BOOK REVIEW / At sea with a bathing belle: 'The First Life of Adamastor' - Andre Brink: Secker, 7.99

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The Independent Culture
'IN WHICH . . . the narrator proposes the terms of his contract with the reader' reads the epigraph to the introduction to Andre Brink's new novel. So we had better read the small print before we begin - not least because it contains information without which all but the most literate reader will flounder helplessly. A footnote to the first page, for example, tells us that in Greek 'adamastor signifies 'wild', 'untamed' ', and the introduction as a whole - a brief survey of treatments of the myth of Adamastor by Rabelais and Camoens - sets forth the novelist's intentions with good-mannered clarity. What Brink proposes is a hypothesis, a reconstruction of an original model for Camoens' giant, who falls hopelessly in love with the nymph Thetis and is punished by being transformed into the Cape peninsula. 'This is the leap I propose to take,' he writes, 'and my reader is invited to take the plunge with me.'

What follows, The First Life of Adamastor itself, is a playful, deceptively slight narrative which imagines the first encounter between the tribesmen of the Cape and the early European navigators. Adamastor, or T'kama as he is known here, is a tribal elder, whose advice is sought when objects like 'enormous seabirds with white feathers' appear in the bay and lay eggs which hatch men on the shoreline. Reassured by the coincidental raising of a cross on their own sacred ground, the Khoikhoin emerge to exchange gifts. They are delighted by the effects of alcohol, puzzled that sailors who pay a good bride price for a woman return her to be sold again after a brief sojourn in the bushes.

The comedy of cultural misunderstandings is brutally interrupted after T'kama finds his Thetis, a woman from one of the ships bathing naked in a rock pool, and falls in love. 'To prove to her my peaceful intentions, to show her I was not hiding anything which might harm her, I undid the thongs of the ghai apron of soft musk-cat skin I was wearing to cover my honourable parts.' The woman screams, the sailors start firing and what began as courtship ends as an abduction. The Khoikhoin flee to the interior with their cattle and fat-tailed sheep to begin a migration dogged by magical misfortune. Though T'kama is not a giant he finds that any attempt to express his love makes his penis grow in size alarmingly, until he is finally compelled to wind it several times around his body and tuck the end in, like a dressing-gown cord. Only after an accident with a crocodile and some imaginative reconstructive surgery from the tribal medicine man is he able to reach a healing consummation with a woman now placated by his devotion.

Wisely, Brink is not solemn about any of this, though it is clear that he has some serious ambitions for his fresh myth - the battle on the beach prompts a comparison with modern-day township rioters, and there are emblems here, should you want to explicate them, for shared destinies, the durability of mistrust, the urgency of love. Fortunately the contract doesn't oblige you to buy these simplicities if you are sceptical about the application of myth to complex contemporary matters (remember that other powerful myth about the voracious appetite of black men for white women?). Instead you can settle for the pleasure of Brink's playful wit and his colonist's skill in surveying an unknown mental landscape.