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One of the Best Books of the Year: Newsday, The Times, The Observer, Mail on Sunday
This “gorgeous treat of a novel” (The Times, Book of the Month) is a funny, sexy, irreverent, and intensely moving portrait of what unites human beings when their sacred mysteries are blown apart. Avoiding the trauma of the First World War, Piet Barol heads into Africa’s greatest forest. With a business to build and secrets to escape, he’s running out of time to make his own luck. His African guides have reasons of their own for taking him to their ancestral lands – where he finds a prize beyond his wildest imaginings.
To get it, he must use every weapon at his disposal. As the story moves to its devastating conclusion, every character becomes a suspect, and Piet’s gamble sets him on a collision course with forces he cannot control. An exquisite, deeply human tale of temptation and theft, set against the extraordinary backdrop of history in the making, Who Killed Piet Barol? affirms Richard Mason’s place among the great writers of our time.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Richard Mason is the author of The Drowning People (winner of Italy’s Grinzane Cavour prize for Best First Novel), Us, Natural Elements, and History of a Pleasure Seeker. He’s been long-listed for the IMPAC Dublin Library Award, and short-listed for the Sunday Times Literary Award and a Lambda Literary Award. Mason has written for European editions of Vanity Fair; American, British, and Italian Vogue; the London Times, The Guardian, the Evening Standard, Tatler, and The New York Times.
To write this book, Mason founded Project Lulutho, a center for green farming in South Africa’s rural Eastern Cape, and spent a year living under canvas—learning the language and culture of the Xhosa people.
Search Who Killed Piet Barol? on YouTube to watch the story of the creation of this novel.
Read an Excerpt
The adventures of his twenties had taught Piet Barol that it is unwise to begin with a lie.
He slipped out of the premises of Barol & Co. and moved discreetly through the crowds, giving no indication of haste but nevertheless moving swiftly. He had taken the precaution of avoiding his creditors’ bailiffs, who were at that moment disembarking from the omnibus outside the front entrance. He walked towards the Company Gardens, holding his nerve against desperation.
Piet had told his lie boldly at the Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town on a blazing day in 1908. It was an embellishment of an untruth concocted by another—an American woman named Stacey, who was now his wife and the mother of his child. This lady exercised over Piet a dominion no one had achieved before her, for his was an independent spirit. She was seldom from his thoughts, and on this particular morning he could think of nothing else.
It was Stacey who had suggested, moments after their arrival in Africa, that they introduce themselves as the Baron and Baroness Pierre de Barol, and Piet who had upgraded Baron to Vicomte. He had enjoyed this fiction enormously at the start. His French mother had given him the polished manners of that country and he loved watching Stacey dazzle the credulous audience of colonial Cape Town. She had a genius for mimicry and they spent hours crying with laughter. They laughed so much that for months Piet did not appreciate the price of his enormous lie. He was Dutch, not French, and far from aristocratic. The necessity of devising a fictional past made intimate friendship impossible. His numerous acquaintances knew nothing of his real circumstances and were inclined to be envious or bashful in his presence.
For the first time in his life, he had no true friends.
He walked up Adderly Street, doffing his hat at every store. He was a favourite of the neighbourhood. With the exception of two rival furniture makers, whose business had suffered considerably since his arrival at the Cape Colony, he was well liked by his fellows in the Chamber of Commerce, whose wives had sleepless nights after asking his wife to lunch. It was thought rather good of Piet that he should stand so little on ceremony. More than one competitive masculine spirit had been soothed by Piet’s sincere desire to see the best in them. In a land where the aristocrats of Europe had the social sanctity of deities, a French vicomte who lunched in public with tradesmen was thought of very well by them.
For several years, while early success bore him on, it had given Piet pleasure to see the ripple of deference that spread out from his wife when she entered a room. Self-confidence had hidden from him the dwindling of his capital. Circumstances now obliged him to confront it. No one, least of all the rich, troubles to pay bills on time to men who give no appearance of needing money. Stacey’s tales of her father’s railroad fortune, and the Château de Barol on the banks of the Loire River, meant that debts to the Barols did not feature prominently on the consciences of their neighbours. Piet had many more outstanding invoices than he had the energy to pursue. His languid approach to debt collection had solidified into an impassivity that bound him so strongly he often woke in the night, struggling to breathe.
