Fiela’s Child by Dalene Matthee – a hidden South African gem
Visitors to South Africa today frequently make Knysna a stop off point along the Garden Route (the scenic drive between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth) or before they head north to the Little Karoo region and its famous Oudtshoorn ostrich farms. Today this is an area bustling with shops and restaurants close to a peaceful lagoon but in the late nineteenth century the waters around the entrance to the town were unpredictable and treacherous, threatening the lives of fishermen and sailors. Inland, herds of bush elephants roamed the dense Knysna Forest, proving hazardous for the woodcutters who made the forest their home.
The Forest and the surrounding mountains of the Little Karoo are the settings for Dalene Matthee’s novel Fiela’s Child published in 1985. Lukas van Rooyen, the three year old son of a white woodcutter family goes missing in the forest. Nine years later, two census officials discover Benjamin, a white, blue-eyed boy living with the native Komoetie family at their ostrich farm in the Long Kloof.
Are Benjamin Komoetie and Lukas van Rooyen the same child? Fiela Komotie is adamant this cannot be. Benjamin was a gift of God, a foundling sent to her to care for as if he were her own flesh and blood. Having nurtured him for six years she cannot endure the idea that they may be separated. Across the forest Elias van Rooyen and his wife Barta are equally adamant that the boy is their lost son — and they want him back. However unlikely a child of three could have made his way through miles of hard mountain terrain, the officials in Knysna are convinced this is what happens. Benjamin is transported back to the forest to become Lukas once more.
Forced to change his name and to call these strange new people ‘ma’ and ‘pa’ he cannot however be forced to forget the woman who he considers his real mother. All he can do is wait, enduring the cruelty of his new father who can think of nothing else but how get rich by killing an elephant so makes his children do all the work of shaping tree trunks into beams. The child looks every day for Fiela to find him and rescue him but as the years roll on and Fiela never arrives, he becomes a man who feels neither part of the forest nor of the mountains. But who exactly is he? This is the question Benjamin/Lukas has to answer before he can form a relationship with the woman he loves.
I’d never heard of Dalene Matthee until I walked into a bookshop on an overnight stay in Johannesburg earlier this year and asked for recommendations of local authors. Matthee wrote 13 novels, four of them bracketed as ‘the Forest novels’ because they were all set in and around Knysna Forest, an area she came to know intimately. Fiela’s Child is the second of this quartet.
It’s the picture of this region and its culture conveyed by Matthee that I appreciated most in her novel. The relationships between Benjamin and his two sets of parents are effectively portrayed but they didn’t sing to me as much as the detail about life in the forest and in the farmlands of the Little Karoo. Matthee clearly did her research so that when she describes how elephants trod ancient paths through the trees, bonding together to navigate sleep slopes and alert the herd to danger, I was there with the woodcutters watching. She provides too some fascinating insight into the habits of ostriches; how these creatures whose feathers were so beautiful they became the must have fashion accessory in the Art Nouveau period, are vicious birds who can kill with one swipe of a claw.
I’m surprised that Dalene Matthee isn’t more widely known outside South Africa. Perhaps its because although it deals, as does so much of the literature from that country, with the issue of race and colour this isn’t the main theme. Her focus is really on the bonds of family and identity and on the individual’s relationship with their environment.
Fiela’s Child by Darlene Matthee, is available as a Penguin Modern Classic in translation from Afrikaans.
To discover more about the author, take a look at this website which is in tribute to her memory and her achievements.