All entries for Tuesday 18 August 2009

August 18, 2009

Review: Praying Mantis

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I'm back! With another book review. Yay, I guess you all missed those terribly! This time presenting to you, one of those tragic books about the misery in Africa!

First of all, Praying Mantis is not the kind of book I usually spend my time reading. I tend to need something more fictitious, written for the sake of entertainment rather than information or awareness. In fact, I did not buy this book myself but was given it as a present a good while ago. I finally got round to reading it because I felt bad for leaving it unread for so long.

That being said, Praying Mantis is still a very good book by an author who has earned several prizes and whose works have been translated into thirty languages. I'll even go as far as saying that Praying Mantis is the best book about Africa that I have ever read. Okay, so I've only read two (the other one being Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe), but my point is still valid.

The story is based on the life of Cupido Cockroach, a South African Khoi (or 'Hottentot' as they were known then) who was born sometime around 1760. Despite being based on a true story, it is written as a piece of fiction, and we thus get a detailed account account of Cupido's life and adventures, in a time where two colonial powers, the Netherlands and Great Britain, are disputing the control of South Africa. Cupido is born to a black slave and raised by his mother as a true Khoi, with stories about eagles, mantes, Tsui-Goab, Heitsi-Eibib, and more. However, his mother soon leaves him and Cupido ends up becoming a devoted Christian instead, after a lengthy period filled with all the things that Christians consider sinful (drinking, fighting, sex, etc.).

The book itself is divided into three parts:
The first one is about Cupido's life before becoming a Christian. It is told as a story, like the stories Cupido himself are being told by his mother, and constantly balances on the line between fact and legend, the explainable and the supernatural. The language is also surprisingly neutral, leaving it up to the reader to recoil at the shocking attitude of the white farmers.
The second part is written from the point of view of Reverend James Read - a missionary who befriends Cupido - and covers the period from Cupido's baptem to him becoming a missionary. The language is much more developed and subject to a slight Christian bias, in contrast with the first part of the book which has a more Khoi perspective on reality. As always, here's an extract from me to you:

[Brother Cupido's preoccupation with the Word] also led to wholly unforeseen excesses and convolutions. The most exorbitant, and also the most fantastic, came to light on a late Sunday afternoon when I chanced upon Brother Cupido some distance away form the mission in a small kloof overgrown with euphorbias, aloes and blue plumagoes (which I had by then laboriously begun to identify). It was a year or so after Anna Vigilant's death, and he was sitting with his Bible on his knees, tilted at an angle to catch the last deep yellow rays of the setting sun. [...]
He had not seen me approach as he was so engrossed with what he was doing, so I stopped in some perplexity to observe him. He was reading aloud to himself, following with one finger the words on the big page, as if each were an insect he had to crush before moving on to the next. [...]
When he reached the end of this page, just as I was preparing at last to step forward and address him, he performed a most stupendous action. He tore out the page of which he had just read recto and verso, crumpled it, and proceeded to stuff it into his mouth.
Both fascinated and horrified, I exclaimed, 'Brother Cupido!'
He looked up, startled, snapping the great book shut, then shook his head and continued to masticate for a good while before, with slightly bulging eyes and quite considerable effort, he swallowed.
By this time I was kneeling in the dust in front of him.
'Brother Cupido,' I repeated in complete consternation. 'What's happening? What are you doing?'
'I am consuming the Word of God,' he said in his sermonising voice, seemingly unperturbed.
'But...' I was at a loss for words. 'It is a new Bible, Brother!' I stammered stupidly, as if that made all the difference.
He shrugged.
'Why are you doing that?' I insisted in a much more peremptory voice than I customarily adopt.
'There is so much that I still do not understand, Brother Read,' he explained patiently, as if I were a child to be taught something of importance. 'So I decided I must eat it and swallow it to absorb it in my body. Only then will the Word of God be fully part of me. Then no-one can ever take it from me again. Is it not so?'
'But you have devoured nearly the whole Bible.'
'I still have Corithians to go. Then Galatians. Then Ephesians. Then --'
'I know, I know,' I interrupted. 'But surely this is not the way to go about it.'
'I spoke to God,' he said, 'and that is what He told me.'

The third part of the book concerns Cupido's doomed solo adventure as a missionary in Dithakong, a lost corner of South Africa. This is the hardest part to read, and in the same time the most important one. The objectivity of the first part has been forgotten, and the harsh behaviour of white people towards anyone black is clearly exposed. What makes this bit especially painful, is that everything keeps getting worse and worse for the poor Cupido we have come to love. Fortunately - and this is all-important in my opinion - Brink manages to turn things around in the end, and leave the reader with a perfect, almost magical ending.

The reason I enjoyed Praying Mantis more than Things Fall Apart, is that while the latter is written as one long mourning lament, pointing the finger at Christian settlers and categorising everything by either 'good' or 'bad', this books keeps a more neutral stance throughout most of the book and hence becomes a more pleasant reading experience. The injustice present in South Africa is still just as obvious, but it is sometimes up to the reader to deduce it, rather than having it slapped continuously in one's face. It is also less explicit in denouncing good and evil, which leaves us with a more realistic picture of the political situation, with Khoi, Xhosa, the English settlers, the Dutch farmers, and the Church, a very inhomogenous group in itself.

Recommending the book is tricky. If depiction of a historical setting through a work of fiction is your thing, go ahead and read it. Most probably will you enjoy it, and maybe even become an André Brink fan. If, however, you've never been thrilled by anything of this kind, Praying Mantis is not the book that is going to change this.

Next on the list is The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy. I'll have to admit that the reading is proceeding far more quickly for that one.


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