Archive for the ‘The White Kudu by Gisela Hoyle’ Category

The White Kudu by Gisela Hoyle

Friday, October 10th, 2008

‘Jeder Engel ist schrecklich,’ Rilke says, repeatedly, in his Duino Elegies – because beauty is the beginning of terror, he goes on to ‘explain’. Perhaps you need to be in certain frame of mind to see that as true – but I did while writing The White Kudu and most of the rest of the time too. In the Keatsian sense of the word beauty of course. So the encounter with the white kudu in the novel becomes a kind of challenge for the characters. Because he is so elusive he become associated for them with that perfection, which people do long for in a hopelessly fallen world. And so he seems to haunt both Pniel and its people.

The response to such a challenge requires not only the courage to see such beauty, to know it and to love it but also to live with the knowledge of its existence and the fact that it challenges nearly everything about ordinary life. To face head on such a clash of realities is dangerous, is ‘shrecklich’ – because: how does one live with such knowledge? I am trying to find a way that does not mean the answer to that must be ‘badly’ though our modern culture does not look very kindly on such attempts.      

I think many mythologies have a symbol for such an encounter – the Holy Grail is one – a much abused one. I think the unicorn may be another as well as the dragon. In Africa it is often a rain animal of some kind. To encounter such a beast is a risk: one risks death – either of the human or the beast, which is why it is so often portrayed as a hunt or a battle. And coming to terms with such a reality may require some madness. Writing about madness was something I found very challenging and distressing, but for various reasons, not least of which is the ever encroaching cruelty of pop-psychology and the speed with which we are offered chemistry for something which may – looked at differently – be both a valid and valuable (albeit painful) part of human experience rather than illness.


Here is a communal weaver bird nest.



They seem to perch with great precariousness in the fragile branches of thorn trees and are fantastically loud to stand beneath. The voices of the birds are shrill and persistent; their movements sudden and unpredictable – so one moves away lest they drive one mad. This is what Joshua hears when he runs away from all he has done and failed to do and goes mad in the desert for a while. And the things he sees, which to him seem incomprehensibly mad constitute the kind of encounter a San shaman would have during his trance – the kind of things in other words, which, because he will understand them, though perhaps not rationally, will make him a healer. The way Orpheus is a healer after his encounter in Hades and the way the Fisher king can take responsibility for the healing cup when he himself is wounded.

Naturally Joshua is not as grand as that – he is just an ordinary human creature living at the end of the 20th century after all. But he does find the courage to see things through, which John, in his cowardice, had failed to do. Joshua becomes no healer, but he apologises for the things he needs to apologise for, and he finishes the job. It is not much, but it is often both the least and the best we can – and many of us fail to do it. So it does seem heroic in its own small way to me.

And, as I agree with Tolkien that imaginative art should be redemptive, I hope the novel has some small moments of grace about it. Not quite Eucatastrophic, but more like offering a cup of tea to a distressed friend. It helps not at all, it changes nothing – but it is what we do and becomes thereby what Yeats calls ‘a ceremony of innocence’ because it lets us know that we are not alone. Which is also why we read.

Rick Schmidt will be with you all on Monday.  Adieu for now – back again in a couple of months or early in the new year.





The White Kudu by Gisela Hoyle

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

 When you were a kid – you thought that one of the marks of growing up is that you won’t fall anymore: grownups didn’t have scabby knees or scraped arms; grownups were allowed to carry the tea-tray out to the garden, because they could be trusted not to drop things. Grownups didn’t fall anymore – so that is how you’d know you’d made it: absence of falling. At least I thought so.

Later you discover that adults still fall, quite a lot actually – and they grow up a lot later than you think as a child. Really grow up – that is take responsibility for their lives.

The characters of The White Kudu all definitely fall – they fall in love, they fall into holes in the ground (not quite like Alice); they fall in and out of stories – and they certainly fall from grace. They’re a flawed bunch, in other words, but I hope real enough: two English geologists who stumble into the stories and the lives of the people in a fairly remote desert town; the farmers, the mine managers; the town gossip; the over-protected, and at least partially therefore curiously vulnerable, women of such a town. And then the small town prophet who would be ever so surprised to hear himself called that; a child who is an elective mute; a skeleton, who changes everything and an archeologist, who finds buried halfway across the world her own history. They are by no means all likeable, in fact some of them will hopefully make readers’ blood boil; others I hope will be liked, some perhaps even loved. I miss them now I am no longer writing them.       

I have written a great deal about the setting and the ‘themes’ of the novel, but not very much about the characters. They are much harder to write about in this very much more analytical way – for the author at least. I cannot tell you how I created them – they kind of emerged from too much coffee, far too many games of solitaire and too little sleep.  They were a fairly recalcitrant bunch to write about in the first place. Always convinced they knew better what would happen next and always ready to put me straight if I got it wrong. I would have liked a little more respect, really, considering that they were my creations.