It was unfortunate that those to whom he owed money did not show similar restraint.
He drank an iced coffee in a café and read the papers for an hour, then went back to his shop. He was met by the fragranced air, the impression of delights within, that made Barol & Co. one of the best patronized emporia in the city. Piet had long since had to let his white staff go, since they demanded salaries he could not rise to. But he had made a virtue of necessity, and trained his African employees in the highest traditions of European service. These he had been privileged to observe, as a younger man, in the household of the best hotelier in Europe. When an assistant at Barol & Co. asked a client if they might be of service, and bowed, and made eye contact, and then smiled as they extolled the comfort of a chair or the perfection of a stool, they did so quite as well as any shop assistant anywhere in the world.
For many years, Piet’s habit of treating his staff as if they were men and women whose lives were at least as important as his own, a habit that differed sharply from the attitude of all but the rarest white men, had inspired in those who worked for him a passionate devotion that had kept them loyal long after their salary payments ceased to be very regular. It was unfortunate, thought Piet, as he caught the expression on his manager’s face, that loyalty cannot feed a large family. She was a descendant of high-born Malays, whose innate nobility set even the richest of his patrons at ease. He knew that losing her would be a loss he might not sustain—not only to his business, but to his spirits. For this reason he did not hurry to open the envelope she put in his hand, lips pursed, restraining the tears that would have been unacceptable on the shop floor. He took it to his office, a handsome room at the back of the shop, furnished with pieces of which he was especially proud. Every wooden object in it was made to his own design, by the master craftsmen he had been sensible enough to lure from his competitors.
Piet sat at his desk, looking at the envelope in his hand. He thought of the child he had made with Stacey, a boy named Arthur who seemed only to walk in dappled sunshine, who had inherited his father’s love for the world and all in it.
He felt unbearably sad.
Louisa Vermeulen-Sickerts-Longchamps stood in front of a long mirror in her suite at the Mount Nelson Hotel, an expression of intense concentration on her face. The aquiline perfection of her youth had resolved into an adult face of arresting severity. She had lost weight on the voyage, having spent every day in her cabin, expelling all her poor stomach had managed to hold down. This had given her an ethereal quality, complemented by porcelain skin, that was given a jaunty finish by the angle of her hat. When she had settled this to her satisfaction, she picked up the telephone. “Mr. Longchamps’ suite.” And then, after a moment: “Darling, I’m ready for you.”
Louisa had taken care that her new husband’s room should be at the furthest extent of the hotel from her own, since Dennis seemed inclined to visit at all hours in his pyjamas. She was not looking forward to the day ahead, though she was resolved to do what she had decided. She went into the connecting bedroom without knocking and for the first time all morning she smiled. Facing the window was a young woman whose springy golden curls were held up by sharp spikes of platinum, set with emeralds.
“You’re divinely overdressed,” said Louisa, and kissed her once, sensuously, on the mouth.
“Don’t set me off before lunch,” said Myrthe Jansen.
“I need you to be a darling to Dennis. I’ve an errand to run on my own, and you’re the only person who can draw him off me.”
Myrthe smiled. “It would be such bad form if he made love to your best friend on your honeymoon.” She slipped her arm around Louisa’s waist.
“But such a relief,” said Louisa. And they kissed very tenderly.
They sprang apart when the door of the next room received a series of knocks that indicated tremendous joie de vivre. Louisa went into her bedroom. She opened the door to find her husband in crisp flannels. Dennis was not conventionally handsome, but his enthusiasm for life rendered him attractive. Throughout his dogged pursuit of her, Louisa had worried that in the end this much devotion and lightheartedness might bore her. In fact, having made room for romantic passion elsewhere, she found the reliability of Dennis’ good humour extremely pleasant. He wore exactly what she told him to wear and was inordinately proud of the way crowds parted for her. Louisa knew from her sister Constance that there are husbands who resent an attractive wife. “Darling,” she said. “You must take care of poor Myrthe for me. The heat doesn’t agree with her.”
