"Kruger's Alp" is a densely populated novel. It is a satire, the story of a pilgrimage. But the pilgrim in question -- a broken-down priest named Theodore Blanchaille -- can't seem to travel more than a few hundred yards without running into someone who wants to tell him a startling and elaborate story. One story piles on another until an attentive reader is keeping a list of names, flipping back through pages trying to remember which of the novel's many sides a character is on.
All of this is not to say that the narrative's difficulties are unjustified. Christopher Hope is telling the story of present-day South Africa. This is not a book to be taken up lightly. It is a difficult, complicated, often brilliant and sometimes hilariously funny novel.
The story really begins in the past with a priest named Father Lynch -- a "transplanted Irish hothead who never understood Africa, or perhaps understood it too well" -- and a cluster of altar boys from a nearby youth hostel -- Blanchaille, Tony Ferreira, Trevor Van Vuuren, Roberto Zandrotti, Ronald Kipsel and Michael Yates. Father Lynch was a fierce and eccentric opponent of the South African government, and gave the boys their political education.
They all had the sense of imminent apocalypse that a white South African seems to be born with, and understood their peculiar position in the country: "You'd discovered that you were white and blacks didn't like you; that you were English and so the Dutch Africans known as Afrikaners didn't like you; that you were Catholics and not even the English liked you."
But Father Lynch also claimed to believe the legend that Paul Kruger, fleeing his country at the end of the Boer War, took gold with him worth millions and set out to establish a refuge for South Africans in Switzerland. He read to the boys as if from Holy Scripture from "the last surviving copy of 'Further Memoirs of a Boer President.' "
In the present, as the novel opens, it is the time of the Total Onslaught, "the universal campaign to destroy the white man in Southern Africa." Van Vuuren is a member of the police force, Zandrotti a prominent anarchist, Yates is long since dead, Kipsel is the country's most notorious traitor, and Tony Ferreira -- who had been a bureaucrat involved in government finance -- has just died in what was obviously a political assassination.
Blanchaille, following in Father Lynch's footsteps, has opposed his government by becoming a priest. He has been a famous champion of social justice, but has recently been deserted by his own congregation. He also received a phone call from Ferreira just before his death, telling him that there was something funny going on with the government's finances and that he should get out of the country. Blanchaille decides to take his old mentor's advice and seek out the refuge that Paul Kruger had founded.
On that journey he encounters the Catholic hierarchy, represented by a Bishop Blashford; he visits a township of "slain" citizens and gets an earful of the regime's doubletalk on that subject; he hears of a Russian spy named Popov and a secret Italian society called the Manus Virginis; and he meets an old flame named Magdalena, who is considered one of the six most dangerous enemies of the regime. These are just a fraction of his encounters, and they take him only as far as London. There he unites with his old friend Kipsel, the notorious traitor, and they finally make it to Geneva. Predictably, they do not find what they are expecting.
What Blanchaille does discover in his long journey is that, in the years since his tutelage with Father Lynch, working for justice in South Africa has become a slippery business, that no one is who he seems to be, that every faction is in collusion with every other. He begins to see his homeland as "a nation going to the wall for its belief in the sanctity of separate lavatories." He also learns the first rule in African politics: "What begins as tragedy turns into a farce at a blink."
Hope has a rich prose style, a sharp eye for social caricature, a biting and often bitter sense of humor, and a profound understanding of the South African political situation. His novel, though comic, is intended for serious readers. It presents a vision that is both hilarious and heartbreaking.