However they taught me important things in the process of testing me to the limit. They taught me about stories and characters and how they develop a life of their own and a logic, which one cannot go against. So they told me their stories, as they met and spoke to one another and came to this place, where so much was at stake and encountered the story of the white kudu. Their response to it became in turn my test for them; those who did not cope with it were thrown out – or sent to the back of the class.




The White Kudu by Gisela Hoyle

Wednesday, October 8th, 2008


 In one of its many, too many incarnations The White Kudu was called Children of the Rain – like the little black Gashemshe birds, which appear after the rain in the Kalahari. When we were growing up, we had a rain-bird, too. It was the Vlei Loerie (in English Burchell’s Coucal – a much less evocative sounding name) The bird was believed to sing just before the rain and it does have a wonderfully fluid song, like bubbling water rising and falling. At the age of about 12 one naturally becomes suspicious about such stories, wanting facts suddenly and no longer trusting the folkloric mythology which one accepted so happily before. I don’t think our scientific investigations yielded much, though I do remember my older brother talking at length (as he did) about air pressure and levels of humidity, which after all sounds no less fantastical than that a bird should herald with joy the coming of rain. And the wonder of hearing her song was not diminished thereby. And often in drought, even when far away from home, I find myself straining to hear that song. 


Years later I was living in the Eastern Cape during a very dry summer in the early nineties. I remember one long afternoon with my two toddlers getting ratty and restless with the heat. I thought of all the longing for rain we had felt as children and decided to take them both out into the garden and ‘do’ a rain dance with them. I explained to them what we were doing and how we were not going to stop dancing till it rained. Not very sensible, I suppose, given the chances of actual rain but I think I figured they would fall asleep eventually . . . anyway, we danced and danced and it rained. It was a strange, small experience, magnificent in its own way and it restored for me, if not entirely the faith of childhood, at least the joyous mystery of that kind of trust, which rallies again and again, no matter how often reality fails to live up to it:


Rain dance


We lie in the shade of our peppercorn tree

smelling of mud,

which peels and cracks, drawing tight

about our ankles. As the sun

sucks the last drops of water

from the charged world.


Impatiently we listen

for the Loerie’s bubbling song:

Promise of rain

and breathe deeply the dangerous air

hoping to catch that impossibly wet-earth

Rain-coming smell.


But the air is still.

No bubbling song descends.


Instead the afternoon is

torn by the anguished cry

of the fish eagle,

catching sight of silver scales

floundering in thickening mud.


Much, much later: a rain dance.

Circling heels stamping;

calloused balls tapping ever more lightly, whirling

faster and faster: despairing – passing time.

The glaring red iron-rich earth

burning bare feet as they plead.


The drops begin to fall.


Tiny whirls of dust around our toes

that dare not stop but dance no more alone.

Faces turn up

thirsty still, and half in disbelief  -

reaching for the blessing.

Exultant tongues

seek the burning silver slices


and laugh in wonder

at the power of feet.




Both the Loerie and the blessing of rain play their part in the unfolding of the story of The White Kudu and I hope that others will be as delighted as I am to find that they are real. And the love of rain, even after years of living in England for years now, has not entirely been destroyed either.

There are some wonderful images of Burchell’s Coucal on the Internet, some of them can be found here: I am afraid I do not have any of my own.






The White Kudu by Gisela Hoyle

Tuesday, October 7th, 2008



This is the kudu – the antelope, which in so many ways is the main character of The White Kudu. The silence of antelope has always held a great fascination for me – it made them so different from other animals both wild and domestic. In my imagination it set them apart entirely from the rest of the noisy world. Even in death they were silent, uttering no cry when shot. Kudu are grey and they, along with the Eland, are associated in many San myths with rain and with the spirit world. Ou Groote, as his name implies is one of the greater Kudu – tall imposing but graceful creatures, not to be confused with the sweet but innocuous lesser kudu, found in East Africa. Kudu are shy, unlike Wildebeest which will show off; if they think they are being watched. And they seem to have a great love for freedom – which greatly increased my love for them, too. Elusive dignified and quiet.

