Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Deon Meyer - Back to Africa

With all my reading experience - does that sound conceited - sorry but, let's face it, it's what I do - I should have read a little further before I took home Deon Meyer's Blood Safari. I planned to listen in my car to a quick, down and dirty police procedural, kind of a South African Ed McBain, like the previous Meyer books that I've written about here in this space. The reason being that when you're wending your way through the nightmare mess of construction, tourist traffic and mania on the roads in Southwest Florida in the winter, you don't want to have to concentrate too much.

Big mistake! Meyer's new novel is a stand alone, not one of his wonderful Bennie Griessel murder mysteries. This is not a complaint, just an observation. I should have luxuriated with this book and given it the reading time that it deserved. This novel is a huge departure with a different, more complicated  focus than his previous works. Yes, there's a mystery, and some murders, but there's so much more at work here involving the ferociously complicated issues that seem to dog South Africa.

Meyer uses a story about a missing man, Jacobus LeRoux, who simply dropped out of sight in the Kruger National Park twenty years ago, and his sister, Emma, who never really believed he was dead, to lay out a sinister tale of racial tensions, environmental devastation, and political intrigue. If one is not familiar with the situation in South Africa, this novel will sound way over the top. I've learned from our own Afrikaans guide through Kruger that everything Deon Meyer says is true.

Emma is a business woman living the lonely but uneventful life of a successful white person in Cape Town when her home is broken into and her life threatened by an unknown gang of intruders. Because she can afford to, she hires a quirky body guard called Lemmer, another lonely, silent, man with a past, who only wants to do his job and get the hell home. When Emma tells him that she has reason to believe that her brother Jacobus is actually alive, he goes along with her to the lowvelt, to Kruger, to watch over her as she investigates.

Slowly he learns that Emma is not the spoiled little rich girl he had imagined but rather, a woman of passion and substance. It's not long before Lemmer is intricately involved in the search for Jacobus, rattling chains in the local police department and tangling with a strange environmental group that works the Kruger.

For someone who has recently returned from this area, the scenes are perfectly constructed. Meyer describes the airport in Nelspruit exactly as I saw it when I stepped off the plane. When Emma and LeRoux enter the park at one of the many entrances I could actually remember our own early morning arrival at the south gate. But it's his characterization of the people that is even more spot on.

 The tensions between the whites, the Africans, and the Afrikaaners is always an undercurrent. No one is quite comfortable yet with the post-Apartheid world and his or her place in it. A simple accent can brand one as an insider or not. Familiarity with a tribal language is always suspicious.

Criminal activity is rampant in Kruger Park and there is plenty of blame to be spread around. For years the elephants were slaughtered for their tusks, now it's the rhino whose horns are sold on the black market for their properties as an aphrodesiac. Before Paul Kruger "donated" this land to the country for a national park, it belonged to the native Africans who still hold to their rituals and tribal customs.Those who were run off now have family making claims for retrieval of their lands under the post-Apartheid government. Resentment leads to political involvement, money exchanges illegally, and often, murder ensues.

Meyer has crafted in Blood Safari a most sophisticated, involved novel that's well worth the slow build up. His understanding of the complicated history of South Africa and that history's impact on the people who live and love and want to stay in this country they so care for so deeply is on display at every turn. Informing without lecturing, Meyer shines a light on a struggling democracy that can't shed its past no matter how hard it tries.

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