Piet Barol first entered the world a few years ago in the pages of Richard Mason’s History of a Pleasure Seeker and reappears now in Who Killed Piet Barol? I am happy to report that this further — and I think I can say, final — chapter in its hero’s history stands very well on its own, the small amount of background necessary being neatly sketched in. Beyond that, the novel is also that rare thing, a sequel that far outstrips its predecessor in excellence.
We learn very quickly that Piet, a Dutchman, arrived in Cape Town in 1908 and presented himself and his American actress wife, Stacey, as the French Vicomte and Vicomtesse de Barol. It is now 1914, and in the past six years Piet — rechristened Pierre — has established himself as a maker of fine furniture for the nouveau riche of South Africa. He and his beautiful, extravagant wife are admired members of colonial society, but alas, they have run through their money and piled up debts, and Piet is being stalked and harried by bailiffs.
Meanwhile, war is breaking out in Europe, and closer to home, the Union of South Africa’s Native Land Act of 1913 has recently gone into force. The law expropriated most of the land of the native peoples, opening it to white settlers and evicting black Africans, forcing them into barren, segregated “reserves.” As these places provided no means of livelihood, it was an arrangement that had, from the white point of view, the additional, happy effect of forcing the men into the mines on the Rand.
Within fifty pages, Piet’s prospects have brightened, thanks to Percy Shabrill, an old rival and former cabin mate aboard the ship that brought the two from Europe. Shabrill, now an air conditioning magnate, is “a believer in Capital, Empire, and the need for the white races of the Union to settle the differences after the unpleasantness of the Anglo-Boer War.” Piet’s good looks, charm, and subtle powers of ingratiation have persuaded Shabrill’s wife to furnish the couple’s grand house in Johannesburg with Piet’s own creations. All he needs is suitable wood, mahogany especially, and in this respect, he is lucky again. He learns from one of the Shabrills’ Xhosa servants that there is a forest of great trees in the eastern part of the Cape. The source of this information is Ntsina Zini, whose village also lies there. Piet hires him as a guide and his friend, Luvo Yako, another Xhosa, to serve as a translator. Ntsina has only a few English words at his disposal — as demonstrated when Piet first introduced himself:
“Good day,” he said. “My name is Piet Barol.”
“Thank you, madame,” said Ntsina Zini.
Well, ha-ha, you may say, but as it happens the joke — if that is quite the word — is on Piet. What Ntsina doesn’t understand about white people (“the Strange Ones”) is as nothing to Piet’s ignorance about Ntsina and the culture of his people. This becomes clear when the three arrive at Ntsina’s birthplace, a village so deep in the countryside and surrounded by forest that it has remained, for the time, free of white predation.
Mason plays, to brilliant effect, on Piet’s moral and intellectual complacency and the incommensurability of the African and European understandings of reality. Piet — romantic in spirit but empirical in mind-set — is cheerful, kindhearted, and tolerant by disposition. He treats his two Xhosa employees as if they were his equals: Up to a point, that is — the point where his own interests trump theirs. It is an alteration in outlook that he scarcely notices as it comes in the guise of common sense. At another level, Piet commits one gaffe after another once he begins what he considers to be negotiations to take possession of one of the village’s “Ancestor Trees” in a sacred grove some distance away.
The trees’ towering magnificence, enormous girth, and hard, exotic wood are like nothing Piet has ever seen before. What he doesn’t see is the grove’s essential being and history. While men have waged war and destruction over the globe, the trees have lived in peaceful communion for over 2,000 years, having “grown together from saplings and forged a union without conflict, free from betrayal and viciousness.” Piet is wonderstruck by them, by their beauty and majesty. And, inevitably, a “ravenous greed rose within him.” He must have at least one but sees quite soon how impossible it is to “reason” with these intransigent, superstitious people who believe the trees are sacred. So he plays to their fears, concocting a story, with poor Ntsina’s assistance, that the grove is haunted by evil.
Supplemented with further key characters and a couple of important and related plotlines, the story becomes a heartbreaking tale of destruction. The first tree is felled, a giant that has survived hundreds of fires, droughts, insects, and disease. Piet and his men begin to attack the roots and make the first killing gash in the tree’s side:
The tree had never endured such a purposeful assault. She did not know what to make of it . . . She felt her root connections to other trees begin to sever as the hairless apes dug deeper and deeper. Her roots stretched far, but the apes dug further. And then the training ropes were applied. And thus the mighty tree was felled.
And there she died.
The trees are not the only non-humans whose consciousnesses play parts in this story: Also at large is an ill-tempered tree python, a superannuated leopard, once “lord of the territory of a thousand trees” but now disrespected, a young male baboon striving for alpha status with melancholy consequences, and elephants, spiders, and other creatures, all taking dim or puzzled views of Piet’s endeavors.
Meanwhile, Ntsina’s village has spawned an intricate drama of its own, too complicated, wonderful, and tragic to summarize and one of the story’s many well executed forays out of empirical reality into another cosmography. I could go on and on about this superb novel — hands down the best I have read so far this year — but I shall just leave you with one last observation: You might think that the book’s title is something of a spoiler, but no; instead it points to a galvanic tension between two incongruous versions of what is going on in the world. As you turn the last page, you realize that the title itself may be the most potent and disconcerting stroke of all in this very remarkable book.
(If you are interested in the genesis of this novel, Richard Mason, a South African by birth, has made a series of ten short videos on the country and on his mission in the ancestral Xhosa land in the rural eastern part of the Cape. The first may be found here.)
Photo of Richard Mason © David Woolfall