Book Review || Moerbeibos by Dalene Matthee

Reading Moerbeibos was my attempt at reconnecting with my second language of Afrikaans, but someone should have told me that this was a poor choice of book, as I was hopelessly bored.

The novel has its merits, of course, having been written by an author largely considered one of the best in the Afrikaans language. On occasion the writing was beautiful and evocative, but I think the subject matter did not do the prose any justice. You cannot really make the situation the main characters found themselves in beautiful.

Silas Miggel and his daughter Miriam are staying inside the Gouna forest in relative peace and solitude, until the powers that be - the colonial British government - decides to put a group of Italian silk farmers right where they're staying, who are under the impression that there is a mulberry forest in the vicinity for their silkworms. Miggel is staying on the plot of land illegally as it is, and finds his future uncertain despite the fact that there is no mulberry forest to speak of. Despite Miggel's ongoing complaints - which make up plenty of the novel - he finds himself looking after the band of Italians, fetching their firewood, catching their food, and teaching them how to live in the bush while he waits for the government wheel to turn and send the Italians back home.

But the Italians never return home: the government officials in the area are too disconnected from the powers that be, who are in turn too disconnected from the reality of the situation in the bush, and the 'government wheel' turns, mulching everyone in its path into the ground.

Miggel constantly falls for false promises, bureaucratic bluster, and misguided hopes as he tries to get a ship to return the Italians home. The novel is a very frustrating read, because Miggel simply allows everyone to walk all over him every time, and no matter how much hard work he does, it all comes to nought in the end. Even his obsessive efforts to keep his daughter safe from men's prying eyes are dashed.

Matthee's writing in this bush romance of hers is not bad, but I would hazard to say that the focus of this book - condemnation of colonial bureaucracy - is not interesting enough. One could argue for the novel's merits on the basis of how colonialism took advantage of the little people and displaced the local population, but there is altogether not a sense that this was the main purpose of the story.

I haven't read any of Matthee's other works, which are supposedly better than this one, but there is a taste of the passion she has for her subject of the forest: her description of the heart of the forest is lovely. First, the mystery of its existence; second, Silas' description of coming upon it one day; and, third, his desperate attempt to keep the colony from moving further into the forest.

However, I would warn you to approach this book with patience and the notion that it's not really supposed to end well: after all, colonialism didn't end well for very many people.


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