My Mother’s Lovers

For this year’s Culture issue, Departures presents its first-ever fiction excerpt. What follows is from the upcoming novel by South African expatriate Christopher Hope.

I once asked my mother who my father had been.

We were shooting buffalo and, for the only time in her life, I reckon, she shot to miss. She turned her huge blue eyes on me—the rifle kicked hard, the .375 H&H Mag delivers close on 40 pounds right into the shoulder—and said in her quietest voice, “I haven’t the faintest idea.” Then she handed the gun to me, her choice Holland & Holland, first made in 1912, always popular with big game hunters. She said: “Your turn next. Remember, these beasts are tricky. Especially if you don’t put him down. Captain Cornwallis Harris liked to remark that the buffalo will tramp you, kneel on you, sandpaper off your skin with his rough tongue, and then come back for another go.”

I didn’t ask again.

Mind you, she told me, without my asking, that I’d been born under a thorn tree on the African plains while she had been “with” (traveling with, sleeping with?) a white witch doctor called Harry Huntley. He had taken her—heavily pregnant—into “the bundu,” the distant lonely veld, left her camped beneath a thorn tree and, armed only with a knife and a bag of salt, he’d gone off into the wilderness to hunt for wild bees and small game.

I always wondered, Why small game, why not bloody big game? I had a very low opinion of Huntley; he seemed to me a wanker from the start.

Anyway, so her story went, it was under the thorn tree, alone, that she had given birth to her son, and he—I—might have died had her itinerant white witch doctor not returned and severed the umbilical cord with a whisk—get this—of his hunting knife.

My bundu birth sounded unreliable, but the bozo with the salt bag was all too typical. Africa has been chock with them. Soul-salvers, ravers, mystics, mendicants, dreamers from damp northern reaches of Europe in search of spiritual union with Africa!

Harry Huntley came directly from Leicester and took to Africa rather as some men take to drink. He went around barefoot and lived rough in the veld on honey, roots, and berries; he milked cobras, which he kept in a sack; he took his water from the muddiest water holes; and he slept at night among the roots of giant baobabs. It had been a career of feverish self-indulgence.

But, as I said, there has always been a lot of it about. You can trace a line from Harry Huntley back to David Livingstone. These guys all said the same things: They were in Africa to build railways, save souls, speed trade, and/or end slavery. Popular pastimes, and useful dodges. Think of the funny hats, the odd habits, the ridiculous outfits, the bizarre wandering about in a fog of ignorance. Some wanted to be white gods; others went native and became sangomas, or rainmakers, or born-again bushmen, or praise-singers; others set about saving souls, along with black babies, lepers, and the white rhino. But all of them, the slavers, the seers, the saints, the posturing white colonials, had one thing in common: They took out a patent on “their” Africa and flogged it as the one true original.

So I don’t know why Huntley turned up in Africa, and I could not explain why someone like my mother should fall for a half-naked Limey from Leicester wearing a leather skirt. She spoke English, German, Dutch, Afrikaans, and Swahili. She could fly, ride, shoot—and knit. She could also box a bit: She went three rounds with Hemingway in a Mombasa gym, though, as she’d say, “He was pretty far gone by then.” /p>

And yet she wandered into the bush with a crazy white witch doctor.

But was Huntley my dad?

I never got the chance to ask him. Huntley decided one day to swim the Orange River. Perhaps his old European education got the better of him and he was copying Byron when he dived into the Hellespont. Perhaps he just felt like a dip. Anyway, halfway across the river Huntley got into difficulties and was drowned.

Which of course meant even more stories grew up around the man: that he could run down lions, that he could talk to snakes, that he was a maker of rain and a sniffer-out of witches. Over the years any number of devotees came to talk to my mother about Harry Huntley. Hollywood took movie options on one or another of the many books about him, books with titles like The Bee Master, The Man Who Loved Lions, quasi-religious tracts found on bookstore shelves marked “African occult” and which bore about as much relation to the real Africa as soft porn did to real sex.

As to matters of paternity, then, I hadn’t a clue, and my mother wasn’t saying. I knew that during the last war she had risked three attempts at marriage, but each time the pilot she’d been planning to marry was killed in action. She never made much of it except to say that the life expectancy of SAAF fighter pilots in the Western Desert was counted in weeks. Any of these men might have been my father. I had no way of knowing.

My birth certificate said I was born in Johannesburg in 1944. Then again, my mother once confided that my “paperwork” had taken “a lot of getting hold of.” My baptismal certificate told me I had been christened in the Church of St. Mary, Orange Grove, in 1945 (why the gap of a year I cannot imagine), and I was named Alexander Ignatius Healey. I was given my mother’s surname, suggesting that I was born out of wedlock, though none of it proves that Huntley was my father.

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, I have always felt like a foundling, though my mother insisted that wasn’t so and that she was my legal, biological mother.

“But my dear boy—don’t I look like your ma?” /p>

Nice one, that. As if by failing to spot the lineaments of motherhood, I had somehow failed the test of filial loyalty. Of course she didn’t look like my mother. Ours was more of a compromise: She was my mother because she said so and I was her son because I owned up to it, though not without misgivings.

