22 FEBRUARY 1952, Page 19


African Close-ups Venture to the Interior. By Laurens van der Post. (Hogarth Press. 12s. 6d.) I FIND the merits of this sensitive and distinguished book extra- ordinarily difficult to assess. In 1949 Colonel van der Post, who

during the war took part with great credit in a variety of hazardous 'enterprises, was commissioned by a Government agency in Whitehall (it sounds like the Overseas Food Corporation) to report, as a matter of urgency, on two mountainous areas in Nyasaland about which the information available in London was incomplete. it was thought, on grounds which as the author's narrative proceeds appear increasingly frivolous, that these partially surveyed and notoriously inhospitable highlands might contribute in some unspecified way to solving the problems of the world's food supply. Apart from one reference to an afternoon and evening spent in writing " a long technical report " recommending that one of the areas should be left as it was (it does in point of fact produce valuable supplies of a unique softwood), Colonel van der Post hardly mentions the main purpose of his journey, and in prosaic minds like mine, especially if their owners have had experience of the extent to which the object of a journey generally colours and sometimes dominates the journey itself, this omission must generate a feeling of slight disorientation. To these sublunary readers there is something inherently interesting in the idea of a man being flown into the heart of Africa to examine the possibilities of food-production on plateaux 8,000 feet high. We are curious to know what (if any) the possibilities were, how they were assessed and what, as he discharged it, Colonel van der Post thought about his mission. Because our curiosity is not satisfied, we cannot but be mildly irked by a sense of deprivation.

We get, in more than ample recompense, some fine descriptions of magnificent scenery and—much rarer—a singular talent for evoking and interpreting the atmosphere of the great continent in

which the author was born and spent his childhood. It is, 1 think, a seer's rather than a poet's gift that enables Colonel van der Post

to communicate to us so clearly the implications, the underlying essence, of what he sees and understands. He does it very well indeed. When we say of someone that he (or she) is – good with dogs " we credit him with a certain sympathetic apprehension,

leading to mastery ; and in something of the same sort of way Colonel van der Post can perhaps be said to be " good with Africa." He is to my mind less good with the white people whom he met on his travels and who in some cases play in his narrative roles

of considerable importance. This is a very subjective book, in which the author lays bare with great sincerity his own emotions and convictions ; but he also lays bare other people's, and here

the effect is not always happy. A central episode describes—

very well—a short but difficult journey on which one of the author's two white companions, a young forest officer, was drowned, a tragedy for which Colonel van der Post holds himself, on rather

far-fetched- grounds, partly responsible. There follows a chapter in which he describes, in almost clinical detail, how the two survivors

broke the news to the young man's even younger widow, who was waiting for them alone at their base camp. I am afraid I found this passage tasteless both in conception and in execution. It was no doubt comforting for the poor girl to share her bitter private grief with Colonel van der Post at the time ; but she can hardly have bargained for sharing it with thousands of his readers a couple o years later.

The character sketches—charitable, intuitive btit somehow faintly patronising—which Colonel van der Post draws of people easily indantifiable in the small world of Africa too often rely on recon-

structed conversations, a dangerous device even if you have a natural ear for dialogue. Colonel van der Post's dialogue is not

unfairly represented by this account of a conversation between two Generals and the pilot of their aircraft, which was held up by bad weather : " When the pilot told them politely and with great—I thought, almost exaggerated—deference that he did not think it was wise to take off;' General Braidie . . . stood up, thrust his hands deep in his pockets, tapped the ground with his right foot, looked straight past the pilot with a shiny eye, and said : Oh ! Yes. So I have been told too: the whisky in Blantyre is better than in Salisbury, and there's plenty of it ! '

" General Brere-Adams ... softened his remark with a smile and a sly upward glance from essentially friendly eyes, but it was to the same point : Is she so very nice ? Is she dark or fair ? ' " Well, one knows how thoughtless and irascible Generals are, especially in the tropics ; one is prepared to believe that these two were even ruder to the pilot than Colonel van der Post says they were. But the'one thing of which one is automatically, instinctively, profoundly certain is that neither of them actually spoke the words which have been put into his mouth. There is rather a lot of this sort of ()ratio recta in the book.

But these imperfections, which will jar on some people more than on others, and on others again will perhaps not jar at all, cannot conceal—can indeed hardly blur—the main excellences of the book. It is a work of depth and character, the story of a venture with— for the narrator—considerable spiritual significance, carried out in a little-known part of the world. It will appeal to many who do not ordinarily care for books of travel ; and if some of those who do find that it leaves some of their stock questions unanswered it will

do them no harm for once in a way. PLTER FLEMING.