Reviewed by Michelle Kyoko Crowson
Wilma Stockenström’s The Expedition to the Baobab Tree—translated by J.M. Coetzee—is a portrait of slavery and dislocation. First published and translated in the 1980s, the novel is a first-person account of a nameless young African girl and former slave who has clawed her way to a peculiar sort of freedom. She was torn from her home village at a young age, and proceeded to spend her youth in sexual slavery to several rich men in a prosperous coastal town. Her last owner, a sea captain in search of inland adventure, drags her along on his journey to the African interior in search of a mythical city. The narrator accompanies her new master on an expedition into unfamiliar terrain and the party gets lost, wandering into increasingly dangerous territory. One by one her travel companions die or disappear, until she finds herself alone in the veld, finally finding shelter in the hollow of a massive baobab tree. The baobab has a thick trunk that expands and contracts with the seasons. When we first encounter the narrator she is wedged in the tree’s hollow. With few tools to help her survive and no means to measure the passage of time, she spends her new life in a solitary and malnourished state, filling her days with memories of the past. We come to understand the story of her life through these recollections, starting with her first experience as a slave and ending with her journey to the baobab tree.
Like the baobab, the narrator has spent her entire life transforming to survive the conditions of slavery, but life in the veld requires a different kind of adaptation. She observes the wild animals around her tree, following them to food and water, scrounging for what they leave uneaten. Her desperate foraging is interrupted only by the tangled memories of her past, which haunt her as she struggles to survive. Curiously, her memory is completely stripped of proper names. Instead she invents titles for people: she calls herself the “head slave girl” and her masters are her “benefactors.” Sometimes she identifies them by occupation or personality, calling one “the spice merchant” and another—her final owner—“the traveler” or “the stranger.”
The story unsettles from the outset, as we are immediately plunged into the protagonist’s turbulent inner world:
With bitterness, then. But that I have forbidden myself. With ridicule, then, which is more affable, which keeps itself transparent and could not care less; and like a bird into a nest I can slip back into a tree trunk and laugh to myself. And keep quiet too, perhaps just keep quiet so as to dream outward, for the seventh sense is sleep.
The claim to bitterness is as much a testament to the language of the novel as it to the narrator’s state of mind. Coetzee’s translation, too, is wonderfully bitter; the sound and image of each scene lingers long after we finish reading. The protagonist’s voice isn’t easily calibrated. She is illiterate, and yet she has heard of poets and epics from her time as the top slave girl to the richest men in town; she has a certain reverence for words, grasping for language as a defense against melancholy. In one passage, she speaks to the baobab tree with humility, marking its body with imagined language:
If I could write, I would take up a porcupine quill and scratch your enormous belly full from top to bottom. I would clamber up as far as your branches and carve notches in your armpits to make you laugh. Big letters. Small letters. In a script full of lobes and curls, in circumambient lines I write round and round you, for I have so much to tell of a trip to a new horizon that became an expedition to a tree. Here comes a rhythmic pause. Oh I have learned much from the poets, I am versed in the techniques, in the patching together of lyric and epic. Rhythmic pause and on roll the thoughts, round and round your trunk the poetic history of a crazy eagerness that was finally all we could cling to, stripped of material things and emaciated and tired to death of ourselves in the endeavor that transported us along, ballast of the past.
Her knowledge of poetry comes from mingling at parties with poets and adventurers, accompanying one master or another. And more than poetry, her time as a sexual slave to wealthy men has taught her “to find pleasure in how to look desirable in the power it was obviously supposed I could exercise to my own advantage in my benefactor owner’s room.” In her life before the baobab tree, knowledge and manipulation of her masters’ language and sexual desires give her a measure of power over her “benefactors.” Yet this power also aligns her with her captors, thus isolating her from the class of slaves she once lived with. In one of her memories, she recalls the time she witnessed a fresh consignment of slaves being marched into town. She recognizes herself in them, but cannot communicate with them:
Clinking, my fellows in fate arrived. The untouched girls, my little sisters. The young eunuchs, no longer men, no longer human beings, the survivors of a raid deep into the interior, my own people half-people may not be people, the compelled, the pitifully strong healthy products. They stood still. They were allowed to sit.
The novel brings us again and again to the protagonist’s history of loss. Her days are lonely, with only the baobab tree to witness her retelling of the story of her life. Still, in spite of her desolation, she is—at last—free: her body and her time are her own. The expedition to the baobab tree also allows her to finally remember the details of being kidnapped as a child, memories of the slave traders who raided her village, and the family she had long forgotten. At the time of the raid she had no words to describe the experience, but years later, when she is alone in the veld, she recalls the events again: “Now I have a name for everything: slave, castration, commerce, coastal city, sea, forced labor. Yes, now I have it all.” The facts of her oppression become mere words, and for a moment she manages to neutralize her past oppression. As readers, we experience the narrator’s complicated sense of freedom through these memories. The Expedition to the Baobab Tree is a bittersweet novel that paints a complex psychological picture of slavery, and one woman’s struggle to maintain her humanity even under the most difficult circumstances.
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