The faintest flicker of disappointment passed behind Dennis’ eyes like a cloud on a cloudless day. “I’d rather hoped for lunch with my lady wife,” he said.
“You must do with me for tea. I have a family friend to look up.”
“Let me come with you. I’m brilliant with aunts.”
Louisa had learned to speak plainly with Dennis. “I need to go alone,” she said. And then, because she was a strictly truthful person in all but the most intimate areas of her life: “I wish to.”
Mrs. Hendricks, who until six minutes before had been its manager, was leaving Barol & Co. as Louisa got out of the Mount Nelson Hotel’s Rolls-Royce. Louisa noticed the woman’s elegance, and the fact that she was in tears. It seemed a strange omen. She collected herself. Louisa Vermeulen-Sickerts-Longchamps was not accustomed to making apologies. She had only said sorry, as a child, with the greatest unwillingness; typically only when compelled to do so by a parent. But she was an honourable person and valued her self-respect. Its maintenance required the payment of a penance. Inside, the scented air and spinning fans caught her off guard; she had not expected such refinements. There was no one on the shop floor. She browsed the chairs and tables, moving towards the four-poster bed in the back recess, for she was unerringly drawn to the best thing in any room.
Louisa had a discerning eye for craftsmanship, which her father had delighted in and trained. She did not think much of the Mount Nelson’s wicker furniture, and had supposed that this was all a Colony at the end of the earth could offer. She stroked the superb finish on a satinwood bedpost and weighed the bother of getting it to Amsterdam, where it would look exceedingly well in her third guest bedroom. Then she turned from the bed. She would delay no longer. She went to the office door, knocked and opened it. Seven people were in the room, each one of them distraught. At their centre stood Piet Barol.
The sight of Louisa Vermeulen-Sickerts gave to Piet’s traumatic day the quality of an hallucination. He had not seen her since the night, six and a half years before, on which she had accused him of seducing her mother in front of her entire family. Louisa’s particular diffidence; the quick, half-suppressed movements by which she silenced the gesticulating people in front of her and became their sole object of attention. He recognized them from Amsterdam, but they were less hostile than they had been when she was nineteen. With a nod, he dismissed his employees, wondering how many would remain by lunchtime.
“It wasn’t hard to find you,” said Louisa. “I didn’t expect it would be.”
Piet looked at her, and many things went through his head. Finally he said: “Of course the Fates should have sent you, Miss Vermeulen-Sickerts, to be present at my downfall.”
He took her to lunch at a tiny place with a Chinese chef recently off the boat from Shanghai. Louisa’s appearance at this crisis heightened its embarrassment so acutely that Piet abandoned himself to the suffering ahead. Almost with relish, he put away all deception and said: “I might as well tell you, I am ruined. My adventures in this Colony have not been a success.”
The Piet Barol of six and a half years before would never have made such an admission. Its promptness was disarming. Louisa quite forgot her own mission and leaned forward. “Everyone means something different by ‘ruined.’ What do you mean?”
“We can barely pay our rent another month. The cook went long ago. Soon my son’s nanny will have to follow her. I have no funds to obtain wood of decent quality, and no staff to sell my remaining stock for anything like its true value. I have miscalculated. Trusted rather too much to my own luck.” He looked at her, pugnaciously. “But then you always thought I would, did you not, Louisa?”
Louisa did not look away. “I suppose I did, Piet.” It was the first time either of them had used each other’s Christian names.
He smiled. He felt no hostility for her. The wounds she had done him years before seemed like a bruised knee of childhood by comparison with his current feelings. “I used to listen to you and Constance talking about me. The servants’ bathroom window was just above your balcony.”
“Did you really?”
“I did. Night after night. Learned never to eavesdrop. And I never have since. Thank you for that lesson.”
