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Review: Who Killed Piet Barol?, by Richard Mason
Knopf, 2016. 362 pp. $28

Despite the title, this remarkable novel is no whodunit, unless you take the death implied in the title as a more symbolic accusation, in which case we’re all guilty.

Now that I’ve confused you thoroughly, let me explain. Piet Barol, last seen in The History of a Pleasure Seeker making his way in Amsterdam through roguish charm, has broadened his horizons and his debts. Styling himself a French viscount, he’s living large in Cape Town with his American wife, Stacey, a former opera singer blessed with charm and diplomatic cunning more than equal to his own. But the Barols’ furniture business is failing, partly because Piet can’t bring himself to collect what he’s owed, but mostly because they spend money they don’t have to keep up appearances. Things look desperate, especially as the year is 1914, and Europe plunges into war, which puts Piet in a bind. Had he represented himself truthfully from the get-go as a Dutch national, he’d be in the clear, since the Netherlands remains neutral. But as a French aristocrat, surely he should be fighting for la patrie?

The South African Native National Congress delegation to the British Parliament in 1914 tried unsuccessfully to reverse colonial land policy (courtesy historywiz.com)

So it’s altogether convenient that he disappear for awhile, and when he hears that there’s a forest full of high-quality wood available for the taking, he sees how he can restart his furniture business with practically no overhead. However, to find the wood and remove it, he must hire two Xhosa men, Luvo and Ntsina; and therein hangs a tale.

First of all, this is no ordinary forest, but one dating from the time of Jesus, fecund in its density:

The grove was almost a single being, so bound were its member trees to one another, and yet each was wholly individual. They had grown together from saplings and forged a union without conflict, free from betrayal and viciousness. In their crowns were gardens of fertile soil, several inches deep, dropped over centuries by passing birds. In these gardens earthworms wriggled, grown distinct from those that churned the forest floor. Their branches began thirty feet above the ground, and this refuge from predators made them desirable residences for all sorts of creatures that relished distance from the great cats.

The forest represents a society of interdependence, in other words, a metaphor for that which white colonists have set about destroying among the Bantu peoples whose land they have stolen. More specifically, the noblest trees serve a religious purpose for the Xhosa, who believe their ancestors reside within them, whereas Piet doesn’t even know that the trunks are as old as Christianity.

But Mason, who managed to make Piet a sympathetic character as an Amsterdam imposter, does so here as well. Not only does Piet befriend Luvo and Ntsina in a true sense and grow to trust them, he lets himself see things from their perspective and corrects his behavior accordingly. He also entrusts his young son, Arthur, to them so that the boy can learn the ways of the forest, which Piet correctly judges will help him grow into a man. That said, Piet nevertheless sets out to take the Ancestor Trees, and though he fully intends to compensate Ntsina and Luvo for the loss, he’s a plunderer. And his failure to stand up to Stacey, especially where his African associates are concerned, makes him a weakling.

Then again, the degree to which he comes to love and understand life in the wild frees him from many prejudices. It also releases the artist in him, so that the furniture he carves adopts African themes and is absolutely gorgeous. Morever, Mason takes care to show the village politics among the Xhosa, many of whom, in their own way, are just as rapacious as the colonials.

But in the end, you know that all this will go wrong, that the scale of destruction the white men wreak will be far greater than that of the black, and that only one side will profit. That systematic destruction answers the question of the title, and that’s why I said we’re all guilty for condoning or participating in the crime. But how Mason arrives at this conclusion makes a fine tale, and that he renders the Xhosa in ways that ring true is no accident. For a year, he lived among them in a tent, learning their language and culture, and establishing a center for green farming. Who Killed Piet Barol? is a worthy result, a wide-ranging discussion of morals and racial tensions, and a pretty good yarn besides.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.