Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe
Print version ISSN 0041-4751
MEYER, Susan. Voices from behind the farm gate: The people-nature "conversation" in Dwaalpoort by Alexander Strachan. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2012, vol.52, n.2, pp. 290-306. ISSN 0041-4751.
Alexander Strachan's latest novel ties in with the tradition of the farm novel. Dwaalpoort brings about an enrichment ofthis genre through the intertwining of magical-realist elements and qualities of the modern farm novel, but especially through the unique narrative style and its implications. The novelistic background involves the new socio-political dispensation in South Africa. The ending of the older dispensation manifests itself in issues such as farm dispossession, land reform and the transfer of ownership. On Dwaalpoort cattle farming has made way for game capturing and hunting safaris, and the events cover the weekend during which Judge Jurgens van der Beul comes to bag a game trophy. The power of the novel lies in the division of voices between man and animal. The story is told from the perspectives of six different characters: five human beings and Mhlophe, leader of the troupe of white hartebeest, which in the novel represents the primal spirit of nature. Mhlophe speaks the first and the final word in the novel, an authoritative addition to the voices that speak in between. Through varying perspectives shape is given to the idea centring on man and animal living together consciously within the shared natural environment lying behind the gate. This article focuses on the analysis of the human-nature "conversation" in Dwaalpoort. This leads to the identification of aspects of ecological discourse in Strachan's novel, and also to a reconnaissance of the ways of manifestation of the underlying principles thereof, which Matthew Teorey deduces from the work of the writer on nature, Craig Childs. According to Teorey (2010:35) ecological discourse relates to a physical/sensory, intellectual and psychical effort to achieve a deeper form of respect and communion with other species in the greater context of the cosmos. This in turn is linked to the challenge to listen "actively", attentively and with an open mind to the silences and voices of nature. In Dwaalpoort there are, to a differing extent, indications in the different characters of their level of participation in "conversation" with nature. Through this expression is given to a more encompassing form of contact with and understanding of animals, and to a more profound reflection about the place of and the link between man and animal within the great biotic sphere. An absorbing given emerges from the study of the nature of the communication between man and other species in Dwaalpoort. This involves the way in which "conversation" of this nature can be advantageous where man overcomes the communicative limitations with nature, which cultural systems seem to impose, through acting outside specific culturo-ideological systems. Rentia acts outside the pattern ofpatriarchal domination, maintained by her father (Mafika), in order to have the opportunity to experience the finer nuances of ecological discourse. She resists a system where man's voice and purse call the shots, as a result of which veld and animal have to bend the knee before environmentally destructive farming practices. Her sharing attitude and her desire to maintain a balance motivate her obsessive protection of the white hartebeest in the gorge on the farm against commercial hunting practices. She finds much to read in the sounds and movements of the animals on the farm and she demonstrates close attention to the processes of sensory, intellectual and psychical formations of links with the surrounding natural community, in line with the principles of ecological discourse. Bullet is a hunter functioning from the intellectual framework of acquisition and control. Still the bond with his dogs does create for him the "ear" through which snatches of the voices of nature can penetrate. Guided by the ghost of his dead dog, stripped of the role of hunter and decision-maker, a nightly exodus for him becomes an initiation into a world of barely decipherable messages through the "voice " and eyes ofthe dog. He also hears the condemnatory "accusations" from nature. In this situation, where Bullet steps outside the dominating thought pattern of the hunter, something of a conversation comes into being in the reflection about what the animal has to say to the human being. Jurgens van der Beul is a power-mad judge, decision-maker about the lives of the animals whose stuffed headsfill his trophy room, and ofpeople about whom he makes judgements in court. The episode during which his wife, his ultimate "trophy", becomes the sexual prey of another man leads to a sense of loss of control. Jurgens, too, relinquishes the established intellectual frameworks built around the power roles of hunter and judge during a magical encounter with Mhlophe at the end of the novel. On the way to a section of burnt, ruined veld on the farm - the result of Mafika's farming practices - Jurgens, in a process of magical-realist transformation, becomes the landowner who waits for the leading antelope. He accepts that vengeance is being exacted through the greater power of nature, and a remarkable form of "conversation" comes into existence between man and animal. Traces of which can be found through investigating the parallels between this meeting and an earlier hunting trip involving a kudu cow, with a clear allusion to the way in which the roles of man and animal have been switched. Something of the struggle of the animal emerges within the experiential field of man in this quiet communication occurring through the exchange of experience between man and animal. The novel reveals, in both the hunter-figures, something of the achievement of a deeper form of respect and communion with other species, which after all is the objective of an ecological discourse. It also emphasizes, in the closing sections, an altered perspective in man about a relationship, even equality, between hunter and animal. The form and intensity of the "conversation" between human characters and animals in the novel vary. What is clear, however, from the analysis of the man/nature discourse in Dwaalpoort, is the much greater openness to contact which accompanies the situations in which man moves outside culturally-determined systems of dominant thought and action.
Keywords : Dwaalpoort; Alexander Strachan; farm novel; magical realism; narrative technique; man/nature discourse; ecological discourse; voice of nature; relinquishing of limiting cultural systems; co-existence of man and nature.