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Chain-Saw Truth

Good news is the worst possible headline for novelists. Pity John Steinbeck after the New Deal, or John Le Carre when the Cold War ended, reduced from Berlin and moles to Panama and buttonholes. When the Afrikaaner author Andre Brink began writing novels in the 1960s, back in the bad old days of apartheid, fiction was the only way to tell the true history of South Africa. Although he started out as a member of the Sestigers, the Sixtyers, a generation of avant-garde writers, he soon began to plunder both the near and distant past in a quest to make a collage of the contemporary world. Not surprisingly, Brink’s novels, along with those of his contemporaries, Nadine Gordimer, J.M. Coetzee and Breyten Breytenbach, were banned by the keepers of apartheid.

But if you have tears for these rebels who have won their cause, prepare to shed them over a new South African tragedy. During the five years of post-apartheid South Africa, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has replaced apartheid as the controversial headline of the South African consciousness. “Compiled from the evidence of over 20,000 witnesses,” the 1998 Report of the Commission states, “the Report represents the record of 34 years under apartheid, breaking the terrible silence that surrounded so many gross violations of human rights committed during those years. Unlike similar commissions, it tells the story through the testimony of perpetrators as well as the victims.” Such testimony, to be sure, is difficult to extract and harder still to trust. More troubling to many has been the offer of the carrot of amnesty to some of the worst criminals of the country’s racist past. Is truth worth the price of this Devil’s pact?

It is not surprising that Brink has chosen a historian to be the hero of his latest novel, “Devil’s Valley.” And although Brink mentions the commission nowhere, it is not much of a stretch to imagine that the book’s subtitle might be “Truth and Reconciliation.” Flip Lochner is a historian in the guise of a crime reporter, the way Tutu was an archbishop in the guise of a chairman. Flip’s youthful dreams of becoming a university professor dried up long ago into the desiccated realities of hack journalism. His family life has similarly evaporated. At 59, he is a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, bitter and hairy man; “ever since the time of Jacob and Esau,” he admits, “the dice have been loaded against us hairy ones.” Devil’s Valley was an early obsession of Flip’s, a mysterious Shangri-La hidden somewhere deep in the Swartberg mountain range, 300 miles east of Capetown, where 150 years earlier, a Donner party of Boers disappeared. Although strange reports filtered out over the century and a half of a hidden community thriving in the valley, no one ever returned to write the history.

Career and family cured Flip of his curiosity for 40 years. But now, a dead-end assignment from his newspaper brings Flip into a chance meeting with Little-Lukas Lermiet, one of the very few inhabitants of the valley to have escaped it for the outside world. Over a long night of whiskey, Little-Lukas draws Flip a quick sketch of the valley’s historical topography. The morning’s hangover erases much of Flip’s memory. But Little-Lukas’ suspicious death a few days later convinces the crime reporter to pack tape recorder, camera and 10 days’ worth of cigarettes into a rucksack and hitch a ride to his obsession.

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Dropped off along a high ridge above the valley, Flip finds an old man, sitting on a stone, “ancient, but very straight, kind of patriarchal, his angry gray beard stained with tobacco juice like a tuft of dry grass pissed on many times. . . . Something left on a shelf well past its sell-by date.” The old man directs Flip through a pathless set of dips and turns into the valley proper, where he pauses to catch his breath. The sound of a splash straightens him up, in time to see a naked girl emerge from a pond within the thicket, wringing her hair. In the time it takes for Flip to blink, the girl disappears and with her the pool of water.

“Now don’t tell me it was a mirage, a hallucination prompted by a too rampant urge and too little occasion,” Flip spits at us. No, something stranger than mirage has gripped Devil’s Valley. For the old man in the meadow turns out to be the first pioneer to the valley, Lukas the Seer, 100 years dead. And the Venus of the vanishing pool is Emma, who is very much alive, as Flip soon finds out, although several miles away, asleep in the village and dreaming about the newcomer.

Flip has entered Devil’s Valley, where the dead walk among the living and the living stagger under the burden of myth. Founded by Lukas the Seer, the valley, with the addition of only a handful of outsiders, has begotten an incestuous community whose every thought is directed toward keeping the devil from its midst. In Devil’s Valley, newlyweds spend their wedding night in a coffin, a grandmother waits patiently on the roof for God’s chariot and porcupine hunts become biblical battles. It is a valley of villagers with medieval names like Henta Peach, Jurg Water, Bettie Teat and Lukas Death, where on full moons Katarina Sweetmeats was said to have turned into a little white nanny goat and to have flown out the chimney. Inbreeding has produced more than its fair share of oddities, but there is none so odd as the absence of birds or “any sign of a black or brown laborer. It might have been somewhere in Central Europe,” Flip thinks, “or on the moon, anywhere but in the South Africa in which I’d been living all my life.”

The community houses and feeds Flip and suffers his presence as he takes his clumsy first steps at recording their histories. But the mystery of Little-Lukas’ death is also on Flip’s agenda, and he finds that the dual path of historian and crime reporter is a dangerous one to walk. Add to his shoulders the villagers’ suspicion that his presence is sustaining a painful drought, and Flip’s very existence in Devil’s Valley becomes highly precarious.

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History is generally written by the victors. Brink has tried to balance the books in the past by writing the tales of the victims. “Devil’s Valley” continues a mission Brink began in his 1996 novel “Imaginings of Sand,” in which he took the cause of women, whose histories are seldom recorded. Emma, and the other women of “Devil’s Valley,” tell Flip a different history of the valley. They subscribe to a different testament from the men, whose stories not only ignore the real heroines but dump their bodies down ravines to save their masculine reputations and their historical honors. A hairy man and a contrarian, Flip gravitates naturally toward the women, and especially toward Emma, her story and her rescue. Yet how can a man trust a woman he first met in a dream?

For most of his writing life, Brink has written his novels in both Afrikaans and English, sometimes re-imagining and reediting entire scenes from one language to the next. “Devil’s Valley” is sprinkled with enough Afrikaans to add flavor, yet not so much that it overwhelms meaning. It is also studded with enough of Flip’s Anglo-Saxon four-letter derivatives to clove a ham. The result is an oddly shaped creature that jumps from rock to rock with dazzling imagination and then gimps across the veldt like a crippled goat. At times, the novel is reminiscent of other neo-biblical parables, like Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz’s “Children of the Alley.” At other times, it gives off the chain-saw smell of a Tobe Hooper film.

Perhaps, in its hybrid way, “Devil’s Valley” is trying to demonstrate that neither pure literature nor pure entertainment are sufficient tools in the search for the truth. “With the lies of stories,” as Flip says, “all the lies, all the stories, we shape ourselves the way the first person was shaped from the dust of the earth. That is our first and ultimate dust.” Lies may not be truth, but perhaps stories light the path to our ultimate reconciliation.


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