Translated from the Afrikaans by J.M. Coetzee
(Brooklyn, NY: Archipelago Books, 2014)
Being a free and independent woman for the first time in her life, the narrator of Wilma Stockenström’s The Expedition to the Baobab Tree is eager to collect her thoughts. Throughout the breathless 130 page novel, which eschews chapter breaks and white space altogether, the nameless former slave, now living a solitary life inside the titular baobab, weaves a narrative that encompasses all aspects of her life with the giddy enthusiasm of one who, after countless trials and a seemingly endless procession of setbacks, is finally allowed to reflect. As she does, she reveals a startling and complex psychology perpetually bound up in its past, yet desperate to embrace the openness of the future.
The experiences that form the core narrative are bleak, as the narrator recalls being passed between various slave owners throughout an unnamed region in Africa, who sexually abuse her and sell the resulting children. This is just one piece of her past, though, and she does not linger on the complicated emotions attached to it. In her fevered recollecting, each memory has equal weight, which lends to the sporadic moments of judgment a cold and calculated harshness. When one of these owners falls ill and calls for her on his deathbed, she gently rocks “the invalid” in her arms, but says nothing; we are the only audience privy to her thoughts: “I fed you with the deathsmilk of indifference. […] Any pity would only delay your departure.” Here we see a slave girl transcend her perceived simplicity by abstaining from verbose condemnation in favor of a softer, yet far more scornful, dismissal of this man’s life. In this master’s final moments, the woman whom he called to his side—his property, essentially his elaborate sex-toy—maintains a position of superiority. Against the odds, it is an endearing victory.
Anecdotes and fragmented scenes such as this gradually accumulate amid the stream-of-consciousness narration, allowing the reader to stitch together the various temperaments of the narrator into a unified whole. The result is an uncomfortable mix of empowerment, as she describes her yearning for the freedom that is eventually realized when she escapes to the baobab tree, and pathos, as she, time and again, reveals the deeply-seated ways in which the confines of slavery have marked her psyche. The freedom that the baobab represents is not necessarily the freedom to do as she pleases, but rather the freedom to submit herself to a master of her own choosing, to self-determine her allegiance. It is the baobab itself that she chooses, and it is this humble tree to whom she addresses her narrative:
“I admit honestly to you, trusty baobab, confidant, home, fort, water source, medicine chest, honey holder, my refuge, my last resort before a change of residence over which I shall have no control at all, my midpoint, guardian of my passionate outbursts, leafless coagulated obesity winter and summer life-giving rocking cupola of leaves and flowers and sour seeds…. You protect me. I revere you.”
This enthusiastic paean contains within it all the complexities of the narrator’s life. She projects onto the baobab the same features “provided” for her by previous masters, but casts them now in the light of worship rather than scorn. In choosing the partner on which she depends, she has granted herself that elusive privilege dreamt of for so many years. Her prose itself mirrors this change, as she shrugs off the constraints of syntax and punctuation with childlike abandon, allowing the words and images to flow forth unfiltered.
Still, her experiences as a slave throw a long and grim shadow across her perception. Her love of nature, and her communion with the natural “spirits” she believes to govern the swampy grasslands in which most of the narrative takes place, cannot escape the lens that slavery has forced onto her eyes. It is these scenes in particular, and not those that detail the cruel behavior of the masters, that resonate most, just as corruption and disease can be more horrifying than any sporadic act of violence.
In one recollection, she watches as a procession of newly captured slaves is marched onto her master’s estate, and yet her attention is attracted more to the beach beyond them, where a dying hammerhead shark spasms vainly, trapped on the hostile terrain of dry land: “Sometimes one eye was buried in the sand, sometimes the other; one saw doom, the other spied hope, and in uncertainty the poor thing struggled.” This gray mix of doom and hope is not unlike that shadow which the narrator faces after gaining her freedom. As she muses over the shark’s fate, the question she asks might very well be directed inwards: “Would he, even in death, have to reconcile one half with the other half to find his way in that haze?”
It is this rhetorical question that drives the narrator forward. Glimpses of happiness, such as her reverence of the baobab or her fascinating and mute interactions with an indigenous tribe that hunts around it, are uplifting and endearing; but just as significant are the moments when she snarls vindictively at a subservient slave who has dared to show hints of leadership, or is exasperated by the baobab’s local wildlife, who eye her suspiciously. “How irritated I get,” she declares, “when animals do not stay within the limits of their animal nature but want to address me on my level.”
Compassion falters in such moments, and yet they are essential to the novel’s success. The life and experiences of the narrator are complex and multifaceted, and the psychology that developed in response to them is no less so. The Expedition to the Baobab Tree feels more real, and thus more successful, because of this ambivalence. The narrator is a novice when it comes to free thinking and self-analysis, which makes it a joy to observe her in the act, even when the heroic façade falters momentarily. In her indefatigable expression of all that she knows or can conceive of, this childlike innocence merges with her very real experiences of suffering and loss, but this does not stop her from casting her gaze as far and wide as possible. “Here now in my baobab I am still bounded on all sides by the horizon,” she muses. “So does one every break through a horizon?” In light of her unique perspective on such questions, the answer seems anything but absolute.
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Cory Johnston is the Books Editor of The Literary Review.