his reputation as a writer with his histories of contested lands: Israel (The Source), Korea (The Bridges at Toko-Ri), Hawaii, Mexico, Poland, Afghanistan (Caravans), and so on. By examining the land from the first—often before men had even come into the country—he was able to bring a perspective to these conflicts. By writing history as fiction, he communicates these perspectives in a very accessible way.
  In 1978 I spent six weeks in South Africa living in Johannesburg for business.  So I was intrigued when two years later Michener's historical fiction about South Africa was published and I read it.  The Covenant is Michener's novel of South Africa, from the time when only the nomadic San peoples (later called "Bushmen") lived there; to the coming of the Zulu tribes from the north at the same time as Dutch Huegenots settled at the southern tip of the continent; the arrival of the British colonial settlers; the passive rebellion of the Boers (Voertrekkers who left their rich colonial coast farms for the stony inner provinces) and their active rebellion (the Boer War, which the British nominally won); the clever way in which the former Boer general Oom Paul Kruger and his staff managed to wrest victory from that defeat, imposing apartheid on the nation; and the multicultural society that developed in the 80s when the fence between blanks (whites) and nie-blanks (non-whites) was finally broken.

  So in The Covenant, we meet the San and learn their depth of understanding of this land and its animals; this is their land by virtue of their command of its powers. The Boer is described with his forthright assumption of the covenant of Adam and Moses; this is his land by virtue of his willingness to invest the sweat of his brow in it.  And the Zulu tribes and their drive south to acquire grazing for their cattle are presented; it is their land by virtue of their blood and the blood of their children shed for it. Michener also discusses some of the motivations for British colonialism and the savage investment English-speaking settlers made in the Boer War; for these people, "British" is what their grandfather was—what they are is South African, and this is their land, too.

  I enjoyed the book and learned more about the history of the land I had visited but was not impressed enough to become a Michener fan.

The Covenant by James Michener. Random House, New York. 1980

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