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Estienne Barbier, born in the Loire Valley in 1699, lays claim to service in the armies of the kings of France and Prussia, but he is an inveterate liar, and the truth is less glorious: irate husbands have made the Lowlands too hot to hold him, and he has deserted his pregnant wife to stow away for the Cape of Good Hope.
An expedition to the hinterland opens his eyes to the majesty of the African landscape and its wondrous animals and he is enchanted by the rumour of a fabled city of gold. But he also begins to see clearly the sordid dealing that underlies the self-righteous pomposity of the East India Company. It is a vision that makes him powerful enemies. Taking cover on a remote farm, and energetically consoling sundry widows, Barbier finds himself, to his own surprise, fomenting rebellion.
South African novelist Brink (A Dry White Season ; An Act of Terror ) seems at first to be working a much lighter, more picaresque vein here than in his usual, more overtly political fiction. The narrator is a French-born soldier of fortune, Estienne Barbier, telling of his adventures in the South Africa run by the Dutch East India Company in the 18th century (there was such a person, though Brink wryly admits that most of his story is invented; still, he adds, ``One never knows''). Barbier, sentenced to death for aiding a slave girl's escape and trying to foment a revolt in Capetown, awaits execution. He spins tall tales of his adventures in the scarcely known (to Europeans) continent, and it soon becomes apparent that, like the Don Quixote he constantly evokes, many of his exploits are of the imaginary kind. Driven by a manic search for a legendary lost treasure and for a vanished slave girl, helped in moments of crisis by interior dialogues with the spirit of Joan of Arc, Barbier creates a remarkable picture of the Africa of his time, the marginal existence of the Dutch farmers, the corruption of the civic administration and the near-invisibility of the ``hottentots'' who then, as now, did most of the menial work. In the end, his search becomes one for justice, for himself as well as for the native inhabitants. The book can therefore be read both as an adventure yarn and as a salutary political fable. Coming as it does at a time of enormous change in South Africa, the latter is what lingers most powerfully.