Sunday, October 28, 2012

Circles In A Forest - Dalene Matthee


Most of the literature from South Africa seems to deal with apartheid or its aftereffects, but Circles In A Forest, a 1984 novel by Dalene Matthee (1938-2005) goes back to the late 19th century when the rest of the world began to take an interest in South Africa following the discovery of diamonds in the 1860s and gold soon after that.  The forest of Matthee's title is Knysna, a temperate woodland known for its abundance of trees that were quite desirable for furniture makers all over the world.

Saul Barnard, the protagonist of Circles In A Forest, is born into the world of the woodcutters.  Barely surviving, the woodcutters (descendants of the Dutch people who first came to South Africa) chop and transport the wood under often treacherous situations only to sell their wagon loads to dishonest wood merchants (the British are definitely the bad guys in this novel) who undersell them ruthlessly, then turn around and sell them supplies, always making sure that the woodcutter is in debt to them.  In fruitless attempts to get ahead, some woodcutters resort to killing the elephants in the forest (referred to as 'bigfeet' because it's bad luck to say 'elephant') for their ivory tusks.

From a young age, Saul can see the 'crooked circle' that the woodcutters are walking.  They are destroying the forest -- both the magnificent trees and noble animals as well as the next generation's means of making a living.  He notices the way his proud, strong father and brother being taken advantage of and experiences firsthand being treated by the people of the town as ignorant and wild. Saul soon becomes an outcast because none of the woodcutters will listen to him.  They think he's either crazy or they think he's spying for the government, which began making steps towards woodland conservation in the 1880s.  Rebuffed in the woods and in town, Saul is forced to make his own way.

Most of the novel is told in flashback.  Saul as a grown man searches for Old Foot, an elephant that is believed to have killed his nephew.  Another woodcutter is on Old Foot's trail, but Saul, who has encountered Old Foot many times during his life, is circling the forest determined to find the legendary elephant first.

Circles In A Forest was first published in Afrikaans.  The translation is excellent, retaining the cadence of the old-fashioned language style.  The novel has the full-bodied flavor of a 19th century novel.  Matthee tips her cap to Charles Dickens and there's also a feeling of Thomas Hardy and later, as a love story develops, a faint whiff of D.H. Lawrence.  Saul is a little too good to be true -- smart, handsome, resourceful, highly principled -- but since this is a 19th century novel in disguise, he's just what the reader wants and the result is greatly satisfying.  I'm so pleased that my Cracked Spinez buddy, Pieter loaned me this book; it's a wonderful read and I'm worried that this review isn't doing it justice.  Track it down.  Add it to your wishlist and find out about this literary treasure for yourself.


5 comments:

Rebecca Scaglione said...

I have to say it sounds really good! I would love to read it!

Unruly Reader said...

"A little too good to be true" -- I'll take it. I'd never heard of this book and now am highly intrigued...

Melwyk said...

Do you know, I have a copy of this sitting on my overstuffed shelves but had forgotten all about it... going to find it now! What an enticing review.

Kathleen said...

I will definitely add this to my list!

Jeane said...

Oh, I love this book! And you're the first other reader I know who's read it. I found it on a bargain shelf at a bookstore ages ago and have read it many time since. Did you find the constant jumping back and forth in time confusing? I remember the first time I read it I kept getting mixed up so I actually went and marked in the margins every place the story jumped time frames and read them all in chronological order first, ha ha. Never repeated that but it was interesting to say the least.