There was an uncomfortable silence. Both ignored the steaming dishes of spiced pork before them. During this silence, Piet’s mood fell off a cliff. He was not altogether proud of the way he had conducted himself in Louisa’s childhood home, and had many times sought to disentangle the mesh of praise and blame that a neutral judge might accord his actions in Amsterdam.
This was never possible.
“I am sorry,” said Louisa.
“We were young. You didn’t like me. I was man enough to bear that.”
But the vicious remarks Louisa had made to her sister about Piet Barol were not what she had crossed the world to repent. “It’s the other thing I meant,” she said.
He was touched beyond words. An intense affection rose through him—for Louisa and her family and the world he had left behind. He accepted her apology and peppered her with questions as they walked back to the Mount Nelson. At its gate he kissed her on her right cheek, then her left, then her right, in the Dutch manner.
Impulsively, she hugged him. “This is not the moment to lose heart. You are exceptionally talented. You need capital and a capable business manager.”
“I’m afraid money doesn’t come when you have ceased to believe in yourself.”
“You cannot have reached quite such a pass, Piet Barol. It would disappoint me tremendously if you had.” She smiled. “Let me give you the money. Enough for a year of staff and decent wood. You can sell me shares. It wouldn’t be a loan.”
But Piet, who had seen Louisa have this thought, and struggle to hide it from him all through lunch, raised his hand. He said no in plain terms.
“Well eat with us tomorrow, then, and bring your wife. I am intrigued to know the woman who has tamed you.”
· · ·
Since his arrival in Cape Town six and a half years before, Piet Barol had spent a great deal of money. An American businessman had provided him with one thousand pounds and advised him to exploit his European glamour. He had followed this counsel and leased lavish premises on Adderley Street. He had also rented a beautiful house in Oranjezicht, with a veranda entwined with bougainvillea and a view of the mountain and the vast plains. These expenses he did not regret. As he waved Louisa goodbye, however, it seemed unwise to have spent so much in the restaurant and bar of the Mount Nelson.
For a moment he considered going into the hotel. Its pink bricks spoke of certainty. He knew someone would stand him a drink if he claimed to have left his pocketbook behind. But he had seen many men in these early days of the Union of South Africa disguise their imminent ruin from themselves with alcohol, and so hasten it.
He pressed on up the mountain, leaning forward as the gradient rose.
It was two months since the Barols had owned a motor car, and the walk from his shop to his house was wearying. Piet had lost the heedless athleticism of his youth and the challenge of these daily hikes shamed him. When he had completed his climb, he was so ravenous he overindulged in the delicious, fatty curries Arthur’s Cape Malay nurse made, and though his thighs were as solid as the mahogany he could no longer afford, there was a ring of fat around his waist that spoiled the cut of his clothes.
The Barols had spent their early capital quickly. That they had spent much of it wisely was entirely to Stacey’s credit. Stacey Barol had an instinct for human susceptibility, and even Piet’s first, rudimentary chairs had found places in the homes of prominent citizens. In the early days, making workmanlike cabinets, tables and desks with a team of Indian joiners, they had made healthy profits—more than enough to leave them disinclined to economize in their private lives.
But as Piet began to understand the possibilities of wood, he had become more reluctant to let each piece go until it was ready. At first his wife had found his artistic standards charming. Now Stacey was alarmed by Piet’s perfectionism. She knew what life close to the abyss of the fashionable world is like, and would not permit her son to share this knowledge.
Piet did not know when he had grown lonely. At first it had been merely tiresome to live up to an invention; but he had come to hate the Vicomte de Barol, and to wish that people knew him as he was. Stacey’s company and her wicked wit usually consoled him. But today he missed the confidential support of a friend. He found himself wishing he might spend an evening with Didier Loubat, with whom he had passed many hours of hilarious intimacy in Amsterdam.
Behind the pleasures of the life he and Stacey had made, Anxiety had for several months haunted Piet like a demon. He loved taming wood into the shapes of his imagination. He wished he did not have to sell what resulted; that he could make each piece for the love of the thing itself. But by claiming an aristocrat’s privileges without entitlement to them, he had jinxed his good fortune. He was thoroughly out of sorts by the time his own house came into view, and cursed himself for not having bought the place when the money was flowing. He paused outside the garden, catching his breath.
