Of Beasts and Beings
Simon & Schuster/Europa Editions, 2010
Militia seize an innocent captive and subject him to a nightmarish overland journey that feels as though it will never end. Meanwhile, a lonely white schoolteacher wrestles personal demons whilst attempting to overcome the everyday difficulties of a life in which power cuts last for months at a time, homes are left without running water, brawls break out over even the most basic necessities and an atmosphere of fear and intimidation presides. Which of them is in the gravest danger, and does either have the power to escape their fate?
In this highly original, searing and timely new novel, we witness the devastating effects of a country's economic and moral collapse. In a world where greed, barbarism, anarchy and lawlessness are rife, how do the honest survive? Is it possible to keep a conscience when all those around you have lost theirs?
Praise for Of Beasts and Beings
‘Reminiscent of the hallucinatory lyricism of Michael Ondaatje or Chris Abani ... it resonates with complex ideas about the wages of oppression, racial guilt, and psychological isolation.’ | THE DAILY BEAST
‘Extraordinary ... as audacious as it is surprising.’ |THE DAILY MAIL
‘Expansive and definitive ... atmospheric and thought-provoking.’ | THE GUARDIAN
‘Over the last few years one of the most remarkable books I have read is Of Beasts and Beings by Ian Holding. It is stunning and original, almost Blakean in its vision.’ | MICHAEL ONDAATJE, AUTHOR OF The English Patient
‘At once merciless, poetic and beautiful ... a postmodern elegy I won’t soon forget.’ |ALICE SEBOLD, AUTHOR OF The Lovely Bones
‘A memorable and original novel.’ | THE INDEPENDENT
‘Holding delivers another powerful tale.’ | PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
‘Beautifully written, Holding dazzles with every word, conjuring the raw, unrelenting instincts which drive people.’ | LIVERPOOL DAILY POST
‘Holding conveys staggering emotions ... a poetic lament’ |CAPE TIMES
‘The vivid descriptions, both physical and emotive, are particularly poignant ... and defines it from other stories around at the moment. The much needed honesty allows our minds to travel and Holding triumphs in taking us there.’ | THE RIGHT COPY
‘Holding’s percussive prose culminates in a final twist that adds dimension to the tale.’ | KIRKUS REVIEW
‘Dramatic, horrifying and filled with vibrant language which swirls around ... this novel is a heartfelt cry for understanding in a place where it appears to be rare.’ | MARY WHIPPLE REVIEW
HE IS TAKEN captive on the outskirts of the city. He’s picking among the ruins for food when they take him unawares on this hot gauzy morning. The sun tracks his seizure from above; he is a speck in the sweep of desolation about him. He had just come across the miracle of an unscathed vegetable patch studded with cabbages and beets and pumpkin and the bulbs of some sweet potatoes buried down hard in the ground. His mind is lost in an uncoiling rush of relief, his tongue and mouth unclotting. It is only a small vegetable patch. It’s someone’s sacred prize, their last oasis. Hemmed in with tall walls of bush and the skeletal stubs of hacked trees. He is busy gnawing at the stalks of the beets when a rope lassoes him taut around the throat. His breath is lost to an instant panic; he staggers on his feet but does not fall. A moment of blind senselessness overtakes him and then he glimpses the posed attitudes of three men brandishing machetes. They gather in, surround him. Their feet dig firm to the sod, their hands grip the rope as if taking part in tug of war. He doesn’t try to fight or flee.
One of them shouts something but he cannot understand what. Something crude and direct. He does not comprehend anything they say. His tongue is locked somewhere down his throat, his breath constricted by the snare staving into his vertebrae. A firm pair of hands clamp him by the neck and a foul stinking rag is stuffed into his mouth like a muzzle. Ragged and ropy, it smells of filth baked crisp in the sun. Or something fetid, something scum-like. Then the deeper odour of fear spikes his nostrils and a rapid swell slops up from his stomach. He stumbles about, moaning, shaking his head but the harness they have him by is unyielding. He panics, sensing he is going to heave and choke, be overwhelmed from the inside out. The ground and the sky and the haggling bodies rove jaggedly, fusing in an odd cabal against which his actions are futile. He tries a feeble kick, to draw from inside himself and surge against them. Too little too late. They have him tight now, tighter.
