A Story Like the Wind
|Fifteen years or so ago — I know this because of the receipt I used as a bookmark — I first read Laurens van der Post’s two novels, A Story Like the Wind and A Far Off Place. They were so powerful that I couldn’t read any other fiction for months. They also stuck to me, little images that have enriched my life.|
A Far-Off Place
|For example, I’ve thought often about the time that the main character, 13-year-old Francois, behaved sharply and turned away from the adults who were trying to console him for the loss of his father. One of them, ‘Bamuthi, the Matabele leader on their homestead in the African bush, looks at the rest and says, “I give you a little fountain choked with mud.” They all nod, because they know the answer to the riddle: “the heart of a fatherless child.”|
I lost my father when I was two, and it took me many many years to clean the mud out of the fountain.
I recently picked them up again and found them just as engrossing, even though the author is an egregious side-tracker. In the middle of a storyline, he switches into an earlier storyline and from then into an earlier one, or perhaps a digression into the natural life of babboons or elephants or lions or perhaps a long philosophical exploration of relationships between people and between peoples … so that sometimes it is hard to keep track of where you are in the original story. But the digressions are so full of rich detail.
I found myself tearing off little bits of paper to mark passages to go back to. Here are some of them:
In A Story Like the Wind:
‘Bamuthi: “Then a man-child also had to learn how to sing and above all to dance; for dancing and singing were the best ways he had of showing gratitude for the good things of life. Song and, above all, dancing were the surest ways of helping a man to endure the great trials of his existence; they were needed at birth, marriage and before war to strengthen his heart. … at the moment when the final loss of his shadow was upon him and those he loved, to drive away the power of death and revive the desire to live.”
Francois successfully shoots a huge, rogue elephant, Uprooter of Trees, that is drunk on fermented fruit and running amok across the homestead. Family friend and wild-life conservationist, Mopani: All he could get himself to do, therefore, was to talk at some length of the unfailing knack life seemed to have of confronting a man at the most unexpected moments with problems as large and dangerous as had been old Uprooter of Trees. Human beings, he stressed, always knew more than they allowed themselves to know. One of the things they never knew clearly enough was the power they possessed of overcoming problems even if they were thrice the size of Uprooter of Great Trees.
Mopani: “Have you ever known a more beautiful evening? I’ve heard it said somewhere that human beings should look on all things lovely as though for the last time. But this is the kind of evening which makes me want to look on it as if for the first time.”
Mopani: Remember always, Little Cousin, that no matter how awful or insignificant, how ugly or beautiful, it might look to you, everything in the bush has its own right to be there. No one can challenge this right unless compelled by some necessity of life itself. … Life in the bush is necessity, and it understands all forms of necessity. It will always forgive what is imposed upon it out of necessity, but it will never understand and accept anything less than necessity. And remember that, everywhere, it has its own watchers to see whether the law of necessity is being observed.”
In A Far Off Place:
Francois’ father, Ouwa: the real art of living was to keep alive the longing in human beings to become a greater version of themselves, to enlarge this awareness of life and then to be utterly obedient to the awareness. … Unlived awareness was another characteristic evil of our time, so full of thinkers who did not do and doers who did not think. … All this, Ouwa would ad, meant living in terms not of having but of being… For what, he often asked was the difference between the ‘Bamuthis of this world and the Europeans of Africa, if not that the Europeans specialized in having and the ‘Bamuthis in being.
And my favorite chapter in both books comes when Francois and his friend Nonnie, who have both lost everything and are traveling across the Kalahari with two bushman friends, sitting by a fire at night when Xhabbo asks a mime riddle than no one gets, and when he explains it, they all roll on the ground with laughter:
Nonnie: “Oh Coiske, do you know, until this moment, I thought we could never laugh like that again. I feel almost guilty that we could with Fa and your Lammie… “Xhabbo’s reply: “[we] know that the sadness in you is no longer without a name and has found its voice. When sorrow finds a name and a voice, it is like the lightning you see calling and the thunder speaking after it to say that soon the rain will fall on you again.”