Review: Vivien Horler
The Inn at Helsvlakte, by Patricia Schonstein (Penguin)
A platoon of State soldiers rides into the gap between two calcified dunes on the edge of Helsvlakte. Separatists have been spied in the area, and the military authorities in the Capital want them eradicated.
The soldiers are led by Captain Leander Botha Malan, an experienced soldier not expecting a major confrontation, although he is confident he is prepared for one. And then, as they slip into the embrace of the dunes, Malan’s “soldier-marrow” senses something deeply wrong.
He gallops forward to turn the column back, but it is too late. Separatist fighters are positioned on top of the dunes, and they open fire. There is an explosion. “… and then it was just his hammering heart and the acrid, massed smell of terror.”
The ambush at Helsvlakte is the centre around which all the events of this novel swirl. Everything has been leading to this, and all that happens later is a consequence.
The Inn at Helsvlakte is a strange and wonderful story, shot through with a sense of fable and mystery, and peopled with a motley bunch of circus men, soldiers, a military uniform designer, a hard-drinking innkeeper, a transport rider, a woman farrier, her one-legged lover, and a foppish young man intent on revenge.
The ambush with its dead men and horses is memorialised by an installation reminiscent of AfrikaBurn in the Tankwa Karoo: the articulated skeletons of four dead horses hanging from four windmills, erected at the entrance to the defile where so many have died.
This does not sound the sort of fiction I like, and yet it grabbed me. Patricia Schonstein has written an entire saga in just 210 pages. And when you’ve finished it, you go back to the beginning to spot and understand the nuances you missed in the first telling.
Schonstein has created a mythical country in the midst of civil war, but the alert reader will readily recognise the barren and desiccated country of the Northern Cape, the city of Cape Town, and a lingering war not unlike that of the Boer War, where the State is beating commandos of farmer-soldiers , thanks in part to its scorched earth tactics.
One can’t summarise the plot without giving too much away. It’s a complicated and intricate one, swooping forward and looping back, revealing layers of action, love, beauty and peculiarity.
The dry, empty countryside is wonderfully realised, as is life in a remote inn at the edge of civilisation. The city, the Capital, is a three-day ride away, where gentrified life continues, but out on the vlakte, beneath the escarpment, almost anything goes.
And yet the people in Helsvlakte are decent, kind and hard-working, and if they stoop to murder – or conceal it – it is for the greater good.
Thanks to the attentions of a smous, the inn is adorned a collection of good and rickety furniture, decorated with bok skins, Persian carpets and oil paintings, and Schonstein has included a brief author’s note on the text’s art references. I was intrigued by the references to delectable food; as the cook Fiela Jonkertjie tells a pair of travellers intent on no good: “You will find our table as good as any in the Capital.”
She promises them roast lamb, potato, squash, gravy, and a sponge roly-poly pudding with wild berry jam and cream. And it is the wild berry jam that is the travellers’ undoing.
This is a marvellous novel.