They lead him off without a further word. His stomach is crouching in his throat; his wide eyes are burning. They lead him through the charred fields and the smoking debris of a shanty town recently levelled to the ground. He has to pick his way over a mangled pile of corrugated tin and shattered asbestos roofing as if dodging jetsam on a riverbank. The shards are sharp underfoot and stabs of spiky pain jerk up his shins. The shells of a few brick hovels stand here and there but the mud huts have been returned to the earth in an incendiary slew and the thatching lies thick in the black-yellow ash.
It hasn’t rained for some time. Frayed canvas tarps are draped amongst the ruins and the air is thick with the smell of burnt plastic sheeting, the reeking tar of blistered tyres. They pass a creosote-stained wood shack with rows of pit latrines that have been bombed. The ruptured sewers snake in dark, wet runnels and lie drying in caked crusts of shit-soaked earth. The sick and emaciated were here not long ago. The pot-bellied, balding children, the grown-ups squatting on the ground gripping their cramped stomachs.
Now the smell is stiff and sits in his nose beyond the gag like an elastic fume. Between everything a sporadic spread of tin pots and utensils has been unearthed and scattered. Upturned stools and old bits of bedding with coils of springs are jutting out like disused antennae. This is all that escaped the torching and the advancing rampages of the horde, barbarians at some ancient bloodletting coasting on the shanties.
They march him on. As they veer round a cluster of shelled shacks they see the bodies of a family lying roasted on the ground, composed in a kind of petrified flux. The flares have pulled the skin tight across the faces and the whiteness of the teeth glints like slits of plastic or polyester grinning up at the smashed world. They pass on. The men don’t comment or exclaim or bemoan. These fallen dead may have been members of the opposition or a household loyal to some rival faction. This is just a sight thrown up from a newly adjusted reality, a commonplace thing.
Their mismatched combat fatigues signals them out. Stalking effigies of violence, intimidation, fear. They may be from various factions of the militia. They may be offshoots of the army, the police, the opposition – on the rampage for anything they can loot or plunder or hijack. They wear camouflaged trousers in an array of mottled shades as if they have attempted to band together but the rest of their attire is indistinct: a frayed cotton shirt embossed with florid insignia; a grubby white vest torn at the side; a bare black chest muscled and sleeked with sweat. Their footgear is random too: a pair of dark leather boots, a pair of worn track shoes, a pair of old slops fixed over with wire gnarled around the toes. They have tied bandanas to their heads but with no legend or flag or colours of this side or that. In some ways they look like a comic trio out of a travelling circus, these teenagers rampaging as men.
On they lead him. Out of the spill of the shanty town and across a dead vlei burnt black and still sighing a wisp of smoke akin to the morning mist across the lowveld lands he may have come from. Or may not have. He has little clear memory of anything. He walks uneasily, fearing his feet will scorch. But they don’t: the ash lies thick, a carpet of silken blackness into which the field now seeps. Nothing moves in this vacant rink but themselves and the rising smoke. On the turf there are bodies lain across the spiked scrub, rutted slits on their backs from the machete strikes and gobs of flesh scalloped from their buttocks.
They continue onwards and all the while he thinks of precious little beyond the discomfort of the gag and a faint pulsing alarm at his predicament. He thinks of the vegetables left bedded in their neat, prim rows. He had come so close to their sweet pleasures. He had sensed them and sniffed them out and been brought to them perhaps by some act of providence. They were his for the taking. He had found them and for those moments he owned them. There in that theatre of chaos he had stood relishing such gifts before his luck ran out.
They may have stumbled upon him by chance, out scouting for opportunities. What luck for them. Their brutal strength, their rope their weapon. Or they may have knelt in the scrub waiting for his hunger to send him creeping from the barren bushes. Like a fisher in his skiff, lobbing baited hooks to the dark reedy pool, hooking him in their creel. This small victory would always be theirs. A small battle they had won in a war that was too big for them.
