PRAYING MANTIS

by
02 November 2006

Secker & Warburg £10 (0-4362-0605-6); Church Times Bookshop £9

ANDRE BRINK is one of South Africa’s best-known novelists, and he has written this novel to celebrate his 70th birthday, dedicating it to his readers, “without whom I could not have been a writer”.

The novel is unusual in several respects. For a start, it has taken several decades, on and off, to produce: he first started writing it in 1984. Second, the subject-matter is the life of Cupido Cockroach, or Kupido Kakkerlak, to give him his Dutch name — a real person who flourished (if that is the word) in the early years of the 19th century as a missionary in the interior of the Cape Colony.

But, as Brink explains, though Cupido’s life is well extremely documented, it requires an imaginative approach — so this is a novel, not history. The trouble is that the history that lies beneath the surface seems rather more interesting than the imaginative whimsy of our author.

Cupido is a Hottentot. He starts life by being dropped into his mother’s lap by an eagle — the first instance of the author’s penchant for the sort of writing that has made Jeanette Winterson and Isabel Allende famous. As a child, Cupido works for a baas on a farm; later he joins a travelling salesman and mountebank, Servaas Ziervogel; he becomes a drunk, a womaniser, and a fighter.

He meets and marries Anna Vigilant, a Bushman, who is the best soap-boiler in the Cape. We are told at length how soap is made. Then comes the turning-point of Cupido’s life: he meets Father van der Kemp and Brother Read of the London Missionary Society (the missionaries are clearly Protestant, and the odd-sounding Roman Catholic titles are never explained). He is converted, and eventually ordained as a missioner. Gradually, misfortune comes, and in old age Cupido returns to the ancient beliefs of his people.

If there is a plot to this dream-like narrative, it is about how the religion of the missionaries cannot compete with the indigenous religion of the Hottentots — and, by extension, one guesses, how the colonists of the Cape fail to make any enduring change to the landscape they find.

But, considering that this is a novel about religious people, we find out curiously little about Cupido’s theology. Brink gives us the letters Cupido wrote to God (which have survived), but the man himself remains curiously opaque. It is the less whimsical and more historical sections dealing with the way in which the colonists mistreated the indigenous peoples which grasp the reader’s interest.

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