12 September 2017

Namibia: Utley's 'The Lie of the Land' Is Riveting

opinion

Anyone who is a fan of Jasper D Utley's previous work, particularly the Namibian classic 'Ngoma and Click', will love the refreshing read that is 'The Lie of the Land' published by the University of Namibia Press.

Told though the eyes and ears of a far too aware British agent named Sam, the latest historical novel by Utley is set in the 1900s when Namibia was still German South West Africa and features a protagonist who has somewhat of a saviour complex.

He's quite 'woke' for his age, drawing attention through his charisma which endears the reader to him, that as well as his wry British humour, despite the tragedy the book is set in.

As an African, however, it's never truly comfortable to read about the horrendous experiences of the past. Especially when the fictional characters are calling your people 'savages' and 'heathens' - and as much as you want to be on the protagonist's side, he sadly allows this way of thinking at first.

Although it's important to note that the author's work is pure fiction, the historical background and several of the characters' personalities ring true such as that of Heinrich Göring, or Herr Reichkommisar, a governor-general of German South West Africa who is portrayed as an ignorant, power-hungry man who seeks dominance over Africa.

Göring's intention is clear: To convert natives to the European way of thinking and establish a German colony. In reality, he was the father of the infamous Herman Göring of the Nazi Third Reich. Readers may notice that a majority of the Western characters see themselves as superior, which isn't too much of a surprise.

But true to his British nature, Sam follows orders and is sent to a remote territory with the intention of infiltrating German top commands to see if they are planning to colonise South Africa as well. And mind you, he's half German, which complicates matters.

The book may be set in a war zone where death is common, torture is rife and pain is the overall feeling, but a wonderful aspect to look at is love - like a rose growing from concrete.

During his time in Britain, Sam had a woman in his life named Julia who he was set up with thanks to their parents. But the relationship didn't work out and this was made clear within the first two chapters.

Imagine a conversation where the only thing that can get a woman animated is a discussion about a dog. And so love is lost between them, if there was ever love at all, and the future of the character in that department seems bleak until he meets a fiery light at the end of the tunnel by the name of Leah.

And suddenly, Sam sees life from a different perspective. But is he in a position to change things?

Utley's description of people and places is nothing short of riveting - from the streets of Walfish Bay, which is of course, the current Walvis Bay, to the ever-so windy Lüderitz, it's a whirlwind of travel and tragedy.

What a 200-pager it is.

Utley was the first director of the British Council in Namibia from 1990 to 1995 and has written and recorded over 30 stories for the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation. From Namibia, he was posted to India where he wrote and published books and plays for both children and adults. Now retired in Britain, he regularly directs, produces and acts in amateur dramatics and at present is working on a novel set in modern Afghanistan.

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