And at once he was calmed.
The windows were lit with a gentle yellow light. His wife sat on the veranda, her back to him, with a blanket about her shoulders. Stacey had a long neck and the carriage of a ballet dancer. He loved making love to her. He loved being loved by her. He trusted her cleverness and her ability to restore his faith in his own value. He felt, as he opened the garden gate, that if he were granted one dying wish as an old man, it would be to return to this house; to one of these nights with Stacey and Arthur; to see them again, just as they were at this moment. And this allowed his gratitude for the present to warm the icy trickle that ran down his spine when he thought of the future.
Piet had been seen by his son, who betrayed his presence with a whoop of joy and launched himself at him from the top of the steps. The child’s certainty that his father would always catch him banished Piet’s fears. The little boy was nearly six years old and getting heavier. Piet threw him over his back, dangled him upside down by his legs and kissed his tummy, provoking squeals and giggles. As he returned him to the ground, he felt the twinge of pain in his lower back that these acrobatics had begun to inspire. His wife smiled. So many of her friends in Paris had been abandoned by their children’s fathers that Piet’s delight in Arthur neutralized the exasperation that had been building within her all afternoon. As Arthur clung to his leg and tried to climb it, Piet saw that various bills were scattered on the wicker table. He had no wish to discuss them, but in Stacey’s eyes was a look he had learned to recognize.
“Will you bathe me, Daddy? Please!” called the child, rescuing his father.
“Very well.” Piet leaned over his wife and kissed her on the lips. “Later, my darling.”
“But we must go through these tonight. Ignoring them won’t pay them.”
He made Arthur’s bath last almost an hour, and they splashed so wildly that the floor was soaked. Piet mopped it dry himself. This took a further fifteen minutes. He sat with Arthur while he had his dinner, then tucked him into bed and read him four stories. He did not wish the child to fall asleep, but his voice always soothed him; and soon Arthur’s eyes were shut, his oval mouth open, his little head framed by golden curls.
Piet sat watching him for half an hour, filled with love. Then he went outside.
Stacey was still on the veranda. On certain nights, miraculously, the wind dropped. The tempestuous currents that raged between mountain and sea calmed. Tonight was one such. He went and sat by her and took her hand. For a long moment she did not speak. Then she said: “This is the last time, my darling, my dearest Piet, that we are going to find ourselves in this position.”
“I hope so.”
“It must be so.” Stacey turned to face him. “You observe my current equanimity.”
“This is not how I felt when I discovered this.” She took from the pile of bills an unpaid customs’ receipt. “If you’d only told me you couldn’t pay it! Every clever woman has something set aside. But you did not tell me, and you did not pay it and now they’ve impounded our mahogany.”
“Couldn’t you pay it now you’ve found it?”
“I don’t have the money now. I am almost in a rage with you.”
“I’m sorry, my darling. Truly I am. I will atone in private as often as you will let me.” He kissed her shoulder and expected her to smile but she did not. There was a softness in her husband that made Stacey reluctant to say critical things to him. She tried to speak without anger. “You must behave like a man of business.”
“You’re right. I’ll do better. I promise, I’ll do better.”
And they went to bed, leaving the bills undiscussed, as they had left them on so many nights; and they slept close against one another, as the wind lifted and the house clung to the mountainside.
Reading Group Guide
The discussion questions and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Who Killed Piet Barol?, the epic new novel by Richard Mason.
1. Why do Piet and Stacy Barol tell others that they are the Vicomte and Vicomtesse Pierre de Barol of France, and how are they treated as a result of this lie? What does this reveal about the role of social class in the world they inhabit? Do they ever regret creating their false identities? Why or why not? What does Piet realize that he lacks as a result of this deceit? Does the lie seem to have any major effect on the relationship between Piet and Stacy?
