Review: The Hunchback Missionary by Elsa Joubert

Title: In a burning sea – contemporary Afrikaans poetry in translation
Author: Elsa Joubert, translated by Michael King
Publisher: Jonathan Ball SA
ISBN:9781868426324

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Early on in Elsa Joubert’s The hunchback missionary (Jonathan Ball), the novel’s deformed main character contemplates his flock: a group of Dutch settlers who have drawn up “carts and wagons” to the place where he must spread the gospel. Before confronting them, he privately falls to his knees and asks, “What, Lord, must I say to these ironclad people?” The question rings throughout the novel, which is as much a recording of one man’s search for God in a “forsaken wilderness” as it is a record of the Missionary Society’s ambition to bring Christianity to South Africa at the break of the nineteenth century.

Joubert is best known for The long journey of Poppie Nongena (Jonathan Ball), which was published in English in 1980 and won local and international acclaim as well as being translated into 13 languages before being turned into a play that was performed worldwide. It was originally published in Afrikaans as Die swerfjare van Poppie Nongena (Tafelberg) in 1978 and translated by Joubert herself. Michael King’s new, lovely translation of The hunchback missionary, first published in Afrikaans in 1988 as Missionaris (Tafelberg), brings to the reader all the deathly uncertainty and reckless hubris that led men from the wet, civilised darkness of Europe to South Africa to trek into a desert they hardly could conceive of to spread the word of God. The novel follows Aart Anthonij van der Lingen, a hunchbacked “fish of the north” from Rotterdam to Cape Town, and then into the interior of the country to meet people that, in the end, change him far more than he changes – or converts – them. Anthonij van der Lingen existed, as did many of the others he meets, although his adventures have been heavily reimagined by the author. To this end, The hunchback missionary is a novel that is very much a study of the religious fervour that affected every aspect of life in South Africa up to the time of its original writing, and the settlers who, van der Lingen discovers, know only the wild, the gun and the Bible. It is at once a historical account and intensely spiritual narrative that seems to capture the somewhat naïve, often infuriating mindset of those who came here to win over souls rather than lands. The main character is spurred on not only by religious zeal (the word is used often in the novel) but also by the enigmatic and possibly homoerotic relationship with Johannes Kircherer, who convinces van der Lingen to go to Africa and discounts the man’s twisted back, earning his almost immediate gratitude and trust: “Kircherer looked at the deformity in quiet earnest, then reached out his hand and touched it. ‘It is, after all, just fibre, flesh, muscle. Surely no obstruction for the work of God.’” Later, van der Lingen will discover that his wife, too, is able to touch this part of his body with sexual affection in a jolting scene of unexpected eroticism.

It is not just the white settlers who receive the Word. At one point van der Lingen considers a group of “Hottentotten” whom have come to hear him “from shelters, from rock crevices, from caves against the mountain slopes, from huts, from reed-mat shelters” drawn mostly because after the service they will receive some tobacco and a tot.

Perhaps on that Sunday morning, on the farm under the pale sun, I received the clearest understanding of why I had come to this continent. I was deeply moved by these people. I wanted to say to them: You are more than the soul whose colour you have taken on, more than the mud where your children’s feet are wont to fidget. More than the soil under your fingernails, than the sweat that is caked on your bodies, as you bend to the earth to work it with your hands, found in the eternal arc of the worker and the earth to which you must ultimately return, bound by the necessity of eating and drinking from the earth. I want to tell you of other Food, other Drink.

Of course, here we run into the problematic attitude the Church took towards the local inhabitants of the land, the hopeful paternal religiosity practiced upon a group that would be at best half-hearted subjects of a religious conversion based upon both pity and the dop. As our hero presses further into the country, he begins to become transformed. He runs into his colleagues from time to time, only to find they have faced brutal trials. At one point we learn that at least one missionary has had two fingers shot off on an elephant hunt. On that note, one of the towering characters in the story is Brother Kok, a professional hunter and self-proclaimed missionary of a sort who had trekked north to preach to the “the “Biriquas” or “goat people” (the Tswana), driven by his own private illuminations. In a case of what can only be perceived as massive understatement, one missionary, who is worried about how his wife is handling life in the wilderness, confides to van der Lingen: “It’s hard to give birth to children out here.”

It also proves difficult to tell some tribal people, like the so-called “Bastaarden”, whom we know as the Griquas, about the resurrection. Upon trying to explain the concept to a ferocious-looking headman called Mulahawang (who, disturbingly, is described as having a “great chest and belly” and “bulging, enormous genital organs”), van der Lingen is informed that “[Y]ou have the wrong thing here. Our friend with the ivory around his wrists takes his orders from the ancestors who lie buried in the cattle kraal, he would much rather they stay respectfully buried.” Midway through the novel, a filthy, sunburned and blistered van der Lingen returns to Cape Town and his new wife. He is not recognised by the slave who opens the door to the house on Waterkant Street where she is staying with her foster family. Despite his frightening appearance, van der Lingen manages to persuade his wife to join him on a trip back out to the Biriquas, and discovers that she takes to the rough bush life almost immediately, buoyed up because she is out of the restrictions and expectations of town and family.

