"Islands": Ambitious novel surveys South African struggles

by Dan Sleigh, translated by André Brink
Harcourt, 758 pp., $28

There are first novels — and then there are works of a lifetime that just happen to be the first novel an author has published.

South African writer Dan Sleigh's "Islands," translated from the Afrikaans by novelist André Brink ("A Dry White Season"), falls triumphantly into the latter category. Its subject: the rise of the Dutch East Indies Company's settlement on the Cape of Good Hope in the 17th century and the company's failed venture on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. Covering the lives of three generations, Sleigh's story turns on the first interracial marriage on the Cape and the fate of that marriage's mixed-race children. Little is as you would expect it to be.

In its vast ambition, its range of settings and its close attention to the logistics of colonization, "Islands" rivals Paul Scott's "Raj Quartet." It offers shipwrecks, pirates, hurricanes, land grabs, power struggles, corporate hubris, military atrocities ("Just cut off upper lips, otherwise we have to carry the whole bloody head") and multiple draconian acts of "justice." All shades of human character, from slandering and sadistic to loving and self-sacrificing, are present on its pages.

Sleigh is a researcher at the National Archives in Capetown, and his long immersion in the documents of South Africa's colonial past is apparent throughout "Islands." Each character here has a basis in the historical record, yet there's never a sense of the author being hemmed in by the facts. For Sleigh, human dramas spring fully animated from the dustiest bits of paper.

He divides the book into seven long chapters. The first portrays a Koina chieftain, Autshumao, down on his luck with neighbors and trying to parlay his contacts with visiting English and Dutch mariners into a position of strength. He's successful to a degree, but at a sacrifice, starting with his name (the white men rechristen him Chief Harry) and ending with his orphaned niece, 6-year-old Krotoa (rechristened Eva). As the Dutch fortify their position on the Cape, Eva is adopted by the captain's family — and from then her life is split between two worlds.

Self-possessed, with a gift for languages, she appears to hold her own at first. She even marries fort surgeon Pieter van Meerhof (the protagonist of Chapter 2) and has four children with him. In the small world of the colonial Cape, everyone knows her and grants her a place, however grudgingly. Troubles first appear when Pieter is put in charge of the colony prison on Robben Island, moving there with his family. When he dies, Eva collapses into alcoholism, and her children become wards of the colony.

After some muddle, efforts are made to ensure their well-being. Thanks to the good sense of eldest daughter Pieternella, it looks as though all will be well. But that's before history and fate do their work.

The five remaining chapters view Pieternella and her siblings, variously, through the eyes of their father's kindly young Robben Island successor (a former German soldier); a local fisherman who, with his wife, wishes to adopt the van Meerhof children; a Cape colony advocate who, as legal protector of the children, dreams of marriage to Pieternella; a free burgher from Mauritius who, half-unwillingly, becomes her husband (a long and happy union, starting when she's 14!); and finally an 18th-century Cape historian, eager to learn all he can about Pieternella from her surviving sons. Through his eyes, we see the racial divisions of the future South Africa begin to fall firmly into place.

These seven chapters work like seven lenses through which to see subtly altering versions of the same reality. A key image in one chapter reappears later, pearled in new meaning. Sleigh's portrayal of Pieternella through key figures in her life opens up the novel in an extraordinary way, making it clear what far-flung corners of the world the officers, colonists and slaves of the Cape and Mauritius came from: war-scarred Europe (where "today's infant is tomorrow's infantry"), India, the Dutch East Indies, the African interior. Thanks to their memories, we see each place in vivid detail.

Most intensely, we see a village, a town, a city, a whole society rise before our eyes. There it is, changing and expanding faster than any of its inhabitants can grasp, coming as they do from slower, more traditional societies.

About Brink's translation, all that needs to be said is that it's an extraordinary act of generosity from one gifted writer to another.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com. He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998 and has also published four novels.