Who Killed Piet Barol, Richard Mason, 384pp, hardcover, Knopf, January 2017
Short version: In Who Killed Piet Barol?, Richard Mason effectively uses sumptuous prose for a piquant and sub rosa dissection of identity and differences, suspicions, and disrespect within and between cultures.
Now, for the longer version. Who Killed Piet Barol? resonates on many levels, one being a tale about the exploitation of a culture by a privileged interloper, a plot which feels incredibly relevant but not in a cheap, sensationalized, pulled-from-the-headlines way. Rather, this is a presentation of the history of the despoliation of hallowed ground — literally and figuratively — with the plundering of a sacred site and the accompanying dissolution of the morality of multiple characters.
Here is a synopsis from the author’s website: RICHARDMASON.ORG:
Pretender Piet Barol and singer Stacey Meadows are making a splash in colonial Cape Town but are running out of cash. With creditors at their heels, their furniture business is imploding and only a major win will save them. So Piet enlists two Xhosa men to lead him into the magical forest of Gwadana in search of precious wood.
Meanwhile the Natives Land Act has just abolished property rights for the majority of black South Africans, and whole families have been ripped apart. Piet’s charm and appetite for risk lead him far beyond the privileged white world to a land and community that sees him with new eyes.
A novel about the truth in magic and the enduring consequences of lies, Who Killed Piet Barol? is published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson in the UK (September 2016) and by Alfred A. Knopf in the US (January 2016).
It speaks to Mr. Mason’s authorial gifts that despite the repellent acts Piet Barol commits and his situational amorality, because of his ultimately inadequate attempts to “do right”, the reader can still feel sympathy for him as victim (cooperative, or not) of the prejudices and distortions of his culture. That he is neither hero nor villain is further contextualized by comparison to other characters who share his cultural milieu; his wife, Stacey Barol; their friends and clients, Percy and Dorothy Shabrill; and, finally, Frank Albemarle, corralled into the circle by Stacey to save a situation she may have cursed.
In counter-voice, there are the Xhosa natives; Ntsina Zini and LuvoYako, the two of whom are in Piet’s employ (and collude with him) as he ravages the magic forest, and Nosakhe Zini, village witch doctor; Sujude Zini, Ntsina’s father; the Jaxa clan, in particular the daughters Bela and Zandile. They, like the Piet-collection, are fully-drawn with all the charms and flaws, goodness and sinfulness, full range of shortcomings and virtues most human beings have.
While it is illuminating the way members of each culture view the other as other, the Xhosa even calling the Dutch (and others) The Strange Ones, almost any writer might have accomplished a portrait of that tension (though certainly not with the fluidity and grace of syntax and language Mr. Mason has managed.); what strikes to almost breathtaking degree about Mr. Mason’s take are the ways in which each culture is conflicted within itself — there is disunity and misunderstanding and deceit and disinformation inside each group, sowing the seeds which lead ultimately to devastating loss to and in both communities.
Too, while the human voices are by turns fascinating, witty, elegant, carnal, passionate, and intense, there is also an anthropomorphization of the sacred trees, the insects, the animals, the forest, the elements, the weather, so we hear their cerebration in equal weight with the biped thoughts. I hesitate to mention this because some might call such voicing (and some other elements of the tale) magic realism, but this reader finds that term off-putting, too often code used to describe a twee or navel-gazing tone, narcotizing and infuriatingly self-indulgent. Not the case at all here where the multiple perspectives mesh in a compelling harmony.
The novel is a literary symphony of many themes, introduced, echoed, enhanced, and amplified as they are interwoven, these individually fascinating and enchanting motifs which, finally, in ways surprising and seamless, crescendo into an arrangement of captivating discord a reader will find both beautiful and terrifying in its truth.
Who Killed Piet Barol is a unique read, wrought by a skilled charismatic of literature who is deftly able to conjure complex worlds and guide the reader on a journey which, like all the best travel, not only informs and expands one’s own reality, but leaves one with additional questions and new ways of seeing.