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Okapi and unicorn: Fact to fiction

Jane Rosenthal

Jane Rosenthal reviews Equatoria by Tom Dreyer.

Equatoria revisits some familiar themes in the literature of Africa: the white man in Africa—there to conquer, exploit and convert, and the effect of this on African people and their whole environment. Equally, the converse effect of what Africa has done to the psyche of its colonisers is also addressed.

The novel is set in the early 1900s and is inspired by an actual expedition by two young Britishers who visit the Belgian Congo to capture an okapi for a European zoo. This beautiful and rare creature could be found only in pockets of dense forest where the Pygmy people live.

It starts off lightly and links the quest for the mythical unicorn with the search for the elusive okapi, but it loses impetus in the middle when it starts to be short on real detail and the narration becomes rather bald.

But Dreyer does use certain images to good effect. In Antwerp Willis, the protagonist, pockets a beer bottle stopper on which a unicorn is imprinted; this becomes his talisman. This is contrasted with the string of pangolin scales carried by their guide, Obieka, pointing the difference, and similarity, of African and European ways. By the time the novel ends, with the two travelling collectors stranded up some remote river waiting for the steamer Equatoria to fetch them, both talismen have been lost or abandoned. Dreyer does succeed in making the okapi seem a highly desirable quarry and conflates it with the mythical unicorn; both animals stand at the heart of myths surrounding quests, honour and purity.

In a more political vein, Dreyer brings out all the usual props of the white man’s (literary) view of Africa: the heat, the incomprehensibly “other” black inhabitants, the callous colonial exploiters (General de Quincy), the dissolute traders and too few white women. From the outset Willis and Nichol disassociate themselves from these undesirable mhlungus and Dreyer himself seems to be saying not all white men in Africa did wrong. But even this naturalists’ expedition is a form of exploitation insofar as fame and money will attach to a successful outcome. And it would not be possible at all were it not for the Congolese bearers who are treated in the novel as so much useful muscle, though Dreyer does tell us that they accept the work only to make money to pay newly levied taxes to the Belgians.

This novel has been translated from Afrikaans, so it is hard to guess where the problem lies, but I found several distracting instances of anachronisms of register. For example: “What’s up with you and this girl?” and “made tracks” for leaving the scene hastily. And “a soft target” was surely not a phrase that was known in 1912 in British academic circles of naturalists? This incongruous language undoes the sense of the era and place.

By the end of the book Willis is a changed man and has refocused his mission. Perhaps the best part is in the final scenes where nothing is concluded, nothing resolved, but the reader is left with powerful images of events on the river banks, and a sense of unreliable realities.

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