In the real world, Ou Groote lived on Oom Stoppie’s farm (a neighbour, our dentist and a very good family friend). No one really knows where he came from. Kudu can clear a fence of 2metres from standing, so they can’t really be kept in anywhere; they jump even game fences all the time, not being small animals. Anyway Ou Groote was huge and beautiful, with wide-spread horns (not antlers) which had all three twists, but he was lame in one hind leg. He was also a loner – you only ever saw him alone, if at all. Oom Stoppie loved this animal and his awe got passed on to all of us and we knew it had been a good trip if we had glimpsed Ou Groote, although I think only my father and Stoppie really could tell whether it was him or not. Poor old Stoppie got teased a lot about Ou Groote and we would tell him that we had glimpsed him on Pniel or a De Beers farm, miles away from his land; some of the guys would even pretend they had shot him by accident – it never failed as a wind-up. Stoppie would go out into the veld and simply sit in Ou Groote’s area for ages and Ou Groote would look at him and they would be happy. When we visited Stoppie’s farm and managed to glimpse Ou Groote, it would almost inevitably be at the last gate, but we never knew whether he had come to say goodbye or simply see us off his land.

One day Stoppie came to my father in high agitation, he thought he had shot Ou Groote and he was lying dead, and Stoppie was too afraid to go and see alone. My father went with him. It was not Ou Groote, so that was fine. But eventually his lameness and age crept up on Ou Groote and even Stoppie could see he was suffering too much. But he could not bear to shoot him and again it was my father he asked to go with him. I have never felt that preparing for a hunt was a sacred ritual, but those two friends heading off to kill another old friend was sacred, though it was very quiet and very different from the usual noisy procedure. We all kind of hung around the house in misery wondering when the shot would come. When the two came back, they did not bring Ou Groote’s body, I don’t think anybody ate him, but they lit a fire and sat drinking whiskey till very late into the night.

There were lots of other eccentric animals – Charlie the Ostrich, who lived in our garden for a while; then there was a Springbok who always hung out with the Zebras and finally Bokkie, an infant Eland, whom my father had rescued by caesarean, after highly pregnant Mum had been shot, but none of them, though we loved them in a more ordinary way, ever inspired the awe of Ou Groote, or the sense of blessing if one got to see him.

In the novel the whiteness of this Kudu is a reference to both the White lions of Timbavati, who are believed to be messengers of redemption, and to paintings of shamanistic experiences in San culture.



The White Kudu by Gisela Hoyle

Monday, October 6th, 2008

People often ask: “What is your book about?” and stupidly I gape like a goldfish, though I flatter myself that this is not because I don’t know but because the answer is long – and possibly complicated. And inevitably incomplete until people read it and tell me what it is about – that is the readers’ job, I think and they’d be better at it. But I’ll give it a go.

One of the things it is about is a place, which is both imaginary and real – as all places are. Because places are both patches of the earth and what they have come to mean to us, based on the things which have happened there.

For example I have just moved to Leicester, so at the moment it is a fresh place, relatively untouched by personal experience.

On the other hand I think everyone knows the lift of the heart, the joyful rush of breath of returning to a place where one has been happy or the clenched furious, bleak shock to the stomach of seeing again a place where one has been hurt: betrayed, abandoned etc. Of course if you’ve had both in one place or worse, the betrayal was yours, you’re screwed, by this theory and will be forever exiled from that place, because you will struggle to make peace with it.

          This is what happens in The White Kudu, as people are drawn into the legend of Abelshoop and Pniel. The experience is overwhelming for many: they leave, go mad – or (and this is the important bit) try to live on with what dignity and grace is left for them. The legend is one of love impossible and the promise of rain – as so many desert stories are. Pniel is a farm just on the edge of the Kalahari desert in the Northern Cape of South Africa, where the Karoo meets the Kalahari and creates something else called Vaalbos (grey bush). It is an uncertain and harsh landscape, where life can be stripped bare or plentiful, depending on the rainfall and proximity to the river, which runs through it.

          There is also a great deal of mineral wealth – the Northern Cape is also home to Kimberley and to Sishen, Hotazel and Okiep mines. And in the novel, it is this invisible, deeply buried wealth which provides the catalyst for the story, which awakens the legend again. The history of mining in South Africa is a mixture of the usual sinister greed and individual moments of sheer, delighted discovery. There is for example the wonderful story of the first diamond found in the country: children playing a game with pebbles on a farm, blissfully unaware of the spurious monetary value of the shiny stones they are using. I can think of no better use for the bright little buggers than that first one. History of course does not record how the children felt at having their toy taken off them . . .

          Mining houses have a very different concept of the earth than farmers and other people who actually live on the land, have. The latter are often deeply suspicious of delving so deeply into the earth, of hollowing it out – and when one thinks of the dreadful accidents on the mines, particularly in South Africa where they are so impossibly deep, one cannot help but agree with them.

          So for those who live on the surface of the earth, the uncertainty as well as the width of the horizon in the desert leave much space for the collective imagination, which responds with dreams and stories to beguile the time and to make sense of the daily lives of the people who live there. But of those next time.





Note from Admin:  Picnic hope to have its new website up soon. Meantime, apologies to Gisela and all 2009 list authors -your beautiful books of which Picnic is so proud will be showing soon-ish . . .