It’s bizarre to think they didn’t plunder the vegetables before him. That they weren’t there sat on the ruffed sod with that blanking ecstasy drawn across their tear-stained faces, the relief, the joy, clawing at the bulbs and tubers and leaves as he was. There must be some ill-gotten source that keeps them fed in these desperate days of famine. The dry ashen lands, the unyielding skies. The fertilizer rotten. The pumps rusted, stripped to the core and the water pipes ripped whole from the ground a long time ago. There must be something that keeps their stomachs full and their minds ticking and allows them to plot their treachery. Some strange devil’s bedfellows they must be.
Until they approach the main highway leading directly into the city he plods along in their grasp diffidently enough, as if time itself has muffled his mind against the blows of the heat and the carnage. Now, though, he begins to tense. He senses the danger of walking a path travelled by every bandit and his brother. He knows to avoid the sight of roads. When stumbling on a stretch of asphalt he has always stopped and turned round and slunk off. Here, they are poised to encounter one faction of militia or the other, intent on guarding the entry and exit of the city for their own travails, as if they were savage trolls at a sentry posting. He begins to strain against the rope. He feels it tighten at his throat and his eyes widen. The man leading him shouts Ewe! and yanks on the rope and shoots him a threatening glance. On they pull him.
The road is deserted of all traffic save the occasional sweep of jeeps that thunder by, laden with men shouting victory songs and waving their AK47s in some futile celebration. The jeeps are military, though other factions drive similar ones. After several convoys pass without incident, his mood eases and he walks on again. No one will stop them and ask questions of the militia who have taken him hostage and are leading him off with a rope bundled round him and a gag in his mouth. There will be no spate of fighting in the midst of which he may be able to wrestle and break free. The jeeps drive on past their ambling band and it is possible they may not even see him. If they do then they obviously don’t care a passing moment for his plight, such is the new order here flexing its iniquitous brawn. So much for that.
The battery of convoys come and go and the road is lined with the carcasses of burnt out cars heaped here and there. No one else strolls about. They approach the forlorn grey city. Even from a distance it exudes a clouding eeriness. When they reach the outer suburbs there is a sense of desertion which becomes tangible and oppressive like a vast sweaty palm stretched low across the sky. A weight bears down on them. The air dense and insufferable now the bustle of movement and the throes of active commerce have been blown from the city’s vortex, succeeded by this stale and stupefied redundancy. This is not a sight anyone would care an instant for.
He has not been into the city itself since fleeing a week back. How the atmosphere has changed since then. He had left in a deluge of panic and chaos with cars and lorries and buses thronging the streets and backing up along the highways to make their escapes, hooting and jamming each other in. Then the streaming hordes were loping out along the highways on foot or on bicycles, all straddled with the wares of their lives. Children being dragged at heel and babies bundled tight to their mothers’ burly backs. Some lugged a clutch of chickens aflutter in makeshift coops; others yanked skittish goats along behind them. Others just left with nothing. The old, the infirm, the sick and dying, too. All souls with half a whim left for life scuttled out like crabs along an oil-slicked beach. He didn’t leave with the masses along that shambling noon highway. Too encumbering, too startling. He chose the back road warrens. It turned out much easier that way.
He had woven through the suburbs and then out on the quieter roads. At this point the fighting hadn’t broken out fully in the city and the shanties orbiting it, but everyone knew it was coming. He walked and walked and covered a fair distance in a short period of time. He took refuge in a horticultural plantation on the city’s outskirts where he kept himself hidden low in the cool green growth, among the lush stalks and rows of budding icebergs, the fragrance ripe and full at his nose. For a while this was heaven. He would have been content to live out his last days in such a place, surrounded by some vague notion of beauty that he hardly understood; untouched, unhampered by man and his war.
