The Expedition to the Baobab Tree

Wilma Stockenström

translated from the Afrikaans by J.M. Coetzee
Archipelago Books 2014 [1981]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2014
The only survivor of an expedition from an East African coastal city into the interior, a slave woman has found shelter in a baobab tree. There she delves through her memories, giving us a roughly chronological account of her abduction as a child, her slavery and changes of ownership, her ill-fated journey with her final master, and how she established a life in the wilderness.

A first person narrative by an illiterate narrator, told from memory without names or dialogue, Expedition to the Baobab Tree in many ways lacks precision or hard edges, like a dream half-remembered. This creates a heightened awareness of the details that matter, however, and, spurning allegory or symbolism, it has some real force to it. We are confronted by the sea and the city and the swamps and the deserts, by isolation and half-understood longing and the simple joy of living.

"When the tree blooms, then I cannot feel somber. Then I see the journey as a confusion I had to undergo, then I do not try to unravel it and make sense of it. I say the name of the tree aloud, the name of water, of air, fire, wind, earth, moon, sun, and all mean what I call them. I say my own name aloud and my own name means nothing. But I still am.
One time I fled from the tree. I ran aimlessly into the veld, trying to get out of its sight by hiding behind a high round rock, and I opened my mouth and brought out a sound that must be the sound of a human being because I am a human being and not a wildebeest that snorts and not a horned locust that produces whistling noises with its wings and not an ostrich that booms, but a human being that talks, and I brought out a sound and produced an accusation and hurled it up at the twilight air. A bloody sound was exposed to the air, with which I tried to subject everything around me. To be able to dominate with one long raw sound."

If Expedition to the Baobab Tree feels like poetry much of the time, this is hardly surprising: Stockenström is a notable poet as well as a novelist and her translator here, J.M. Coetzee, is a first-rank writer himself. (Expedition to the Baobab Tree was originally published in Afrikaans in 1981, as Die Kremetartekspedisie.)

September 2014

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%T The Expedition to the Baobab Tree
%A Stockenström, Wilma
%M Afrikaans
%F Coetzee, J.M.
%I Archipelago Books
%D 2014 [1981]
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9781935744924
%P 129pp