Joburg Expat: The Covenant

June 10, 2013

The Covenant

Recently, I told you to watch White Wedding if you'd like to get a feel for South Africa and its culture.

But perhaps you'd like to dig a bit deeper and learn something about its history as well?

Many many years ago, when I still had the stamina to read books of a thousand and more pages, and way before I'd ever shed any thought to living in South Africa one day, I read The Covenant by James A. Michener. I'd read many of his other books, but even then his story of South Africa had stood out as particularly gripping.

A veritable treasure trove of coveted Covenants. 

As you know, I've been on a bit of a mission to read books with an African theme and share them with you here, so I resolved that I should probably read The Covenant again. Because it's all become a bit fuzzy in my mind.

But easier said than done. It was virtually impossible to get a hold of a copy.

None of Michener's books are available on Kindle. Even the book version wasn't available on Amazon for some time, nor could I find it in any of the South African bookstores I frequented. Which is not surprising, given the narrow selection you'll typically find in them. And I wasn't even going to try to order a book through them after hearing harrowing tales from a friend of mine who did just that and probably is still waiting for her books to this day.

When my brother visited from Germany, he came to the rescue with a German edition he had unearthed from my parents' book collection. But alas, Noisette got his hands on it first, and if Noisette ever starts reading a book, especially such a thick one, it goes into the equivalent of a dark hole in our house, never to be seen again. Noisette is not the fastest reader. I can get my desk cleaned up faster than Noisette can finish a book, and that is saying something. If you don't believe me, you should see my desk.

I also don't particularly enjoy reading books that have been translated from the English. They are so much better in their original form. Additional confusion ensued when I checked the title of the original American edition inside the front jacket of the German one, and found, to my surprise, that it was called "The Emigrant Train." I had never once heard of that title in my life, and subsequent searches for it yielded no hits whatsoever. Weird.

What to do?

I hope that you'll forgive me, but in order to bring you, my readers, the abbreviated summary of The Covenant before the next decade, I had to resort to thievery.

Yes, thievery.

We were staying at the Champagne Sports Resort in the Drakensberg for our last South African getaway weekend with a group of friends, and I had just run for shelter from the daily afternoon downpour and plopped myself down on a cushy sofa in the hotel library, when I spotted it on a shelf: A well-thumbed paperback copy of The Covenant.

I didn't even have to think. I swapped it for the John Grisham I had brought with me, even though I'm aware that it wasn't a fair trade, eager to take a piece of South Africa back home with me, so to speak.

What's really funny is that once we were back and starting to get settled in the U.S., I was unpacking boxes in the basement one day and came across yet another copy of The Covenant among a batch of books we had kept in storage, this one just as dog-eared as the Drakensberg copy. I had gone from owning none at all to a total of three Covenants. All the more reason to start reading already.

I'm proud to say that I've just completed the epic, five months later. The culprit for the slow progress, by the way, is not my slow reading, but the Brentwood Public Library. I've been so enthralled with the newly discovered concept of a functioning modern library (your American tax dollars put to good work, folks!) to drag myself and the kids to that I've gotten sidetracked by at least four other volumes I read on the side.

I won't lie to you. The Covenant is a looooooong book.

But totally worth it, especially if you're living in South Africa or interested in history in general. I found myself reading it with much more attention to detail and names than last time around, just because I had been to the actual places and seen the actual monuments. I mean, how cool is it to stand in front of the train car Paul Kruger traveled in on his way into exile, back at the onset of the Anglo-Boer war in 1899, never to return to his beloved South Africa? To stand on the very soil the Huguenots first cultivated for wine over 300 years ago? To celebrate a holiday every year commemorating the Battle of Blood River in 1838?

I have yet to read another book on my nightstand, A History of South Africa, before I can endorse the historical accuracy of The Covenant. Some events seem to get short shrift (like the life of Cecil John Rhodes - I've mentioned Rhodes as the founder of the Rand Club in a rather obscure blog post of mine that nevertheless stirred quite the controversy) whereas others events, like the Second Boer War, are described in abundant detail one commando raid at a time. In fact, it seems like Michener's central theme is the conflict between the English and the Boer, also called Afrikaner, almost more so than the conflict between black and white. Or, I should say, the central protagonists are the Boers, which I guess makes sense as the book is all about their pact or covenant with God who entrusted them with this special land.

Nevertheless, it's a brilliant account of (almost) all of South Africa's history. In true Michener style, historical events are interwoven with the fates of three fictitious families and their rise and fall through the generations - the Van Doorns as standard bearers for the Dutch/Boer/Afrikaner faction, the Saltwoods as stand-ins for the people of English descent, and the Nxumalos of the Xhosa tribe representing the many groups of black Africans.

It starts with the ruins of Zimbabwe, reminding us that an ancient civilization predated all European discovery, and the San bushmen and their way of life, then continues on to the first Dutch settlers at the Cape, the Huguenots arriving on their heels, the first trekboers setting out in search of new land to the East, the missionaries arriving from England, the reigns of the Zulu King Shaka and the Matabele Mzilikazi and the destruction resulting from their brutal campaigns of expansion, the Voortrekkers setting out in their wagons to Natal and the Transvaal and their eventual clash with English rule during the first and second Boer Wars, and then finishes off with the rise of Afrikaner power and the establishment of apartheid.

It's a pity the book ends in 1980, the year it was first published. Because so much of South Africa's history has still been made in the years since then.

There are two curious aspects to The Covenant: 1) Nelson Mandela never gets mentioned even once. I find this strange, since plenty of other historical figures are mentioned and even described in detail, like Shaka or Jan Smuts. But perhaps this goes to show how Mandela's fame really only started once he was freed from prison. In the 1970s, when this book was written, he was tucked away in prison as a terrorist and most of the world viewed him as such. How our views can change! 2) The country of Vwarda that gets mentioned several times at the end is entirely fictional. I also find this weird, as most everything else is based on fact (except, of course, the main characters). Incidentally, this is the same Vwarda Michener uses in The Drifters. Perhaps he just liked it so much that he wanted to re-use it. It's a stand-in of sorts for Zimbabwe, but a more hopeful case of Zimbabwe that realizes its errors just in time and brings back professionals that fled it to start rebuilding the country. In my mind, it would have served the story better to use a real country with a success story, like Botswana.

Other than these minor flaws, if  you will, I'll give The Covenant a thumbs up overall. Definitely a must-read, but perhaps save it for that lazy beach vacation when you'll have enough time on your hands. I'm sure your library will have a copy. It's so much more entertaining than a non-fiction history book. And, I'll venture to say, almost as accurate, and perhaps even more real. Because Michener gets it. I have no idea how he did this, without actually having lived in South Africa for years, but he gets the different personalities down to a T, without making them seem purely stereotypical. I'll be talking more about examples of this in future posts.

One tip: If your edition doesn't contain a map, make sure you print one out before you start and keep it as a bookmark, or you'll be forever wondering where the Orange, Vaal, and Fish rivers are and in which direction all those treks were moving.

Happy reading!