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Monday, March 26, 2018

Islands (2005) by Dan Sleigh

Image result for cape town castle
The Castle of Good Hope in modern day Capetown.  
Book Review
Islands (2005)
by Dan Sleigh

  Islands was one of the few books from the original edition of the 1001 Books list that was removed, not in the major 2008 revision, but in the minor (11 titles) 2010 revision.  Of those 11 titles, only 5 were from the original 2006 list, the rest were from the first major revision in 2008.  Two of those five titles- Islands and The Heart of Redness by Zakes Mda come from South Africa, suggesting an over-representation of South Africa in the original list.  It is a suggestion made even stronger by the status of J.M. Coetzee as the most represented author on the original list. 

 Islands was translated from the original Afrikans.  Author Dan Sleigh reportedly spent two decades writing this vast historic epic- 750 pages- charting the history of the Dutch East India Company and its employees in Cape Town and the island of Mauritius- which was settled by the Dutch in the 17th century and abandoned early in the 18th century.  There is nothing "post-modern" about Islands, which could have been written at any time in the 20th century.   Perhaps the most surprising fact about Islands is that a 750 page historical novel about one of the most despised groups in world history could obtain a wide release in both the UK and the United States after being translated out of Afrikaans.

  The vast story is told by several different narrators, linked together through the life of Eva, a young girl who belongs to one of the native groups which encountered the Dutch when they arrived at Cape Town.  Eva marries a doctor for the East India Company, and give birth to several children.  Her daughter, Pietranella, becomes the hinge for the second half of the book, which takes place largely on Mauritius.   Many of the most well known figures from early Afrikaans history are depicted with a realism that likely shocked the diminished minority who still hold the early Dutch settler in high regard.

   The Dutch settlements in South Africa and Mauritius were a corporate affair in a way that is very different from the way North and South America were settled.  In those places, the sovereigns of Empires like Spain, Portugal, England and France maintained a strong presence.  In Cape Town, the corporation was the law and the government.  The action ends in the early 18th century- a half century before America declares independence, and it becomes clear by the end of Islands that turning over the settlement and population of an overseas colony to a faceless corporation probably wasn't the best choice.


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