IMPERIALISM’S REPUTATION is, without doubt, irredeemable. Its legacy of racism, greed, dissolution, and vicious bloodshed is unpardonable. Nevertheless, historians generally concede that colonialists accomplished what they set out to do. Colonialism, with or without Charles Marlow’s “idea at the back of it,” made Europe wealthy beyond belief.

And yet as Wilma Stockenström’s newly reissued 1981 novel, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree (Die Kremetartekspedisie), reminds us, early European forays into mainland Africa might as easily be described as a series of fatal errors and embarrassing failures. While 19th-century British and American schoolboys lapped up the hokum of Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, dreaming of unholy colonial pilgrimages to get rich quick, Stockenström directs us to the more neglected sides of colonial life, places inhabited by the likes of Joseph Conrad’s ineffectual Kaspar Almayer.

These less oft-told tales of colonial failure — the undiscovered gold mines, the petering out of ambition and drive, the boyhood dreams deferred for glory-seeker and idealist alike — add nuance to simplified versions of European imperialism, which emphasize only the extremities of its depravity and the abundance of its pillages. Stockenström, in J. M. Coetzee’s thoughtful translation, gives us a tale instead of naïve colonial ambition beginning with “unflagging zeal followed by collapse and despair.”

The unnamed narrator of Baobab, however, is not some disappointed colonial explorer, but a slave woman who has taken refuge in a baobab tree in the interior of an unnamed African country. A former resident of a coastal city with a flourishing slave trade (modeled, one assumes, on the Cape Colony), she makes a home in a remote tree in the wilderness after an expedition she is brought along on — “this interminably long journey to the mirage of a city in a blooming red desert” — disintegrates when her traveling companions either abandon her or die. From this refuge, she narrates two tales concurrently: that of her life before her arrival at the tree, and that of her arboreal years, during which she is kept alive by the small gifts of food left by nearby “little people” who believe her to be a goddess or tree spirit.

In fits and starts we learn that the narrator was abducted as a child from her natal village and sold into slavery. During this raid, she witnesses her mother’s brutal slaying (“her head was split open and I was jerked out of her grasp and driven into a knot with other women”). These enslaved women and others like them raise her in the coastal town to which the slavers take her, and they teach her to use sex or the insinuation of sex to curry favor with her three future owners. Adept at her new métier, she becomes “the head slave girl of the richest man” in the city, more concubine than manual laborer. “My existence,” she explains, “was pomp and circumstance, was sparkle and excitement, was shining rippling water over a bed of pebbles, was secret well water’s blessing upon the lips, was seawater’s beneficence and power.” Yet this luxury does not last.

For her final owner, “the stranger,” joins forces with the son of her former owner to take her and a coffle of castrated slave men on a search for a place of which they have heard only vague rumors. In a passage marked by the slave owners’ characteristic obsession with discovery, she recounts the troupe’s motivations:

We had long since left the beaten track of gold and slave routes and followed a course determined by the stories of those seafarers and the desire to be the first to discover a shorter, easier way to their cities and open trade possibilities. The first to discover. To be first. At the forefront of innovation. First to return with an impressive report. What would we sell? Slaves? Ivory? Tortoiseshell? Gold? First find out, before anyone else, before all competitors, what commodities these people needed and what they could offer in exchange, and find out on the spot so that you could speak with authority and be the first to celebrate the victory of big easy profits. That was what it meant to play the discoverer.

But as a slave and a woman, she is of course not permitted this role, as she bitterly notes: “What would I not have been able to track down if it had been granted to me and if my detective talent were not so frequently thwarted and the trail petered out inside me?” After the eldest son and the other slaves drown or abandon her and her owner is eaten by an alligator, she scrabbles out a meager existence in the wilderness, taking to the baobab to rest. Indeed it is only from her baobab that she is able to dominate and possess as her owners had before her, noting how “imperiously I stand now and gaze out over the veld, and every time I step outside the world belongs to me.”

Baobab thus tells two untold tales: recounting the mediocrity of colonial failure, where there “was nothing but sorrow, nothing but meaninglessness and battered traces of glory,” while also ventriloquizing a slave woman’s biography. These stories are the shadow stories of history’s grands récits, and though they are as fragile as “a thin trail of smoke ascended to the sky,” they fill important gaps in the record of early colonial rule.

Thankfully, we now have a considerable tradition of writing — mostly, but not always, by postcolonial writers and writers of color — that gives voice to narratives left out of mainstream history. Celebrated examples include Derek Walcott’s Caribbean epic poem Omeros, or Toni Morrison’s majestic Beloved. Post-apartheid South African examples include novels such as Yvette Christiansë’s 2006 Unconfessed, narrated by a female slave who is imprisoned on Robben Island, and Zoë Wicomb’s 2000 retelling of the mixed race Griqua people’s history in David’s Story.

Stockenström’s Baobab, however, was published at the height of apartheid’s repressive 1980s “emergency,” escaping censorship despite the tenderness with which it imagines the interior life of its silenced narrator. (The Italian translation received the now-defunct Grinzane Cavour Prize alongside Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot in 1988.) Much like Coetzee’s own apartheid-era writing, it avoids overt mention of South Africa, yet there are plenty of references to the names of flora, fauna, and agricultural paraphernalia, which, even in translation, directly indicate the book’s South African setting. From the sanga cattle herded by the indigenous Khoisan when the Dutch settled in 1652, the same cows that were also central in The Great Trek, to the diverse species of antelope — the steenbuck, the redbuck, the oribi, and the kudu — Coetzee takes considerable pains to translate Stockenström’s precise zoological and botanical terminology into English prose that retains a certain loyalty to Afrikaans. Thus safsafwilgers, in Coetzee’s rendering, becomes saf-saf willows and the shrub noemnoembos becomes the num-num bush. In these instances and elsewhere, the sound of the language takes priority over any meaning translation might provide for non–South African Anglophone readers. This emphasis is made particularly apparent when Coetzee chooses to translate a word like rooibok as “red buck,” instead of using the more colloquial “impala,” which is derived from Zulu.

