Bundu is exactly the sort of book that makes the Independent foreign Fiction Prize worthwhile for me. I’d neither heard of the novel nor the author prior to the short list being published. In fact, Barnard seems to be well known in his native South Africa – he’s certainly not a newcomer with over thirty previous books to his name, although I can only find one other that has been translated into English.
The novel’s title refers to a largely uninhabited area that exists in a no-man’s land between South Africa and Mozambique. Brand de la Ray is a biologist who is there to study the local ecology. (Although never explicitly mentioned – his project there is left rather vague – there is a sense he is studying how life can survive there, a question that is also central to the human inhabitants). There is little else apart from a mission, a hospital and a number of scattered dwellings. Brand largely keeps to himself – as with other characters in the area, a broken relationship has been partly responsible for his arrival in such a remote spot. As the novel unfolds Barnard reveals the characters’ damaged pasts and explores whether they can be repaired.
The catalyst for the events of the novel is the arrival of an increasing number of starving refugees at the hospital:
“There were usually a few people under the fever trees waiting to be attended to…but even on busy days seldom more than ten. That morning there were probably at least forty.”
Brand and one of the nurses, Julia, have a close relationship which is always threatening to blossom into something more – “she was the only person I could talk to in my own language – in more than just the literal sense of the word.” Both are held back by the distrust created by previous relationships and an almost fanatical sense of independence. It is largely because of Julia that Brand is drawn into the refugee problem (there are soon hundreds). He calls on another local loner, Jock Mills (who is often little more than a distant motorbike engine) to help: Jock has been rebuilding an abandoned military aeroplane which Brand intends to use to fly out the refugees.
The plane becomes the central image for rebuilding in the novel and a great deal of tension is created around questions of whether it will fly and where it will land. Brand and Mills, men who have largely shut themselves off from the world, now focus their energies on helping others: Mills literally risks his life; Brand abandons his research work. Most of the best scenes centre on the plane. Largely these are scenes of jeopardy, but there is one moving moment when Mills discovers that the refugees have filled the plane overnight in the hope they can escape:
“There was a whole crowd of people in the plane, twice as many as a DC-3 cold carry. They sat on each other’s laps, sat in the aisle, in the cockpit, in the open baggage hold at the back -a bank of black skulls staring at the light motionlessly as if the torch hypnotised them.”
It has all the making of a Hollywood film, though in that Mils would be a hero and Brand and Julia would walk off into the sunset together -which isn’t quite what happens. Among the animals Brand studies is a troop of baboons. The leader of the troop and Brand often look at each other as the sun sets. That gap that cannot be breached seems also to exist between people.