Then there was my name.

“If you'd been a girl I'd have called you Alexandra, after the township. Alexander was as close as I could get…in your case.”

“What do you mean…in my case?”

“Alex is a good name, don’t you reckon? I learnt to box in Alex.”

Alexandra and Sophiatown, as it happened, in the thirties. Her sparring partners were black guys hungry to punch their way to fame and freedom.

There it was. The features of her life made up a map of somewhere she said was Africa. But to me it was more mirror than map. I had to take on trust that just behind her or over her shoulder, I might catch sight of the place itself. But it never really happened. Whenever I looked, the mirror was filled with her face.

Our different ways of seeing each other went on widening all our lives and they showed in the distances between the places where we lived. I don’t mean geographically, I mean temperamentally. We simply had very different ideas of home. My mother had always taken the grandest view of Africa; it was for her a shooting gallery, an endless sky, and she saw the European searchers, the Livingstones and others, as great presences, even great Africans. To me, the people who passed through our lives were not mystics or miracle workers; they were distinctly dodgy. I would not have bought a copper bangle or a slightly foxed Bible from any of them.

I saw them as would-be actors constantly auditioning for parts in the great romance. Pallid players in search of themselves who only made sense when you thought of them as characters on a continent of their own scripting. Not Africa the place—not the groaning landmass where so many have been so betrayed by men in tunics, djellabas, and suits who claimed to love the place only to unleash the usual annihilation—but Africa the production, Africa the movie, Africa the road show.

My mother called this view banal and unworthy.

And what about her? She certainly had something of the theatricality. Except she didn’t dress up and invent a new character; she played herself.

There was also her ambition. She was never particularly South African (that would have been far too modest), she never exhibited that limiting self-regard that marks South Africans, black and white, and leads them to see nothing else as real and no one else as interesting. My mother wasn’t to be confined to one bit of Africa, the lower leg of the continent. She took all of it as her birthright and loved it with a passion that was free of that yearning to merge that leads some people to tears (though the Huntley episode shows she was susceptible to moments of “Jock of the Bushveld” hokum).

But, in the main, she was sound.

Take, for example, her attitude to wildlife, always a good way of telling a real African from a transplanted mythomaniac. Faced by the no longer teeming but still plentiful big game, her response was straightforward: She picked up her rifle and shot something. Her admiration for Karen Blixen, whom she sometimes visited when she was a girl, had nothing to do with Blixen’s love affair with the Kenyan highlands; it was more simply based:

“My God, could that woman kill lions!”

I went hunting with her only a few times. She was a good and patient teacher and I learnt a lot from her, but it never really took. I was simply not gifted that way. She flew us to Livingstone in Northern Rhodesia and then we drove into the bush. Buffalo don’t hear or see too well, but their sense of smell is exceptionally keen, and you stand more of a chance of getting in closer when you track a single animal rather than a herd. We stalked this single old bull most of the day, keeping well downwind. He had huge horns and fine bosses that made him look like some old-bufferish judge.

She was not amused by the comparison.

She was in her usual khaki shorts and veldskoen, no socks, and had a few rounds in her shirt pocket. She talked as we walked.

“In the old days when we hunted there were lots of buffs, and you'd stalk them at night because they like to graze then, it being cooler. But one can’t see in the dark. Problem! So what we did was tie a bit of white cloth to the barrel of the Mauser—we used 9.3-by-57s at the time—and the cloth was a night sight and direction finder. In daylight we hunted as a group, say, five or six guns; we'd stalk the herd from different directions and when the guns opened up, the danger was always that the herd might stampede and mow you down so you had to blast away, hope to down the lead buff heading for you, then jump on his body and use it as a kind of shooting platform.”

Though I liked her warmth and her knowledge, the business did nothing for me. I understood the danger well enough. Buffalo are very strong and they will circle back on their tracks to attack you; they can turn amazingly fast and they will kill you as soon as look at you.

We got to within about 50 yards of the bull and she was breathing lightly as she sighted and said, “Okay, you go. Remember, you want to do as much damage as you can with your first shot. Never go for the head or the neck. Go for the boiler room, and if you’re lucky you’ll hit bone. It is very, very rare that you’ll bring the buff down with a single shot so prepare the second. And remember he might run, then we’ll have to follow. That’s tricky.”

I was lucky: My shot broke his spine and put him down. She was pleased. “One shot hardly ever does,” she said again.

Afterward we made stew from the buff’s kneecaps—long cooking in an iron pot over the fire—and she talked of shooting and I talked of air temperature. That’s what the bush did to me, it made me itch, it made me hot, it made me bored.

"There are no bloody fans in the veld,” she said.

“No, Ma. But there are methods.”

I told her about evaporative cooling. “You soak a sheet and hang it in the breeze. Natural air-conditioning.”

“Where on earth did you get that from?”

“I read it in a book.”

“Oh, dear me,” she said. “Air? I really wish you wouldn’t.”