Coetzee’s presence in this English translation of the novel is unavoidable. In an essay on translation, he remarks that the practice

seems to me a craft in a way that cabinet-making is a craft. There is no substantial theory of cabinet-making, and no philosophy of cabinetmaking except the ideal of being a good cabinetmaker, plus a handful of precepts relating to tools and to types of wood. For the rest, what there is to be learned must be learned by observation and practice.

If we accept Coetzee’s deceptively straightforward remarks on translation, then there is little to say about his translation of Stockenström’s Afrikaans apart from observing that it is both sturdy and finely wrought, an entirely successful repository for the storage of unsightly crockery.

Coetzee wants us to think of translators solely in functionalist terms, as tradesmen and women who can hang up their tools after work and head to the pub (though not the notoriously abstemious Coetzee). But this places readers in the unusual position of being more worldly, for once, than the noble Nobel winner himself. After all, we recognize that, despite his objections, whatever Coetzee has set his awl to is bound to be weighed and scrutinized by the literary establishment. Coetzee fanatics everywhere inevitably ask: Why did Coetzee translate this novel?

I’ve managed to locate only two other translated works by Coetzee: A Posthumous Confession, the 1894 novel by Dutch writer Marcellus Emants, and a selection of 20th-century Dutch poetry titled Landscape with Rowers. Stockenström’s book, then, is Coetzee’s only Afrikaans translation, providing a useful imprimatur to Stockenström’s exquisitely miniaturist narrative, which might otherwise have been ignored by Anglophone audiences because its plot synopsis — there was an old woman who lived in a tree — does not seem particularly inspired or inviting.

By translating Stockenström’s novel, Coetzee, even proleptically, makes a case for its survival today. Interestingly, the classic, as Coetzee defines it, is “what survives,” and translation, of course, helps to prolong such survival. The narrator of Baobab is a survivor too, bearing witness, as only survivors can, to the misguided fictions that determined her tragic life’s events, even as the fantasies underpinning them failed to materialize.

The imagined, or fictional, as Stockenström’s novel points out, is ironically often the occasion for failure itself. Our narrator recounts:

We thought of the alluring city and everything that would be awaiting us there. We filled the scanty information provided by the hunters with our imagination, and the deeper we went into the interior, the further from home, the more desolate the bush and the slower and more unwilling our bodies, the more richly we festooned the images we had called up. We did not see that we had begun to pretend that what we wanted must exist.

The more desperate life becomes, the narrator notes, the greater becomes the need for fiction.

Stockenström’s diagnosis demands we not lose sight of how the fictive — or the literary — can itself be responsible for the proliferation of romantic illusions that lead to the real disappointments of failed explorations or, far worse, to the tragic effects of slavery and colonial conquest. Writers in particular are warned to heed the violence that may inhere in their craft. The narrator recalls the writers in the coastal city, with their

idle talk of poets. The dream of the unknown. The enticement of the foreign. Playing games with knowledge. For such purposes the city had its marginal figures, the subtle word artists and the storytellers on the squares to whom the children listen open-mouthed and whose entertainment value, including the word artists’, rose and fell according to whether they succeeded in exciting or boring listener and reader. Yes, they, the colorful madmen.

But while the narrator dismisses writers as peripheral entertainers, marked by mental illness, her own tale testifies all too well to the contagion of their malady, to how easily we all succumb to fictional afflictions, to how readily we become open-mouthed incredulous children.

Such stories arrive surreptitiously, or, as the narrator lyrically puts it: “Unnoticed as the birth of a wave an idea came into being and swelled unnoticed.” Once formed, such a wave, muses the narrator, can crash on shore with catastrophic effects. This incorrigible human habit of longing for a better place may be harmful not only when pursued to its bitter end, but also because it renders us incapable of inhabiting, let alone remedying, the present. Can we balance a love of literature and an assertion of its quasi-ethical properties with our recognition that reading and writing might also represent a refusal to engage with the world, to repair what exists outside of the pages of the book?

When we, with the narrator, note “how pleasant [it is] to meditate ahead, to listen, see, smell, feel ahead [and to] imagine experiences,” we also fail to notice the importance of that which survives in the mundane imperfection of our present. After all, as Baobab’s narrator reminds us, the object of our pursuit may end up looking a lot like what we are seeking to leave behind. What her antsy companions are after is

the city in the distance which must be the intended city, which would have to satisfy all expectations, on which we pinned our hopes, for whose sake we exerted ourselves, mustered our forces, had reorganized ourselves, where we would find shelter, meet people, streets with people, buildings, markets, squares, windows full of smiling women, children in gardens.

This is of course, a simulacrum of the very city they have left.

Yet an important distinction should be drawn between fictions that live only in the subjunctive, abandoning the present’s woes for tomorrow’s immaterial improvements, and those that devise alternative ways of engagement. Authors like Stockenström can use fiction’s considerable powers of imaginative persuasion to resuscitate silenced histories in order to address present ills.

The task for the writer aware of fiction’s dangerous routes — and Stockenström and Coetzee are surely two such writers — is to find a way to write literature that resists reproducing harmful fantasies of romantic worlds forever beyond our grasp. By foregrounding the more inglorious results of quest narratives through the figure of an abandoned slave woman who is the lone and lonely surviving consequence of her owners’ failed imaginaries, Stockenström mounts a brave fictive challenge to utopian fictions that annihilate the present.

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Lily Saint is assistant professor of English at Wesleyan University, where her research explores the nexus between ethics and cultural practice in the Global South.