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Who Killed Piet Barol?

por Richard Mason

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"A haunting, wildly imagined novel by the acclaimed author of History of a Pleasure Seeker ("the best new work of fiction ... in many moons; a classic"--The Washington Post); set in the first decades of twentieth-century colonial Cape Town and in a spirit-filled forest of secrets and magic powers. It is 1914. Germany has just declared war on France. Piet Barol, the handsome, irresistible figure of Mason's much-admired, sensuous History of a Pleasure Seeker, is once again at the center of this ambitious, lush new novel. Barol, a European adventurer living as a poseur in South Africa's Cape Colony, navigates the turbulence and opportunities of this strange land in his blind quest for comfort and riches as thousands of black families have been turned out of their homes by a white government bent on confiscating 90% of the country for the exclusive use of Europeans. Piet and his wife have successfully, grandly lived a life for the past five years as colonials impersonating French aristocrats (the dazzling Vicomte and Vicomtesse Pierre de Barol of the Château de Barol on the banks of the Loire River), though in truth, he is Dutch and far from aristocratic and she is American and hardly of the railroad fortune family she so often and casually invokes. Both are wily, and both have large dreams. After years of supremely decadent living, Fortune, which has always favored Piet, has grown tired of him and the Barols' luck is about to run out. They are short of cash and on the verge of ruin. As one last grand effort they have embarked on a furniture business full of possibility. They need wood for the enterprise, and through Piet's charm and guile have come upon the source for their inventory that will make all of them rich. The wood is in a forbidden forest filled with sacred, untouchable trees of fine mahogany which Piet is sure he will be able to extract in exchange for beads and glass trickets. His pursuit of the bewitched trees of the fabled forest of Gwadana takes him deep into the Xhosa [pron. KO-sa] homelands, where unfailing charm, wit and the friendship of two black men are his only allies as he attempts an act of supreme audacity: to steal a forest from its rightful owners--a Xhosa clan who know to be true that the spirits of their ancestors reside in their magical, ageless trees"--… (mais)
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Despite the title, this remarkable novel is no whodunit, unless you take the death implied in the title as a more symbolic accusation, in which case we’re all guilty.

Now that I’ve confused you thoroughly, let me explain. Piet Barol, last seen in The History of a Pleasure Seeker making his way in Amsterdam through roguish charm, has broadened his horizons and his debts. Styling himself a French viscount, he’s living large in Cape Town with his American wife, Stacey, a former opera singer blessed with charm and diplomatic cunning more than equal to his own.

But the Barols’ furniture business is failing, partly because Piet can’t bring himself to collect what he’s owed, but mostly because they spend money they don’t have to keep up appearances. Things look desperate, especially as the year is 1914, and Europe plunges into war, which puts Piet in a bind. Had he represented himself truthfully from the get-go as a Dutch national, he’d be in the clear, since the Netherlands remains neutral. But as a French aristocrat, surely he should be fighting for la patrie?

So it’s altogether convenient that he disappear for awhile, and when he hears that there’s a forest full of high-quality wood available for the taking, he sees how he can restart his furniture business with practically no overhead. However, to find the wood and remove it, he must hire two Xhosa men, Luvo and Ntsina; and therein hangs a tale.

First of all, this is no ordinary forest, but one dating from the time of Jesus, fecund in its density. The forest represents a society of interdependence, a metaphor for that which white colonists have set about destroying among the Bantu peoples whose land they have stolen. More specifically, the noblest trees serve a religious purpose for the Xhosa, who believe their ancestors reside within them, whereas Piet doesn’t even know that the trunks are as old as Christianity.

But Mason, who managed to make Piet a sympathetic character as an Amsterdam imposter, does so here as well. Not only does Piet befriend Luvo and Ntsina in a true sense and grow to trust them, he lets himself see things from their perspective and corrects his behavior accordingly. He also entrusts his young son, Arthur, to them so that the boy can learn the ways of the forest, which Piet correctly judges will help him grow into a man.

That said, Piet nevertheless sets out to take the Ancestor Trees, and though he fully intends to compensate Ntsina and Luvo for the loss, he’s a plunderer. And his failure to stand up to Stacey, especially where his African associates are concerned, makes him a weakling.

Then again, the degree to which he comes to love and understand life in the wild frees him from many prejudices. It also releases the artist in him, so that the furniture he carves adopts African themes and is absolutely gorgeous. Moreover, Mason takes care to show the village politics among the Xhosa, many of whom, in their own way, are just as rapacious as the colonials.

But in the end, you know that all this will go wrong, that the scale of destruction the white men wreak will be far greater than that of the Black, and that only one side will profit. That systematic destruction answers the question of the title, and that’s why I said we’re all guilty for condoning or participating in the crime.

How Mason arrives at this conclusion makes a fine tale, and that he renders the Xhosa in ways that ring true is no accident. For a year, he lived among them in a tent, learning their language and culture, and establishing a center for green farming. Who Killed Piet Barol? is a worthy result, a wide-ranging discussion of morals and racial tensions, and a pretty good yarn besides. ( )
  Novelhistorian | Jan 30, 2023 |
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"A haunting, wildly imagined novel by the acclaimed author of History of a Pleasure Seeker ("the best new work of fiction ... in many moons; a classic"--The Washington Post); set in the first decades of twentieth-century colonial Cape Town and in a spirit-filled forest of secrets and magic powers. It is 1914. Germany has just declared war on France. Piet Barol, the handsome, irresistible figure of Mason's much-admired, sensuous History of a Pleasure Seeker, is once again at the center of this ambitious, lush new novel. Barol, a European adventurer living as a poseur in South Africa's Cape Colony, navigates the turbulence and opportunities of this strange land in his blind quest for comfort and riches as thousands of black families have been turned out of their homes by a white government bent on confiscating 90% of the country for the exclusive use of Europeans. Piet and his wife have successfully, grandly lived a life for the past five years as colonials impersonating French aristocrats (the dazzling Vicomte and Vicomtesse Pierre de Barol of the Château de Barol on the banks of the Loire River), though in truth, he is Dutch and far from aristocratic and she is American and hardly of the railroad fortune family she so often and casually invokes. Both are wily, and both have large dreams. After years of supremely decadent living, Fortune, which has always favored Piet, has grown tired of him and the Barols' luck is about to run out. They are short of cash and on the verge of ruin. As one last grand effort they have embarked on a furniture business full of possibility. They need wood for the enterprise, and through Piet's charm and guile have come upon the source for their inventory that will make all of them rich. The wood is in a forbidden forest filled with sacred, untouchable trees of fine mahogany which Piet is sure he will be able to extract in exchange for beads and glass trickets. His pursuit of the bewitched trees of the fabled forest of Gwadana takes him deep into the Xhosa [pron. KO-sa] homelands, where unfailing charm, wit and the friendship of two black men are his only allies as he attempts an act of supreme audacity: to steal a forest from its rightful owners--a Xhosa clan who know to be true that the spirits of their ancestors reside in their magical, ageless trees"--

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