Bertie had been one of the earliest of my uncles. He ran a big hotel in England; he’d made a lot of money and in Africa he believed that “the Zulu nation” was as close as you got in modern times to the ancient Romans for “fighting skills and stoic courage.” Why not become a white Swazi, or a white Xhosa? Well, because for romantic hoteliers like Uncle Bertie, only certain tribes cut the mustard. One saw this whimsical fascination all over the damn place. In Kenya it was the Maasai who won hands down; in Arabia, the Bedouin. For Uncle Bertie it was the Zulus.

He came out to Zululand back in the murky days of the mid-sixties when, if it wasn’t bad enough living with crooks and criminals who liked to think of themselves as pioneering stock in this corner of Africa, we found ourselves groaning beneath the yoke of straitlaced puritans. We were used to dealing with rough villainy, but being ruled by guys with a sincere conviction that they were God’s anointed was something we had never experienced (and have never recovered from).

But of course Uncle Bertie, being from England, knew nothing about any of this. He knew only “Africa.” Need I say more? The guys who ran our country liked Bertie, they liked his energy, his blindness, his attempts to be reasonable and rational. They also liked his take on the tribes. Didn’t they think of themselves as an African tribe, albeit the one destined by the Good Lord to kick shit out of all other tribes? Well, then, what could be better than guys like Uncle Bertie wishing to join up to the Zulus?

Uncle Bertie was created a white Zulu by King Cyprian Bhekuzulu kaSolomon. His new name was Nqobizitha, which meant “Conquer the Enemies.” When he came to visit in Joburg, he did a Zulu dance on the lawn by the dahlias. A plump, bare-chested hotelier in a leather dress and leopard-skin trimmings, paws dancing on his nipples, waving a knobkerrie.…

“He’s an idiot,” I told my mother.

“Don’t let him hear you saying that, he won’t let you play with his assegais,” she said. “And it might be one of Bertie’s places we're staying in next.”

It was. He bought a game farm in Natal and my mother used to go shooting there. On the wall, next to the queen, he hung his certificate saying he’d been inducted into the Zulu nation.

We seemed to move just about every week to some new place or other, depending on my mother’s flight plans, her hunting trips, or the uncle of the moment. We lived on farms or small holdings in the Transvaal veld; we stayed for a while in neat and stony suburban bungalows, and in broad-shouldered Joburg mansions where immense lawns ran down to the distant white walls and the sun on the mesh of the tall fence burnt diamonds in the baked rouge-red sand of the tennis court.

Looking back, I can’t tell them apart, and they all—these passing homes—fused into our real home, the house in which we came to rest many years later, the house in Forest Town, up the road from the zoo. Just as all my memories fused into these pictures of my mother, when she was at home and we were together.

I remember that particular homecoming so well because, unusually, she hadn’t brought anyone back with her: no friends from the great bush that she flew over and into, no witch doctors, no white hunters from Gabon or Congo or Kenya.

This time it was just her and me, just us. I hugged her and she smelt of elsewhere: of campfires, cordite, pipe tobacco, boot polish, and aircraft oil. Then I sat and watched her and knew that she really and truly existed, and I hoped she’d never move again. I knew she would, of course—she was only resting; her way was not to stop but to be up and off, though for the moment you would never have thought so, seeing her lying back, the liquid shine on her toe caps, the ends of a lavender scarf offset by the woolly white edging of her flying jacket.

On the bookcase behind her, with its blue-shouldered, leather-bound Cassell’s Great Stories of the World, there sat in its carved ivory frame the photograph of her father: an alert and yearning face, with a full mustache and a bold yet bruised look to his olive-dark eyes. And photos of Dr. Schweitzer and Hemingway, as well as the façade of Muthaiga Club in Nairobi and a view of Mount Kilimanjaro, and all those people and places which—never distinguishing between locations and living beings—she called “my old mates.”

And because she never saw much difference between people and places, she would attach human feelings to different countries and ascribe geographical features to people: The Congo, she said once, “has a shy, retiring nature; it’s decidedly bashful.…” And Hemingway was “landlocked; always dreaming of having his own access to the sea.” For years I thought Hemingway was a country somewhere in Africa.

Out of South Africa

In the years since 1990, when Nelson Mandela triumphantly stepped out of prison and South Africa reinvented itself as a democratic nation, the writers there have painted a rich vision of the nation and its past. Besides the Nobelists J. M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer, authors such as Zakes Mda (The Heart of Redness), Achmat Dangor (Bitter Fruit), Troy Blacklaws (Karoo Boy), and Tony Eprile (The Persistence of Memory) have all evoked South Africa from a myriad of angles. Christopher Hope, meanwhile, has written about the country— and other subjects—in a myriad of forms. He is the author of the memoir White Boy Running, nine novels (including the Whitbread Novel Award–winning Kruger’s Alp and Serenity House, short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 1992), a travel book, and several volumes of poetry. Hope grew up in South Africa but left in 1975 and now spends most of the year in the south of France. This passage is from his latest novel, My Mother’s Lovers ($24; groveatlantic.com), which will be published in the United States by Grove Press in August.