Then the sounds broke in the still hot air. One moment, late on a cloudless day. The low concussions of mortars and grenades rocking through the ground and the tight chill to the skin in their aftermath each and every time. In the evenings he crept atop a small kopje that was well treed and from there he could look over towards the city. As the sun sank in the sky and the pining evening blueness came to being, he stood there and stared out at the plumes of smoke, the flashes of gunfire, listening to the booms and roars and spatter.
After a few days the noises stopped although great wafts of black smoke still rose over the city, so thick at first they looked like thunder clouds smudging the calm paleness. When it seemed certain the volleying blasts were over, he dislodged himself from the kopje and scrounged around the plantation for food and water, finding little. There was a reservoir he could drink from; what a travesty he couldn’t eat roses or sunflowers. He was feeling weak and nuzzled with delirium.
On the fourth day his confidence rekindled and he moved into a well-kempt garden to scrump some plump peaches from a tree. He picked them and was savouring the sharp sweetness on his tongue when an elderly white man came charging at him from the confines of a grand old Cape Dutch house. He was startled because such a stillness had been awash over everything and the plantation seemed long deserted. The man shouted and picked up a handful of stones from the gravel driveway and started pelting him with them, waving his arms and yelling so much his bald head flushed a sweaty crimson. All for a peach or two. In that moment he knew of no way to implore the man to some sympathy and so he ran off into the undergrowth. He roamed around panic-stricken for a while looking for food before coming across that oasis of a vegetable patch on the edge of the shanty town.
They lead him into the city centre. The danger here is in estimable and for a while his trepidation builds again until he can feel his feet grow heavy, wanting to dig into the tar. His whole body recoils into itself. The rope tautens. One of his captors looks back and grimaces at him. He sees a hand tighten round the handle of the machete, its gore-stained blade briefly shimmering as it draws on the sun. There is a grunt and a hard yank down on the rope. It digs into him as the lasso bites. One fear outstrips the other; his legs soften and passively he walks on.
In the city some of the buildings stand shelled, their windows blown out and their roofs caved in from the intense pressure of the fires that have ravaged them. Paint has been singed off large tracts of walls and in some places the structures have begun to collapse, leaving great snaking shafts of bent metal struts bare through the crumbled concrete. Occasionally, a gaping hole through which he can see the remnants of an office appears, as if some keen child has swung open a doll’s house. There are charts still pinned to the walls, desks and swivel chairs and pot plants and water purifiers and filing cabinets, all standing there as if in states of shock. Other buildings are untouched, their neat outer facades prim and pristine and their silver windows emblazoned where the bright sunlight of the afternoon smashes into them, dazzling the eyes of onlookers below. But over everything there is a great aura of stagnant alarm as if a vast omnipotent hand has reached out and pressed a pause button in the middle of some urgent action.
The aura of desertion saturates the city entirely. Beyond it there is the sense of something festering in the air, the remnants of some frenzied chaos which broke full into the streets and spilt across the roads and sidewalks and alleyways. On both sides of the street the shop fronts stand battered, their iron girders mangled and their chains hacked. TV sets, hi-fis, DVD players – such easy pickings when the shopkeeper has long fled and the police are busying themselves for the army’s assault on the city. Those few days must have felt like paradise. Lugging out their booty and sloping off bleary-eyed or else standing along the pavements guarding it and bartering it off and fighting amongst one another in ways learnt only in the gangland shanties and ghettos. There has been no food on the shelves for many months; DVD players, not food. It is possible to believe that the tatty children were there nonetheless, crawling about the old bakery floors or chain stores and rummaging in storerooms in the back to scoop up the spillage from a long-popped chip packet or a ripped bag of millet, maize, soya.
Then this great vacant space is broken by rapid gunfire blurts from the depths of the rubble. Electric disarray. The fracturing pavement, the blistering tarmac. The trio shout, darting and yanking him. In the flourish of confusion they sidle into an alleyway and duck down behind dustbins spilling with shredded paper. The absurdity and the fragility of it. Agitated exclamations and brief grimaces from one to the other of some unknown fear. No dustbin for him. He tries to press himself against the wall but realizes the stark prominence of himself there. A step into the alleyway and the shadowy marksman will have him sighted. But the gunfire spurt is brief; silence now but for the spreading ring of panic in his ears. The report is a distant hammering quake in his chest. He huddles into the dank slimy stockade and together they all crouch there for some time, looking and listening out at the empty, voided street.
