Book review: Red Dog by William Anker

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South Africa’s king of the bastards, standing 2m plus, a feared, ruthless vagabond, smuggler, pillager and forever the bane of governments, Coenraad de Buys, was born in in 1761 in the Langkloof on the farm Wagenboomrivier., He was to own the farm De Opkomst, near Kareedouw and died on the banks of the Limpopo River in 1821 – the year Napoleon was exiled to St Helena.

It is believed he died from yellow fever, but his body was never found. Buys: ’n Grensroman, which in 2014 gained South African author Willem Anker four major literary Afrikaans prizes, has now been vividly translated into English by Michiel Henys, titled Red Dog.

It is a piece of part fact, part fiction literature which fills historical gaps, explains traditions, details the savagery of the times and makes for riveting reading. The novel’s language is vibrant, strong, active. Take this extract:

“…I manifest as hunter, bigamist, orator, pillager, patriot, stone-shagger. I am a warrior and a liar; I am a scoundrel and a teller of my own tale. I am going to blind you and bewilder you with my incarnations, with my omnipotent gaze. I am a bird of passage; I am the wind beneath your wings. Stroke the small of my back and you will know I am no angel. I know you well. I know you can’t look away…”

Said to have had an insatiable sex drive, Buys allegedly fathered 315 children from diverse backgrounds. He was to move east and become an advisor to the Xhosa king, before impregnating the king’s mother.

He was also noted as the most dangerous man in the Cape during the late 18th century and when aged 54 became a fugitive from a Boer rising in the eastern Cape Colony, put down by British troops in 1815. Buysdorp was named after him – its 11 000ha situated in the shadow of the remote Soutpansberg in northern Limpopo – a hamlet of 300 souls. His “extended family” named the Buys Bastaards, formed a distinctive community.

He was an intrepid and eternal traveller, boundaries and frontiers, both geographical and personal became obsessions. Buys left his mother’s house when a boy of eight, and soon became a legend as outcasts, renegades and criminals hurried to join his ragged band of brigands.

As the book details, Buys was a good interpreter in Xhosa and English – but he spoke only his own mind. He could growl, bleat and cry in myriad tongues. And, as the book’s title suggests, throughout his meandering route, there was an accompanying pack of dogs, its one-eared red leader spearheading Buys on his seemingly endless and unresolved journey. The dogs epitomise Buys’ own doubtful past, his unquenchable lust and ruthless determination.

In Buys’ tracks, in his head, around his camp fires the slavering animals jaws snap. Buys lives on.

This book review was compiled by Alan Peter Simmonds.