BOOK REVIEW / A good man in Africa Too small for history: 'On the Contrary' - Andre Brink: Secker, 14.99

ON 8 JUNE 1734, Estienne Barbier, a native of Bazoches near Orleans, sailed from Amsterdam in the good bottom 't Huys te Rijnsburg, bound for the colony on the Cape of Good Hope as a midshipman, or adelborst, in the service of the Dutch East India Company. He left with his mentor Jeanne d'Arc, whom he smuggled into the hold in his substantial chest, and he took with him three of his father's most valuable possessions: a copy of Don Quixote, a gold watch, and an uncontrolled capacity for confabulation.

In other words, he stowed away on the ship. He was on the run after killing a man in a duel over a woman. Obedient to the logic of the picaresque, he soon saved the captain's life and converted a mandatory flogging into a full pardon and a promotion to midshipman. That is, he was on a secret mission to the Cape for the Lords Seventeen in the Netherlands, had read some Derrida, and was the most important man on board. In other words, he was a corporal. That is, the captain of the ship, an 'old accomplice in amorous affairs', had spirited him aboard to protect him from an ugly commando of angry husbands and lovers.

Barbier's life exists in multiple drafts. It is the rocambolesque product of his own writing, as he 'tries to improve on what has seemed like truth'. On the contrary: On the Contrary is nothing but the truth, recounted under sentence of death in this 'nightest of places', the dungeon in the Castle on the Cape. On the contrary: Andre Brink has taken Estienne Barbier, a historical figure, and decoded a perfectly unreliable narrator. This racist, sexist murderer is a good man. He has the holy ingenuousness of Don Quixote de la Mancha. He is pursuing a dream of Africa with the voice of Jeanne d'Arc in his ear. She is urging him towards a destiny that is unforthcoming.

Barbier is pinned by history. He serves for a time as a soldier in the Castle, but spoils his chances of advancement (he is incapable of the necessary degree of venality). He makes two trips north up the west side of Africa, sees a hippogryph, shoots a unicorn, reads and re-reads Cervantes, and hallucinates the legendary golden city of Monometapa. He shelters a slave woman and then helps her to escape, adding a new dream to his dreams to find her again and clarify his love. But she moves off into Africa and the symbolic realm, and Barbier bungles on at the Cape, until his insubordinate probity lands him in the 'Dark Hole' of the Castle.

A long lawsuit follows - a partial reprieve - a Quixotic escape. Beset with adventures and fantasy, Barbier takes up with the colonists on the outlying farms, rotating through the beds of the plentiful widows. For a time he organises effective resistance to the corruption radiating from the Cape. Then judicious concessions win his followers from him, there is a price on his head, and he travels out again into Africa, mad and fantastic, 'too small for history', to reconcile himself with the land and do penance for the colonists' murderous mistreatment of the natives. In love with Africa, he moves from repentance to acceptance, and returns freely to accept sentence of death, or so he says.

The story in this book is very rich, but it is unattractively told. The language is loose and self-indulgent, cliched and perfunctorily antiqued. The skim of old words and phrases seems for the most part incompetent, and On the Contrary suffers periodically from the dreariness of excessive colour that afflicts unsuccessful magic realism.

The bad prose may be intentional (why does the word 'member', applied to the penis, so reliably provoke the word 'unruly'?). It may be designed to express Barbier's lack of mental grip. But if it is intentional it is a mistake: it is perfectly possible to give strong and admirable prose to a bad, confused, or mediocre protagonist in a first-person narrative. Barbier in Brink's version is a deep bore, with his pop-profundity and windy interrogatives ('Perhaps all stories reach for the balls?' No.) On the Contrary could have been a very good book but it needed a few months in a drawer and it needed to be cut. Brink is still too full of his private pleasure. He is too excited by his facts and his notebooks. He has over-worded his hero and under-imagined his readers.

Arts & Entertainment
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit