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.