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The Expedition to the Baobab Tree by Wilma…
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The Expedition to the Baobab Tree (1981)

by Wilma Stockenstrom

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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This stream of consciousness novel opens with our narrator living in a baobab tree, utterly alone, and ignorant in the ways of fending for herself in the middle of the African veld.

Living in Africa just before the coming of the white man, she has been a slave her entire life and schooled in the art of pleasing men.

Now she reflects back on her life. She is devoid of human contact but fills her life with bits and pieces of memory, just as she arranges and rearranges three small beads into a variety of patterns.

“And I fill my thoughts with all sorts of objects to obliterate everything, endless row upon row, not to be counted, I thank providence, I can think of enough objects to obliterate everything, and in addition I can make up objects if the remembered ones run out. I have good remedies against being empty.” p 14

“If I could write, I would take up a porcupine quill and scratch your (the baobab tree's) 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 you of a new horizon that became an expedition to a tree. “ p 34 ( )
  streamsong | Feb 9, 2019 |
This is a beautiful book that I tried to appreciate but found I could not love. Its prose is luminous and poetic, and as translated by JM Coetzee reads like a dream. I do like a little more plot in my books, and although I could basically follow what was going on, I like a little less subtlety I guess. Moody and mesmerizing, it's worth a look for the reader who likes voice-driven poetic fiction. ( )
  bostonbibliophile | Aug 9, 2015 |
A woman walks the same path each day from the hollow interior of a baobab tree in which she lives to her water source to collect her water. As she collects the water, she remembers the journey that brought her to this place.

She talks about her time in the veld. At first, her life in the baobab is difficult. She doesn't know how to fend for herself and competes with animals for what she can scavenge, food that often makes her sick. She feels weak and scared and soon she finds that sleep is the ‘dense solution’. But when she wakes, she feels better, stronger

“...imperiously I stand now and gaze out over the veld, and every time I step outside the world belongs to me. Every time I step out from the protecting interior of the tree I am once again a human being and powerful…”

This is in stark contrast with her previous life She is sold into slavery as a child to a man to whom she’s nothing more than a sexual object. After giving birth, she’s sold to another master and her child is sold away from her. The new master is cruel. During the day, the slaves toil in the gardens but at night the young attractive slaves are at the mercy of the master’s lust and the narrator envies the older, less attractive slaves who are exempted from this; she wishes to be ‘unmanned’. Eventually, she is accidently buried under a branch of a kudu-berry tree, but another man sends his slaves to rescue her. He becomes her third master, the “Protector’. He’s a kinder master, pampering her and allowing her an ‘easy, indolent existence’.

When he dies, she fears his son would not be kind so she begs a man she calls ‘the Stranger’ to buy her. He’s a merchant who trades with the son. The son has a plan to develop a trade route through the interior of Africa and elicits the support of the Stranger. From the beginning, this journey is fraught with dangers and upsets: thefts of supplies, mutinous slaves, and dangerous predators both animal and human. In the end, the quest is a complete failure. Both the son and the stranger die and the surviving slaves are caught by slavers – all except her. She walks away to the shelter of her baobab tree.

The Expedition to the Baobab tree was written in 1981 by Afrikaner author Wilma Stockenstrom and has recently been translated into English by Nobel laureate JM Coetzee. It is a non-linear interior monologue and, at times, admittedly, I found it hard to follow and had to reread parts to figure out where I was. However, it is written with such beautiful and lyrical prose that, even when I was lost, I enjoyed the journey. It contains elements of fable (nature plays a very important role and noone, including the narrator is named), myth (she is seen as a divinity by a tribe that sees her near her tree and leave her gifts), and allegory as her ‘journey’ from slavery to freedom can be seen as a metaphor for a woman’s journey through life or, perhaps, the struggle in South Africa to end Apartheid. It touches on many themes such as identity, respect for nature, and the idea that freedom, even when it is accompanied by want is, in the end, better than the most benevolent slavery

– Or maybe I’m completely wrong. This is the kind of literary fiction that challenges the reader, makes them work at their understanding of the symbolism running throughout, and to place their own interpretation on it. As such, it won’t appeal to everyone but, for the reader who enjoys beautiful prose and enjoys being challenged by their reading, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree is well worth the effort . ( )
2 vote lostinalibrary | Apr 16, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Wilma Stockenstromprimary authorall editionscalculated
Coetzee, J.M.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"In J.M.Coetzee's stunning translation: a powerfully symbolic story in the voice of a slave that explores the depths of imagination, isolation, fear, and love. A slave woman is the only survivor of a failed expedition into the depths of Southern Africa. She shelters in the hollow trunk of a baobab tree where she relives her earlier existence in a state of increasing isolation. We are the sole witnesses to her moving history: her capture as a young child, her life in a harbor city on the eastern coast as servant to various masters, her journey with her last owner and protector, and her life in the baobab tree"--… (more)

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