Red Dog by Willem Anker (translated by Michiel Heynes, Booker International 2020)

We venture into the kloofs to go and goad elephants. If an elephant is angry enough, you feel pins and needles all over your body and the hair on your neck stands up straight and your whole skin comes alive. Then you shoot. At home you stare into corners. Curl yourself up like an animal in its hole.

While Conraed de Buys is busy killing elephants, the French are storming the Bastille. Everyone, it seems, has a desire for power, regardless of the continent on which you live.

Of course, when he’s not shooting elephants, Omni-Buys is stealing cattle. (And still shooting.)

Our cattle are now disappearing every day, but if you go on commando with me, you always return with more cattle than were stolen. They say that on punitive expeditions my gang and I shoot a bit too freely among the Heathens. And apparently we shoot the Caffres who hunt on our farms. But we are big men and strong and what we aim at we hit.

The imagery in this novel is powerful; the sentences are cleverly constructed. (I especially like the mocking done with words connected by hyphens: pen-lickers for the commission wanting the Caffres to stay on their side of the river, for example, or pedant-prick for the schoolteacher.)

This is an elegant piece of literature beautifully describing an historic figure in South Africa, who vaguely resembles a terrorizing philistine from the Old Testament in his self-serving, power-grabbing, violent ways.

The new landdrost, Bresler, says to Buys, “I’m just coming to shake your hand. Seems to me nobody can administer the law here without your blessing.” But, Buys is no Abraham. No Moses, or Jacob. I don’t even see him as capable of understanding law, let alone administering it. His own desires are his law.

Kemp (the English missionary) immediately drops to those well-worn knees of his to thank God and his heavenly host for my help in guiding him through the perils of the land to this place of rest. He prays that one day there will be a church here that will blazon forth the Gospel to the far ends of Africa. He prays for altars and sacrifices and the light of civilization and flames reaching up to heaven. He prays that God will have dominion over Africa. I want to tell him Just go and have a look around the corner, there is already a large enough altar of shouldering babies stinking to high heaven. I want to tell him My dogs and I, we have dominion here. But I keep my trap shut and go forth.

Red Dog is the story of a larger than life figure who lived in South Africa in the 1700’s, fighting the Boers and the British while maintaining his own powerful stand. His image is perfectly rendered by Willem Ankers, who makes it possible for the reader to visualize all the ways that Coenraad de Buys lived.

Even though this novel has won six major South African prizes, I wonder as to its power for the rest of the world. What are we to learn? What are we to take away beyond the violence committed in an uncivilized country so very long ago? Personally, I prefer the content of novels which deal with more universal subjects, such as memory, religion, and loss.

About the author: Willem Anker was born in Citrusdal in the Western Cape in 1979 and lectures in creative writinf at Stellenboch University. His first novel, Siegfried, was published in 2007. Red Dog was oublished in Afrikaans in 2014 and won six major literary prizes in South Africa. It is his first novel to be translated into English.

About the translator: Michiel Heyns is a South African author and translator. He has won numerous awards in South Africa, including the 2012 Sunday Times Fiction Prize for his novel Lost Ground and the Sol Plaatje Prize dor Marleene van Niekerk’s The Way of Women.

10 thoughts on “Red Dog by Willem Anker (translated by Michiel Heynes, Booker International 2020)

    • Yeah, yeah, yeah, everyone likes The Iliad.

      Your comparison draws me up short, though, giving validity to a book I was half disdaining for its content. Does The Iliad have raping and burning and sodomy and filth and polygamy and an utter lack of civility in any form? I haven’t yet read it, which is shocking, I know. But, if it does, the the two may be comparable.

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      • Yes. The Iliad has all of those things. Except not an utter lack of civility. There are some severe breaches of civility.

        I could come up with other examples, though. Heart of Darkness and so on. Blood Meridian is the most obviously relevant one for Anker’s novel, since he directly pinched parts of it.

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        • There’s a place for darkness, certainly, as it occupies so much of the world we live in. I just don’t like reading more than 400 pages of it, when there’s a wealth of so much more powerful content available. Of course, that’s just me. Lots of people evidently love to read of blood, gore, violence, sodomy and all kinds of untold horrors.

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    • Thanks for the suggestions, Emma. Red Dog is about so much more than killing elephants, though! It seems there is hardly a woman untouched, or a village unscathed, from his conquering tendencies. It all was just so barbaric to me; are there places in the world which are still like this? It troubles me to think so, and perhaps that is part of the reason why Red Dog is on the Booker International list. Well, and the writing is very well done, ‘plot’ aside.

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    • Thanks, Liz. I make an effort to read every title on the Booker International Prize long list, which comes out every March. This year’s titles are particularly strong; I just didn’t care for Red Dog as much as some of the others. When I have completed the long list, I will share my favorites, along with the Shadow Jury’s opinions.

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