2. Evaluate the setting and historical context of the novel. Why are people like Piet and Stacy and the Shabrills in South Africa? How do they benefit from residing there? What is their relationship to the native inhabitants of South Africa? Explore how the book’s treatment of colonialism creates an expanding dialogue around issues of class, race, self-interest, and human rights.
3. What is the Natives Land Act and who is affected by it? What does Luvo hope to do in response to this? Does Piet support him in his mission? Is Luvo ultimately successful? Why or why not?
4. Consider the motif of apology in the novel. What examples of apologies are found in the book? What are the characters sorry for and what leads them to feel this way? For example, do they seem to be motivated primarily by guilt, regret, empathy, love, understanding, or self-interest? Are those who apologize forgiven? How does the act of apologizing or not apologizing affect the relationships between characters? What message does the book ultimately seem to deliver about apology and forgiveness?
5. Why do you think that the author chose to employ elements of magical realism such as talking animals and sentient plants? What does the author reveal about nature—and about humankind—through his use of this device? How might your own interpretation of the characters and events of the story be different if these elements were omitted?
6. Consider the depiction of women in the novel. What experiences do the female characters share and what common obstacles do they face? How are these women characterized? What words would you use to describe them? How are the female characters treated by the male characters around them? In addition to depicting them as bride, mother, and sexual object, how does the novel create a dialogue around the other roles of women and their value and power?
7. Evaluate the themes of belief and superstition. What are some of the major beliefs that the different characters hold? Does the book indicate how they came to hold these beliefs? Do the characters’ beliefs seem to change over the course of the story or remain steadfast? If they change, what seems to cause this deviation? Does the book ultimately answer the question of what separates belief and superstition?
8. In Chapter 7, what do we learn is “the gift of every ape” (166)? Does the rest of the book seem to support this statement or to contradict it? Explain.
9. How do Bela’s family and friends respond to her rape by her husband’s father on her wedding night? How is her rapist Sukude treated? How does Sukude attempt to justify his actions? Who does he blame for what has happened? What ultimately becomes of Sukude? Does the book suggest that there is or isn’t an inherent force of justice in the world?
10. Explore the motif of dishonesty in the novel. In addition to the lies that Stacy and Piet tell about their identity, what other lies do the characters tell and what causes them to be dishonest? What effect do these lies seem to have on the characters who tell them and on those around them? In what way are the various characters dishonest with themselves? What message or messages does the book ultimately convey about dishonesty and truth?
11. Although Piet tells his son stories about the forest, Arthur is still scared because of what he had learned from European fairy tales. Likewise, many of Ntsina’s relatives and neighbors experience fear as a result of stories they are told. What does the book seem to suggest about storytelling and the responsibility of the storyteller?
12. Many of the characters in the book steal from one another or otherwise consider stealing. What do the characters steal and what motivates them to do so? Do the thieves feel guilty for stealing or are they able to justify their actions? Of those who refrain, what stops them from committing their crime? What does a consideration of this motif reveal about the individual characters and the society they inhabit, and about human nature?
13. How does Dorothy Shabrill react when her husband tells her that he fears that Piet has run off with their money? How does Stacy react to the notion that the Shabrills might withdraw their order? What would you say accounts for their different reactions?
14. Why does Piet feel such guilt over the fate of Bela? What thoughts does he have at the moment he finds her in peril and how do they affect his response? Do you think that Piet did all that he could to help her, or is his guilt justified?
15. In Chapter 13, what does Luvo believe would be a “fairy tale more precious to him than the one about Father Christmas” (322)? Does the book ultimately support or refute his view that this is a fairy tale? Explain.
16. A theme of misunderstanding seems to course through the novel. What are some of the misunderstandings that occur between the characters in the book and what causes them? How do they affect the relationships between characters? Does the author suggest that these misunderstandings could be avoided or minimized? Are any of the misunderstandings ever resolved? If so, how?
17. At the conclusion of the story, is the question that was adopted as the book’s title—Who killed Piet Barol?—answered? What happens to Piet at the story’s conclusion and who is responsible?