Two scenes, both involving girls, stand out in the novel as transformative to the main character. The first involves a girl whom van der Lingen sees after her family has been destroyed by the Hottentotten. She herself is kidnapped and then brutally rescued. Her “flaxen” hair has turned white thanks to the horrors she has experienced and through seeing her family burned alive. Mute, obviously insane and raging, she is tied and left in a wagon by a group of wretched settlers who claim to have suffered “fearful things”. The image of the girl whose “thick white hair, purest white, hung like two skeins of mattress stuffing on either side of her face” haunts van der Lingen for the rest of the novel. He imagines that he goes to her and pushes the hair from her face, and talks to her “until the life returned to her eyes”, but he does no such thing.

This spiritual impotence is echoed when van der Lingen comes across a smallpox-infected tribal girl tied to an anthill and left to die by the Hottentotten, who believe this grisly sacrifice will spare their tribe further sickness. She is naked, suffering, with oozing pustules across her chest and back. Thousands of ants are crawling in and out of her: “They disappeared into her mouth, into her nostrils, into her ears.” For a brief moment, van der Lingen resolves to save her, to “pick the ants out of her mouth and nose”. He thinks that he will “lift her head and let the water drip onto her tongue”. Because, in that moment, he becomes sure that this is not simply a suffering native. “This was my Lord, Jesus Christ, lying on the footpath, foul and suppurating and dehumanised. This is why I had come to Africa, to gather up the dying body of our Lord in my arms, and to care for Him.” Yet he leaves her to her fate, too terrified by the “pox-stricken body” to intervene in the horrible death that awaits the child.

Soon after, he realises that his efforts to make an effect on the Bastaarden, Bosjesmannen and Hottentotten seem to have come to naught: “Could I but make my words like arrows to penetrate their understanding? Was there even one single person whom my words had reached?” And at the same time, Kircherer, who disappears early on in the novel only to reappear sporadically, preys on his mind. The married van der Lingen longs for the “touch of his arm about my shoulders” in moments of doubt and despair. These moments intensify as he witnesses the brutality of the Cape Town slave market, where a young girl and an old woman are sold to one of van der Lingen’s superiors, naked, before a crowd of men who poke them, pinch them and make crude comments. The man who buys them, a towering character named van der Kemp – whom we met earlier examining the mouth of a Hottentot woman to discover how she can click her tongue – immediately sets them free, only to take the younger slave as his putative wife and virtual concubine. His constant sexual attention eventually drives her mad.

Eventually, van der Lingen discovers that Brother Kok is murdered and his Biriqua murderers have been identified. Kok’s wife is given the opportunity to shoot them, but she declines, instead forgiving them. Mulahawang takes the gun from her and shoots them to death himself. Upon hearing this, van der Lingen’s wife, who has transformed through the novel from a blushing Cape Town girl to a sturdy frontierswoman, bluntly tells her husband she would also shoot the hapless Biriquas, saying “It must be seen that justice triumphs, that sins are punished. Otherwise, what is the point of morality?” But justice, as ever, is scarce. The years grind on, the British take over Cape Town, van der Kemp is never truly punished for his wrongdoings and Kircherer remains firmly within the main character’s homoerotic interest, which he earnestly assures van der Lingen might be “the noblest form of love”, although the novel leaves it to the reader to decide if the two men act upon their feelings.

Van der Lingen learns that “[W]e did not bring God to Africa. God is here, was always here. We might perhaps help the recognition.” And then he reflects, in one of the most stirring parts of the novel, “Perhaps we are mistaking the whole nature of the experience of God. Perhaps we are making too much of it. Perhaps it is much simpler and quieter, and as natural as breathing, as close to us as our hands and feet. Perhaps we are living in God and His breath is our breath.”

Finally, van der Lingen and his family leave the Cape after seventeen years of struggle exhaustively described and lovingly lifted from what is obviously a great deal of research by the author in the Cape Town Church Archives. To this end, the novel is bracketed with brief chapters narrated by a modern-day researcher (a “white child of Africa” who must be a stand-in for the author) who tells us that van der Lingen dies in 1821, three years after departing these shores. At the start of the novel she addresses van der Lingen himself — or at least his essence contained in “yellowed pages” lifted from an archives box – asking to “journey with you, through this forbidden land that I love so much”. It is a complex, difficult, often impenetrable and ultimately graceful journey that sweeps us across a brutal frontier and offers glimpses of an antique and elusive South African God.

– Ron Irwin is a lecturer in the Centre for Film and Media at the University of Cape Town. He is the author of the novel Flat Water Tuesday.

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