Most likely they’re unseen rival factions who have laid siege to this particular quarter of the city. Anything to defend their territory. Or snipers lying hidden behind overturned cars taking pot shots at the legs of pedestrians. For some time anyway he had been walking gingerly, somehow sensing to fear having his kneecaps blown out or his shins blasted. The sound of the gun has been lodged in his ears these last few days: its pop and rip an instant fright to him. How foolish of these men to have ventured into the very sinews of a battlefield.
He had begun to sense what it was like to be shot at, to be shot; there in the blooming plantation when he heard those first faraway booms volley deep towards the shielding sky, then the crackling peal of the automatics in ever responding raps, the monotonous drone purling towards him in faint pulses as if the ground beneath him were giving up murmurs of its deepest self. The back of his throat had a dryness not entirely down to thirst. Some parchment of dull anxiety, the thickening settlement of fear. He would sleep in snatches, curled in the undergrowth, his flesh all the while tingling to the half-expectant stab of wayward bullets. Something falling out of the air. He would feel his eyes flicker in their sockets, knowing the unease of his mind. The nerve endings in his flesh stabbed at him.
When he was chased from the plantation his trepidation grew more marked and at times, when the blasts burst out again and the rifle fire responded, he found he could hardly put one foot in front of the other, so overcome was he with an instant paralysis. He had faltered on, tramping along in his own marcescent way. It was surprising that he made it to the vegetable patch at all. Surprising, too, that at the point of capture he didn’t feel so afraid. Perhaps by then he had sated all his dread and the dull quaking in his throat was just plain hunger and resignation.
After some time they disengage from the bins and regroup in the alley. There is anger and frustration between them. He stands looking on but it doesn’t occur to him to take the chance to flee. He isn’t thinking like that. Scampering out of the alley and into the sights of the snipers is no option. He doesn’t move. Something keeps him nailed to the spot and for the smallest shred of time there in this dark corridor he may have stopped breathing altogether.
One of the militia crawls to the end of the alley, then crawls all the way to the other end and looks out. Crouched like a lizard, he scans the area thoroughly. Not a glimmer to be seen. After a while he returns to give his report. There is much discussion in whispered, agitated tones. Then what sounds like an argument between two of the men, leering at one another with fists clenched. They find themselves trapped and have little way of knowing what to do next. One of them leads the way towards the back end of the alley. The still, starched air draws them closer to the vacuum of no man’s land, a dimension of space where perhaps not a single living entity dares draw a breath. Inch by inch they sidle out, the men scanning the holed-out windows of the adjacent buildings, looking up to the canted rooftops. There isn’t a sound that man would know; just the horror of emptiness and silence. He takes a deep breath as the rope yanks him forwards into the open light. The men hurry now, scurrying rats in the undergrowth. He is not as agile. He lumbers behind, dragged by the last of the three men, the rope cutting into his neck, his feet making a noise on the concrete. He thinks he feels a certain heat open up on his back, a radiating space big as a target board so conspicuous that any bored enfeebled sniper would be mad to pass up a pot shot at. But he keeps on moving. There is nothing else to do.
They round the side of the building and emerge onto an adjacent street. They make a dash for another alley and run its dark tunnel, then work their way around the back of a building and then another alley until they have networked well away from the city centre. They do not encounter another human being. The air at last softens and finally they stop and rest against a tall red-bricked wall. They are panting and clearly relieved. But they don’t hang around long. On they go, dragging him in their stern by the rope. Out down a deserted street heading west and then down a jacaranda-lined road where the soft scatter of purple flowers is a pleasant distraction, a luscious carpet under his feet. The air is infused with a citrus scent which burrows deep into his nose – even beyond the stench of the gag – and makes him think insatiably of food and those vegetables he was cruelly deprived of.
©Neal Hovelmeier (Ian Holding), 2020