Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
It takes gumption for an author to title her novel The Afrikaner, given the connotations that spring to mind about South Africa's former ruling white minority. It takes even more daring to give human faces to characters belonging to a group that oppressed for decades tens of millions of black Africans. And yet, Arianna Dagnino navigates this issue with taste, sensitivity and exquisitely written prose.
Make no mistake—The Afrikaner does not in any way endorse the brutal racist regime, in which Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans were the primary architects. Quite to the contrary. What it does do is take the readers on the journey of a progressive Afrikaner woman toward her discovery of self, her group's history and new role in the rainbow society, and love.
Part social and historical commentary, part love story, The Afrikaner is an entrancing novel. It is remarkably easy to relate to the protagonist, Zoe Du Plessis, who strives for professional recognition for her work as a paleoanthropologist while reconciling a personal loss, due in part to racial tensions in the new society. An international journalist for many years in post-Apartheid South Africa, Dagnino has captured much of the country's political and societal complexity while weaving an intricate but accessible work of fiction. Admittedly, this is the type of novel that I appreciate the most, i.e. one where I feel much better informed by the end and where stereotypes are deftly unmasked.
The story centres on Zoe. The daughter of a wealthy Afrikaner farming family, her starting point in life is that of white privilege. However, she has for years disassociated herself from the Apartheid regime by spending much of her time studying and doing research abroad. After the fall of that regime, she pursues her research at Johannesburg's Witwatersrand University. Her preliminary work is ground-breaking. It supports but does not yet prove that the earliest human being was from southern, not eastern, Africa. Witwatersrand University, still largely dominated by fellow Afrikaners, offers a bubble from the momentous, often chaotic political and social change in the country. That is until the murder by carjackers of her colleague and lover. Zoe is suddenly thrust into the reality of a nation composed of many ethnic groups often in conflict with each other. She realizes that academic excellence is not enough. She too must discover her own path forward in the new society and confront the beliefs of her upbringing.
Through Zoe's return to her family's farm and then her expedition into the Kalahari Desert to discover fossils of the first human being, we are introduced to representatives of various groups that constitute the country. The majority Xhosas, the proud Zulus, bushmen who were once trackers for the South African army, Afrikaner rejectionists, former anti-Apartheid dissidents and gay men determined to pursue their biracial love, all these play a role in helping us understand the diversity of South Africa and the many challenges facing the young rainbow nation.
Although written with a strong emphasis on Zoe's personal story and falling into love, have no doubt that Dagnino's work is also a deeply political novel. And Dagnino also excels at transforming the political dialectics into a highly enjoyable transcultural experience. An Italian from Genoa who has lived most of her life abroad and is now a proud Canadian citizen, Dagnino's ties to South Africa are wholly experiential. Although she lived in South Africa for eight years, she can make no claims of belonging to any of the groups, she so aptly depicts in The Afrikaner. Some may think that writing a novel about a country not her own and so plagued by identity politics strays into the area of cultural appropriation. I would strongly disagree. Dagnino's writing demonstrates the value of restoring to the storyteller a fundamental mandate, i.e. to chronicle the Zeitgeist wherever it may be, and especially in a country, whose history has touched all of us. In this, The Afrikaner is an exceptional novel by an exceptional writer.
The Afrikaner is published by Guernica Editions.
Arianna Dagnino will read from The Afrikaner in Ottawa at the Vimy Brewing Company, 145 Loretta Avenue North on Sunday, May 5, 2019, as part of Guernica Editions' spring launch. For details, click on the Facebook invitation below.