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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

THE ABUNDANT HERDS & RECESSIONAL FOR GRACE (article first published : 2003-12-12)

Marguerite Poland has pulled off an amazing double: she has had two books, entirely different in nearly every way, published in the same year. And very remarkable books they are.

The Abundant Herds is subtitled A Celebration of the Nguni Cattle of the Zulu People. Written in collaboration with Professor Emeritus David Hammond-Tooke, it is based on Poland’s research for her doctoral thesis (University of Natal, 1997). But I wonder if any thesis in history has received such lavish treatment as this, or produced such a splendid result.

Professor Hammond-Tooke has contributed the Introduction and Chapter 1, which establish concisely the place of cattle in the Zulu cultural tradition. Poland is responsible for the rest, a celebration of the indigenous cattle, to be sure, but also a keen appreciation of the people who own them, describe them with complex and beautiful terminology and have a “strikingly close relationship” with them.

The book is really about the “extraordinarily elaborate” names given to the colour patterns of Nguni cattle. These names are closely tied in with the appearance of other natural phenomena – birds and their eggs, other animals, plants and berries, stones, clouds and even people. The writer takes us gently through some of the structures of the language that create such names and stresses their metaphorical function, by which a beast with a dark body and a white head not only resembles the fish eagle, but, in a sense, is the fish eagle.

This is by its nature an academic work, detailed and scholarly – it could hardly be otherwise. But the scholarship is lightly carried, and humour is not lacking. It is refreshing to know that along with “inkomo engamatshoNgoye” (the beast which is the stones of the Ngoye forest) may be found “ibullybeef”, a beast with a coloured body and a white face, resembling the picture on a canned meat label. Admittedly this kind of modern intrusion is not common.

This text might sound a little intimidating, but the book is gloriously illustrated by Leigh Voigt, who uses oil and watercolour paintings as well as sepia drawings to bring life and an abundance of colour to the subject. Her work is too widely known to need a further accolade here, but it should be said that in this book it beautifully illuminates the written word. Large pictures complement the text; smaller ones decorate and amplify the detailed appendices where the terms used in the book are listed and classified under various headings.

This book is an invaluable testament to a long-standing and remarkable heritage. As the writer herself says, “There is a real danger that (this) precious branch of indigenous knowledge will ultimately disappear.” Her book should do much to preserve this knowledge for posterity. Apart from that, it has the singular virtue of revealing beauty where few of us knew it existed; their names aside, who would have believed that cattle themselves could be beautiful?

Recessional for Grace is another matter altogether. It is a novel, and a very fine one. It has one crucial connection with The Abundant Herds; it grew out of that book. The story is concerned with an academic who has left a partly-completed catalogue of cattle-names in the stacks of a university library, supposedly about fifty years ago. The central character in the story decides to construct a doctoral thesis based on this record. In doing so she finds a second but compelling purpose: an impassioned investigation into the life of the man, now long dead, who created it. But this dry scenario is merely the basis for a wrenchingly poignant love story, set in a landscape, and among people, quintessentially South African. This does not make the story in any way parochial – quite the reverse. If anything, the South African ambience acquires something of the eternal from the story played out in it.

It is a matter for wonder and gratitude that the author, demonstrably very knowledgeable about cattle, should be just as acutely sensitive to human beings – their preoccupations, their motives, their hearts. She is equally at home in academia and in a country sale-yard, and she knows about South Africans from every background, searching for – and finding - common ground in a troubled century. She brings to this story the eye for tiny detail that she revealed in her thesis, an artist’s precision in describing people, houses, animals, landscapes. She is able to view her characters with a level, unemotional gaze, but her compassion is unfailing for even the least of them. Her prose frequently tests the boundary with poetry, lyrical, laconic, to the point – and often beautiful.

I think this book has made a significant contribution to South African English writing. I also found it profoundly moving. I hope many other readers will too. A taped version of it will soon be available for the visually disabled from Tape Aids for the Blind. It is read by accomplished voice artist, actress and artSMart editor, Caroline Smart. - Tim Dodson.




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