At the beginning of March 2020, Julia Blackburn flew to South Africa. Back in the 1970s she had borrowed a library book called Specimens of Bushman Folklore by Lucy Lloyd and Wilhelm Bleek. “I felt myself being pulled into a world and a form of thinking that was nothing like anything I had known before.” Decades later, she was ready to write about it. She was going to work in the archive in Cape Town, which houses hundreds of notebooks compiled in the 1880s to record the language of the /Xam Bushmen, an indigenous group who lived in central South Africa. She was going to visit the desert region of the Karoo and see the carvings the /Xam left on the black volcanic boulders that litter the hills, markings so elegant that the first Europeans who saw them “were sure that they could not have been made by Africans”.
Blackburn is not a methodical traveller. It is her way to set out with minimal planning, trusting that she will recognise her destination when she arrives at it. She goes, she sees, but, instead of conquering, she potters around and discovers what she can pick up.
As with her journeys, so with her writing. Her wise, wonderfully idiosyncratic books are poetic, informed by a drily downbeat humour and a genius for serendipity. On a single page of Dreaming the Karoo, she alludes to a piece of Polish installation art she saw at the Venice Biennale, to Socrates, to the ornithologist Edward Wilson who died at the South Pole with Captain Scott, to a poem by Ezra Pound and to a little auk. Her thoughts take off in unpredictable directions. She follows them as they digress and meander, and frequently finds gold.
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What she found in South Africa, however, was of a different order of unexpectedness. She set out for the Karoo with three chance acquaintances. As they drove northwards along empty dirt roads, with nothing to see but sheep behind high metal fences, they passed beyond the reach of modern communications. On a remote farm they heard the word “lockdown” on the farmer’s radio, but took no notice. More days passed before Blackburn’s phone picked up a signal, and began to buzz insistently with messages from her adult children. “Mum where are you?… Mum you must hurry or you won’t be able to get back!” She was suddenly panic-stricken. “If I had been standing, I would have fallen down.” She got the second-to-last seat on the second-to-last flight out of Cape Town to London.
Her book is structured as a journal, beginning just after she returned. She is planting a vegetable patch, borrowing some guinea pigs for company as she begins lockdown alone, and looking for a way into her subject. She is afraid. She went to South Africa to research the story of a people whose world ended. She has come home anxious that her world might be ending too.
The archive Blackburn had intended to visit was created between 1856 and 1890 by Bleek, a German philologist, and Lloyd, an Englishwoman. Bleek set himself to learn the language of /Xam Bushmen, taught by some /Xam who were being held in the Cape Town jail. He died in 1875, whereupon Lloyd took over the project. Unlike Bleek, who was her brother-in-law, Lloyd was not an academic seeing the /Xam as a subject for investigation by white Western scholars. Rather she became their scribe, filling 12,000 notebook pages with their words and becoming a conduit for their memories, their fears and dreams.
Lloyd was consistently belittled by male scholars and described – even 39 years after Bleek’s death, when she had compiled a body of work he had never even contemplated – as his “assistant”. But her work gave Blackburn full access to a culture that has been obliterated by the dispossession and the killing of the people whose it was. There is now no one alive who speaks the language preserved in those notebooks.
Blackburn weaves the /Xam’s words through her book. She describes how Lloyd’s conversation with them moved “from a dream to a practical observation and then to a sudden step into the huge landscape of the mythic past”. She gives us samples. There are pieces of hunters’ lore. There are empathetic words about animals. (To the /Xam, animals “are people”, and humans can turn into lions at will.) There are gnomic reflections on mortality, and the bonds that link communities. “A person who dies, the rain falls, taking away his footsteps.” “I felt my side aching as the wind blew past, I felt my inside biting. It felt like that when one of my people was dying.”
Gradually these voices – visionary and laconic – begin to sound in the reader’s head as insistently as they do in Blackburn’s. We learn how strange they found Westerners. “We shall see whether we make those people cry as we do, for they do not seem to know that we are people.”
Blackburn doesn’t presume to interpret the /Xam for us, but she gives them context. She writes about what Joseph Conrad called the “imbecile rapacity” of big-game hunters, and about the wastefulness of the farmers who slaughtered ostriches (whose meat was part of the /Xam’s staple diet) for their plumes. She tells of the Trekboers, and the way they fenced the land where the /Xam had hunted for centuries, or millennia. The Trekboers had God’s sanction, according to the Psalms: “I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance and the uttermost part of the earth for thine possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron.”
Blackburn reminds us that the Trekboers were afraid, that their promised land had turned out to be harsh and lonely. And so they classified wild animals as vermin, and killed the indigenous people by denying them access to food and water, or – in many cases recorded in the stories Lloyd transcribed – by murdering them, hundreds at a time. “The man is holding a stick and the dog is biting us and dragging us out from our little house… The jackals think that death is with us and so they run out of the shade.”
Blackburn introduces the /Xam prisoners, Lloyd’s interlocutors, one by one. Jail records tell us their height (under five foot) and that they had “no religion”. Some were arrested for cattle-stealing and taken away in a wagon, or chained to it and forced to run alongside. Their women followed them for miles but then turned back, exhausted and despairing. The men laboured in quarries, chained together. Their children were stolen. One boy was swapped for a gun. Blackburn records all this plainly – such inhumanity needs no gloss.
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Her writing is a blend of the tentative and the direct. Unlike those stiff-upper-lipped colonialists who never felt able to admit to anxiety, never publicly questioned their mission civilisatrice, she candidly confesses her uncertainty. She can’t find her notes, or can’t remember what she meant by them. “I am at a loss to know what to think of him,” she writes about Bleek. She does not pretend to omniscience, or even to dignity. “I bobbed about and apologised… and felt like a fool.”
In the parallel narrative of Blackburn’s journal, her hens start laying. A robin flies into a closed window and dies in her hand. Months pass. Lockdown eases. Her family come to stay. She walks by the Suffolk sea and sometimes it is consoling, and sometimes it is just dreary. Gradually, a connection is established between her fragmented book’s disparate elements. In the past she has written repeatedly about loss – about Napoleon’s loss of power, about Goya’s loss of hearing, about her own loss of a husband, about the loss of drowned Doggerland. Here she is writing about the Covid-inflicted loss of safety, and about the loss of an entire people and their culture. One of the /Xam tells Lloyd that there used to be a string that linked his people to the land and sky, but, “Now I do not hear the ringing sound in the sky… when I sleep I do not feel any thing which vibrates in me while I sleep.”
Dreaming the Karoo begins with a shepherd Blackburn once encountered in Wales, who recited what he said was the oldest Welsh poem:
There were once five hundred happy people
And they were attacked and poisoned
And after that there was peace and quiet.
She found the poem “confusing”. Was it the people’s happiness that impelled others to wipe them out? Or were they getting in the way of others’ greed for minerals or territory? What drives anyone to genocide?
Blackburn doesn’t give us answers. Instead she works a miracle. In this book dead people talk in a dead language, describing a culture and way of life which is also dead, and yet, thanks to Lloyd’s patient listening, and to Blackburn’s tactful, beautifully-framed extrapolations, those dead come before us and speak.
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Dreaming the Karoo: A People Called the /Xam
Jonathan Cape, 304pp, £20
This article appears in the 13 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Selfish Giant