I ordered this book, published in hardback in the UK in 2022, from my local library, intrigued by reviews. Julia Blackburn has written widely, combining her non-fiction writing on topics like anthropology, nature and history with memoir, as well as fiction.
Dreaming the Karoo: A People Called the /Xam is loosely structured as a journal, beginning in March 2020 and ending a year later. The book draws together two separate threads of narrative, one following Blackburn’s enforced months of widowed solitude locked down in the UK during 2020 and 2021, away from her three children and their families, and one following the historical story of German linguist Wilhem Bleek’s investigations into the language and culture of the /Xam people of the South African Karoo, together with his English sister-in-law, Lucy Lloyd.
As Blackburn works on her book on the /Xam in the UK, after her research in South Africa is cut short by COVID-19 in March 2022 (she gets virtually the last seat on virtually the last flight out of Cape Town), Blackburn longs desperately for her family, while thinking of the /Xam people in the 19th century “doing their best to hold tight in a world that has become utterly unfamiliar and more dangerous”. She tends to her chickens, and reflects in a way that is both sad and matter of fact on life and death, and history, and it’s all absolutely fascinating.
Her reflections and digressions spring off the page, as she pores over old notebooks and adds little wandering references to a trip to the Venice Biennale, making marmalade, getting the COVID vaccine and Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.
Meanwhile, back in the 19th century, Lucy Lloyd worked with indigenous people like /Aikunta and /Dia!kwain (the ‘!’ is apparently a sort of guttural click) to slowly compile a dictionary of /Xam words, with a /Xam-English dictionary preserved in the Cape Town University Library. No one alive today speaks the /Xam language.
Lloyd sounds to have been altogether more empathetic, and significantly less well-recognised, than Bleek. Four decades after Bleek’s death she continued to be described as his assistant, although she had dramatically expanded upon and developed the work that had begun with him.
The whites devastated the countryside of Karoo from the 1600s “with our guns, our presumptions and our cruelty, as we moved like a plague through unexplored regions, claiming everything as our own and leaving a trail of destruction in our wake”.
In 1836-37 Captain W. C. Harris wrote, dispassionately, of leaving the bodies of baby elephants abandoned around their mothers’ corpses in the whites’ greed for ivory:
“There could have been no fewer than 300 elephants within the scope of our vision … they all proved to be ladies and most of them mothers, followed by their old-fashioned calves … eventually both wagons were so crammed with spolia that … we were reluctantly compelled to leave the ground strewed with that valuable commodity“.
Whole species, like the quagga, a sort of brown and white striped zebra, were wiped out: quagga have been identified in cave paintings, so had had a long and hardy heritage. By the 1850s /A!kunta, another man interviewed by Bleek and Lloyd, thought that elephants were mythological rain-bringing creatures. The land was taken over by the whites’ sheep, never mind that they are unsuited to the environment and rubbish at camouflage.
The whites’ cruelty did not stop at animals, with /Dia!kwain recorded thus by Bleek and Lloyd:
“We shall see whether we make those people cry as we do, for they do not seem to know that we are people“.
Heart-rending as such words are, the book succeeds in a small miracle in bringing the reality of these lost people, who were so much more connected with the natural world, to life. A bonus is the photos Blackburn has reproduced of some of the /Xam people who spoke to Bleek and Lloyd, and of contemporaneous drawings. An excellent and unique book.