Here is the dove-cow tethered to the clouds: Some reflections on Marguerite Poland's novel Recessional For Grace
South African novelist Marguerite Poland has written three texts which in different ways celebrate Nguni cattle and their historical, cultural and aesthetic importance to Zulu people. Her doctorate, awarded in 1997 by the then University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal), examined the complex poetic naming practice associated with the Sanga-Nguni cattle of the Zulus. Last year, in 2003, this academic research found a much wider audience through the publication of The Abundant Herds. With text by her and the late David Hammond-Tooke, Professor Emeritus at Wits University, and illustrated in oil and water colour paintings and sepia drawings by Leigh Voight, this beautifully presented and fascinating book examines the vital role played by cattle and cattle-related imagery in the Zulu oral tradition. The culmination of Poland's passion and research is her novel, Recessional For Grace, both a love and a detective story. At the heart of this layered narrative of "extraordinarily beautiful and delicate pattern" is a cow, inala - "abundance".
Earlier this year David Basckin and I made a film about Marguerite Poland and her interest in Nguni cattle (Here is the dove-cow tethered to the clouds). Standing with her amidst a herd of Ngunis in the foothills of the Drakensberg, I asked her why she had written Recessional.
She said: "I'm a novelist, not an academic, but of course the cattle work was academic. The cattle somehow are a metaphor for love, and writing that book was bringing together everything that I've ever written, from the children's stories through to historical novels. It's what moves me, and I think that everything I've ever written has started from a search for belonging and an intense and real passionate love for a certain part of this country. As a little girl I lived on a smallholding - it wasn't very beautiful, it wasn't in grand or splendid bush, the animals that were there were small and unexpected. When I wrote Recessional I wanted to write about everything that I really deeply loved, and somehow the work on the cattle brought together that whole way of seeing, of the most ordinary and prosaic and unthought of things that are full of poetry and beauty. What I write about in the story is that beauty is inadmissible when you're writing an academic work because you're supposed to be doing something that is fine and intellectual, but behind it all was the beauty of the cattle, the inala cow, which means "abundance". They fitted into the landscape that I loved so much and a place that I love so much, that in a way has been the muse for every important story in my own sense that I've ever written.
"It's the valley where I've gone back to in my head when I've wanted to smell and feel a landscape, and it's the place, I suppose, I've sought belonging, and in a strange way haven't found it - I'm a kind of vagabond. But, on a rock-face in that valley there was a picture of a solitary little cow which I saw long before I started writing Recessional. Then I did the doctorate and somehow, when I wanted to write my story about the things that were really important to me, and my own way of seeing, I came back to that cow, which I found, getting spines in my tackies and boiling hot and falling over ironstone rocks in this dry riverbed. And there she was, so beautiful and delicate, and she turned and sort of looked at you, and it was almost a beckoning gesture, and I came back to her, and she became the central leitmotif for that story."
The bones of the narrative of Recessional For Grace are these: a postgraduate student of African languages finds an incomplete lexicon of metaphorical names for indigenous Nguni cattle by a deceased academic whose field work was done in a remote valley in South Africa in 1946.
He has been dead for nearly 40 years. He ceased when I began. Or did he? (1)
This becomes not only an academic quest, the topic of her doctoral thesis, but a personal and increasingly passionate quest of reconstruction (both of a man and of the woman he loved) and restoration (both of a world and of herself.)
My own cards are new, lined in cheap turquoise. His are old. They are brittle now and the blue writing ink has taken on a haze of brown about the edges of the letters, as if they had bled, decaying down to the bones of the words. Corpse words: his voice has gone but I know it might have been quite slow - middle-register and warm - without hollows, with a question in its intonation: he was a generous man. (2)
In pursuit of her academic research the first-person narrator must seek to fill the lexical gaps, add flesh to his words; in pursuit of personal restoration she as biographer, cosmologist, indeed as surrogate novelist, must add flesh to her subject. A process, like adding water to crumbs of Japanese paper, which unexpectedly bend and curl into distinctive shapes and colours.
It is a pilgrimage (with all the connotations of the possibilities for grace and redemption) for both the narrator and her subjects, Godfrey and Grace.
She and Godfrey set out anyway. It does not matter any more that they have no appointment and are not sure of where they are going. It is simply something that they have to do, the start of a journey that is theirs alone … It is a pilgrimage to map a landscape of their own. (128)
Returning to Godfrey's cottage from the town, the narrator sees a leguaan in the middle of the road, "quite out of place, in the high light of noon".
It was an emissary. Littoral. Ambiguous. Living at the interzone between the light and dark, the water and the land, reality and unreality. Deceit and Truth. (3)
This is the zone of the novelist, where fragile meanings are conceived and given voice.
Throughout the novel Poland foregrounds the processes of fictional construction and imaginative creation. Her writing is layered, the lyrical effect often achieved through repetition; at the same time, there is an urgency in the writing, a constant deepening of the medium itself.
Characteristically of Poland's writing, some of the most lyrical writing in the novel is in evocation of geographical place and its relationship to emotional terrain. She registers the small critical shifts across this terrain through dialogue, description and metaphor.
Partings must be planned. The time to say the right words, to remember a caress, to return it, to mark, with a touch, what is intimate and loved: an ear lobe, a knee, the temple, the little hollow where the sternum ends, the veins of the inner wrist, lids closed against the comfort of a cheek. The whole cartography of love must be secured. (176)
When the narrator turns her eyes away, the leguaan disappears.
Perhaps it had not been there at all - an intimation only, a trick of light and shade on earth and rock. Like his face in a photograph: a composition in light and shade as well. These eyes cannot see me. They will not respond to my scrutiny. How can they? They are marks on paper, tones juxtaposed. Where is the breath, the blood, the scent, the faint heat of skin? (3)
As a form of visual representation a photograph has a seductive immediacy; as time passes, however, the captured image becomes more and more cryptic, like the vanished leguaan, somewhere between reality and unreality.
At the end of the novel, in an image which evokes a particular Nguni horn shape or conformation (curved horns like the raised arms of a woman carrying wood), the narrator says
I … have tried to gather up their story in my arms, allowing it its moment and its conformation. (294)
In the preface to his recently published autobiography (Living to tell the Truth), which reads like a second volume of his masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude, Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez says, "Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers in order to recount it." Later, he recounts how, as a young journalist in Colombia, he worked in the news room with a magician: "For me, sharing the daily routine with a magician was like discovering reality at last."
In Recessional For Grace Marguerite Poland celebrates both
impulses at the heart of the fictional process - that of the autobiographer
and that of the magician.
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