Book Review: 'The Expedition To The Boabab Tree'

Alan Cheuse reviews The Expedition to the Boabab Tree. Originally written in Afrikaans by Wilma Stockenstrom, the short novel on slavery has been translated by Nobel-winning writer J.M. Coetzee.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The journey of a girl sold into slavery is the topic of a compelling piece of fiction out of South Africa. It's called "The Expedition To The Boabab Tree." The author is poet Wilma Stockenstrom. She originally published it back in 1981, and now it has been translated from the Africaans by Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee and published in the United States. Allen Cheuse has our review.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: Here's a meditation on a life in bondage by a 16th century former slave woman, in only 129 pages illuminating, in musical description and sharp images, the pains and pangs of human bondage. When we first meet the woman she's taken up residence in the hollow trunk of a tree. From the vantage point of her hideaway, she narrates the story of her life like some sort of philosopher trying to understand herself and the social and the natural world in which she lives. How she does this is almost too ethereal for me to describe. Listen to her on the subject of beauty. (Reading) Now, for the first time, I discovered beauty - my own, she says, and that of bunches of flowers and of soapstone statuettes and jade clasps and porcelain glaze and of batiks dyed with indigo and of lovely silk, light as a breath or heavy and stiff and interwoven with gold. It was almost, she says, as if I was learning, again, to talk.

I'd love to read the entire novel to you, passage after passage because it's not only the story of a woman who struggles her way to freedom, but someone through whose eyes we see a world of existential beauty beyond the boundaries of dispiriting struggle. This slim book takes a place high in my own pantheon of beautiful novels come to us out of Africa.

SIEGEL: That's our reviewer Alan Cheuse. The book is "The Expedition To The Boabab Tree" by South African poet Wilma Stockenstrom.

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