Compelling reading: Kites of Good Fortune
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Theresa Benade has recreated Cape Town at the turn of the 17th century to tell the story of Anna de Koning, daughter of Anjali, or Angela of Bengal.
The book begins with two journeys. First the return of the sixty-four-year-old Anna to the Cape after her only trip to Europe. This is the narrative position of the novel as the older Anna recounts the story of her life. The second journey, told to us by Anna, is the journey from the Netherlands to the Cape made by her mother, the slave Angela. These two journeys - one in each direction - frame the novel. Central to the book is the gravitational pull that Europe exerts on Cape colonial society.
Angela comes to the Cape to work in the household of Van Riebeeck. The second chapter of the novel nods to Angela's friendship with Krotoa Eva - the intermediary who went between the Dutch and the Hottentots. At the core of the Angela story is the three days of passion she experiences with the dashing captain David Koning during which Anna was conceived. The narrative then continues, somewhat jerkily, through Anna's life in early Cape high society. It traces her rise and fall and rise again; her relationship with her husband Olof Bergh and her friendships with Heinrich and Marie Claudius and with Marie van der Stel, amongst others.
There are many characters who drift in and out of these pages, like Anna's numerous children, but it is the "irrepressibly fertile" Anna who stands out. I was enraptured by this heroine - she is vividly brought to life through a wealth of historical detail.
The story is a temporal mapping, rather than any kind of thematic or dramatic narrative progression. We are given access to various snippets, or episodes, of Anna's life, starting from her conception and continuing until just before her death. Necessarily, in any historical novel, particularly one that maps a whole life in only 239 pages, there has to be some kind of selection of events, but I wasn't always sure of the logic of the selection, or why Benade chose to elaborate on any specific part of Anna's life at any given time.
Even though the book is propelled forward by time, rather than by a more coherent or fluid sense of story, it is a very compelling read. There is a lovely, gentle sense of narrative that sees us moving from botanical expeditions in the untamed Cape to musical interludes in the castle, all the while bringing to the reader's imagination this wonderfully strong woman who was ahead of her time.
The historical novel is a curious blend of fact and fictionalisation and Benade negotiates these two in way that keeps the reader engaged. Undoubtedly the strength of the book is the rich historical detail with which Benade has layered the experiences of her heroine. This book begins to plug some of the necessary gaps in popular understandings of South African history - I was thrilled to pick up a book about the offspring of a slave in the early Cape. It has left me with a hunger for more information about some of the other characters and the historical context. The maps, timeline and glossary are welcome appendages.
We are told that Anna doesn't have Angela's skill of evocative storytelling, and this is unfortunately sometimes true. The world of the book is made believable by the historical detail rather than by the weaving of an imaginative canvas through storytelling as a craft. And while this historical detail is carefully integrated, it could have been complemented by more evocative storytelling. The effect is somewhat distancing - we feel the mediation of the story through the telling of it and so we're not always at one with Anna.
The book is framed by Anna's consideration of her split loyalties to Africa and Europe. She says, "All my life I have felt divided, as though the ground on which my life was based, my melody and harmony, rhythm and tempo were African, but every ornamentation, every improvisation, every trill and grace note were European" (220). I was a bit puzzled by this, as the bulk of the book doesn't indicate much of an African sensibility. I am not looking for any kind of reductive or essential sense of "African" but fail to see the African "rhythms and tempos" in Anna's Cape society interludes. Without lapsing into the obvious, this could have been explored more adventurously.
Anna's African identity is perhaps best revealed through her love of its landscape, but even that seems to be the love of the coloniser: identifying and naming (in Latin) that uncomfortable acquisition of knowledge of the colonised landscape. Related to this is her curious hankering after Europe, expressed also through her desire for her lost father. What I found markedly absent was any kind of speculation about her Bengali identity, that there was no desire to know more about this part of herself, despite Angela's supportive presence throughout the novel. It just seems a bit odd that she never reflects on this part of her identity at all. The Bengali heritage seems to be a less considered area; even here the characterisation of Angela sometimes lapses into stereotype: long neck and proud shoulders when she is young and exotic and standing before David Koning. I wanted to know more, even if just a few lines, about the implications of being of slave descent while inhabiting early Cape high society. The slaves lurk on the margins of these pages, and because Anna could so easily have been one of them, I was intrigued by her relationship with the slaves, but needed more. There is a sense of the slave community and of the covert Islam through Angela's later interest in the religion of her birth, and this begins to develop an interesting narrative strand.
Kites of Good Fortune is absorbing and compelling. Through the careful and detailed rendering of its engaging heroine, the book takes its readers on a journey into the early days of the Cape, with its treacheries and intrigue and botanical interludes.
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