Richard Mason is an extraordinary writer. For anyone who has read his previous books that will not come as a surprise. This book is special. It has come from deep within the heart of his South African soul. It is set in the rural heartland of the Eastern Cape, the land that produced Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko and so many others who gave themselves to the struggle from freedom.
You can learn about the history of Piet Barol in “History of a Pleasure Seeker” which will tell you about this life before he took ship for Cape Town, meeting his wife and some of the more peripheral characters of this story on the boat. It is not necessary to read this book to understand “Who KIlled Piet Barol?” I would recommend it because the exuberance of the writing is a sheer pleasure. But it is not necessary. All you need to know is contained within the story. Piet Barol is a furniture-maker setting off into the Eastern Cape forests in search of mahogany and other woods for a commission from a Randlord. You also do not need to know anything before reading this about South African history, because everything that you do need to know is contained within the story.
From the 1820s onwards, the Xhosa-speaking people of the Eastern Cape faced the aggression of the European colonialists, who seized their land and drove them back. In their desperation, they listened to a young prophetess, Nongqawuse, called upon her people to kill their cattle so that the ancestors would drive the colonialists from the land. Some leaders, not many, refused to do this. The bedrock of this story is that an unnamed Great Founder took his people into the depths of the Gwadana forest with their cattle to escape the madness that had been unleashed by the Xhosa in their desperation. The cattle-killing which led to the final defeat of the Xhosa took place less than 40n years before the setting of this story.
The Gwadana Forest is one of the main characters in the book. It is a real place. It is situated not that far from where I lived in Hobeni when I was volunteering for the Donald Woods Foundation. I never went there, mainly because the Cwebe Forest and the estuary of the Mbanyana River were closer, but also because it has a reputation for being dangerous, haunted, a place of ill-omen. And you do not have to be superstitious to be wary of a place where they may still be leopards and pythons. 100 years ago, when this story is set, there were leopards and pythons.
Piet Barol goes to Gwadana because he wants its wood. He persuades Luvo and Ntsina to take him there. Luvo agrees because he wants to raise the money to join the ANC delegation going to London to protest the ratification of the 1913 Native Land Act by the British Parliament. He does not know that the delegation has already gone to London and been unsuccessful. Ntsina simply wants to go home, to get away from the mines. Luvo is a Christian, schooled by missionaries. Ntsina follows the traditional beliefs of his forebears, including his grandmother Nosakhe, who is the village sangoma., which the whites (mlungu) translated into English as witch doctor, giving no respect to Xhosa spirituality whatsoever.
Richard Mason does not present Xhosa life as some kind of idyll before the meeting with white men. He is well aware that we will find some customs horrific, and he does not shy away from that. He also does not shy away from showing men like Frank Albemarle as brutal, racist and deeply afraid.
All this gives you an idea of the South African history around which the story is crafted, of that time when the land was seized from the majority so that the men were forced to work in the gold and diamond mines, and the women were driven into domestic service. It tells you about the roots of apartheid.
What is does not tell you is about the care with which the story is constructed. Nor does it give any indication of the lyrical power that Richard Mason brings to his narration. This man cannot write an ugly sentence. This man allows empathy and understanding for characters who are repulsive. There is a deep humanity here, of the kind that you can find in Tolstoy. It has the passion about his country that you find in Nadine Gordimer, or in writers such as Mandla Langa.
I am very proud to know Richard Mason and to have done what I could, as a librarian, to encourage his talent, and to bring him to the attention of the reading public. This book proves that I was right. It is extraordinary. It is a book that you should read.