Patrick Anderson's Book Review of ÂBlood Safari' by Deon Meyer
Monday, September 21, 2009
By Deon Meyer
Translated from Afrikaans by K.L. Seegers
Atlantic Monthly. 374 pp. $19.95
Often, the best fiction doesn't take us back to our unhappy childhoods or our depressing home towns but into new worlds we've not known before. Deon Meyer's novels explore the complex reality of South Africa, a world little known to many of us. At the most obvious level, they are exciting stories of crime, conflict and revenge, but they are more than that: ambitious attempts to show us the pain and greatness of a troubled nation that is still being born.
This novel's protagonist, Lemmer, is an Afrikaner, a white South African whose ancestors came to the region from Europe three centuries ago. Lemmer grew up poor, hating his abusive father, and became a man with an explosive temper. He once beat a man to death; it was self-defense, but he served four years in prison and later went to work as a bodyguard for a private security agency. That's how he meets Emma le Roux, who is rich, intelligent, beautiful and also an Afrikaner. Emma has seen a man on television who she thinks is her long-missing brother. Soon after she makes inquiries with the police, three men break into her home in Cape Town and try to kill her. She escapes and hires Lemmer to protect her. Together they journey upcountry, into the Africa of tribal conflicts, game preserves, safaris and poachers, to try to find the man who may be her brother. It proves to be, for them, a world of violence.
It is also, as Meyer makes clear in all his novels, a beautiful world. "Through White River the contrast with the Cape was sharp," he writes. "Here the colors of nature were bright and over the top in the foliage of the endless trees, the blood red of nearly every flower, the deep dark mahogany of the people manning stalls along the roadside." But serious conflicts underlie the surface beauty. The manager of a game preserve elaborates: "This is still the old South Africa. No, that's not entirely true. The mindset of everyone, black and white, is in the old regime, but all the problems are New South Africa. And that makes for an ugly combination. Racism and progress, hate and cooperation, suspicion and reconciliation . . . those things do not lie well together."
The basic conflict in "Blood Safari," underlying Emma's quest, is between environmentalists and proponents of growth. Those who oppose growth are deeply concerned about "the pressure on the environment that kept increasing, the threats, the white property developments, the black land claims, the poachers going after rhino horns and vulture heads, the greed across the spectrum of color and race." Vultures, we learn, are not the loathsome creatures of popular mythology but noble creatures that are vital to preserving the balance of nature. The man who may be Emma's brother is an environmental activist -- an eco-terrorist, some say -- who fled after killing poachers who had slain a large number of the huge birds.
Both sides resort to violence. Environmental vigilantes attack poachers and sabotage new developments. These activists are deeply pessimistic: "The pressure is political and financial," one of them tells Emma. "Tourism has become the lifeblood of our country, a bigger industry than our coal mines. It creates jobs, brings in foreign currency, it's become a monster that we must keep on feeding. The monster will consume us, one day." Emma's inquiries about her missing brother trigger a violent reaction. Lemmer, who by then is half in love with her, leaves her underarmed guard to pursue the killers. Exciting action scenes follow, as Lemmer survives an ambush attempt, challenges a hostile black police official and takes on six armed killers. It is not entirely a surprise that his quest for justice ends not in a rural shootout but in a confrontation in a corporate office.
Meyer has a fine eye for people and places. He notes that a rich man, saying grace, "prayed with comfortable eloquence, and in bullet points, as though God were a fellow member of the board." He makes Lemmer an intriguing figure, entirely honest about his appetite for violence: "When I killed Vince and hammered the other three until they begged for mercy, the tumblers of the universe were lining up perfectly." Lemmer starts out highly suspicious of his petit and very rich client -- he dislikes wealthy Afrikaners and thinks small women are by nature manipulative -- and his growing affection for her is skillfully drawn. Meyer is a serious writer who richly deserves the international reputation he has built. "Blood Safari" manages to be both an exciting read and an eye-opening portrait of a nation with problems perhaps even more complex and agonizing than our own.
Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.