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An Improbable Love : CAPE OF STORMS: The First Life of Adamastor, By Andre Brink (Simon & Schuster: $16; 141 pp.)

August 29, 1993|Clarence Major | Clarence Major's forthcoming book, "Juba to Jive: The Dictionary of African-American Slang" will be published by Viking-Penguin next spring

In Andre Brink's novella, "Cape of Storms," one day near the end of the 16th Century, a young white woman is left on a South African coastal beach by sailors--probably Portuguese--who had to make a hasty getaway after cheating and offending a nomadic tribe temporarily stopped near the beach. Why the woman was left and why she was on the ship in the first place, these things we never find out.

But really, it doesn't matter. What does matter is that the young tribal chief, T'kama, falls in love with this "bird" from the sea and she with him--that is, once she overcomes her fear of this strange place and these strange people with customs she doesn't understand. The chief and his tribe quickly depart, taking the woman with them. Trusting their god, Tsui-Goab, they follow rain and sun as they cross the desert in search of unspoiled places.

What evolves as they travel is a frustrated love story. Brink has given us this time around a fable of an improbable love that takes long to consummate because of a big, big difficulty. But more about that later.

What's really refreshing is that the story can be read in several different ways. I think it would be a mistake simply to read it as a narrative of the historical roots of black-white conflict at the heart of South African's present-day racial nightmare. It's much more than the story of the first white men to drift onto the shores of South Africa, more than an interracial romance, or an attempt on the part of white men to kill a black man over a white woman.

In a brief introduction, Brink talks about the Greek mythic models he had in mind for the book. Predictably, he meant T'kama to represent wildness, the untamed. By this I take Brink to mean he's trying to get at the unrestrained creative powers of nature as represented by these tribal people, and the way they live in rhythm with the weather and the land. Though Eurocentric in perspective--despite being told from the point of view of the tribal chief T'kama himself--this is not another "Heart of Darkness."

Kols--the name T'kama gives the white woman--is based on the Greek sea-goddess, Thetis, one of the Nereids, daughter of Proteus and mother of Achilles. Thetis then must represent the sea, and by extension, life. Not much in the story leads me to think she's meant to represent that embattled, greed-driven, process called "civilization" taking place at that time in Portugal--and the rest of Europe for that matter.

Actually, Kols may represent some of the significance of her father's relationship with Africa. Proteus, old man of the sea, is based on an island off the Nile delta. In any case, his daughter, the "Nymph and Princess of the Wave" (as represented by Kols), now land-bound, adjusts quickly to tribal life--where she spends much of her time with the other women and the children--and even tries to be a good wife, despite her homesickness.

But the big problem T'kama has to deal with is his penis. It's literally too big for Kols. And every time he thinks of consummating his relationship with her, it gets even bigger. At least in terms of his anatomy, we're dealing with gigantism. T'kama is a sort of comic giant in a reflexive text with chapter headings such as "A short chapter that may be skipped by readers who object to descriptions of sexual intercourse."

As the tribe wanders the desert, thirsty and hungry, T'kama seeks a solution to his problem. The wise elder of the tribe, Khamab, believes that the luck of the tribe will change once T'kama is able to mate with his strange wife.

Related in some ways to the tradition of the bawdy tale, "Cape of Storms" even has a moment of cuckoldry. In their wanderings, they come upon a tribe whose witch doctor vows to help T'kama. But the herbal solution with which he treats the problem only makes it bigger and causes a terrible burning. While T'kama weeps in pain the witch doctor seduces or attempts to seduce Kols. T'kama's penis now grows so long he has to wrap it around his body several times to keep it from dragging on the ground.

While, on this surface, this is comic and tragic, there is a profoundly relevant subtext. T'kama's problem is not simply a cruel trick nature has played to conspire against the relationship. In fact, his problem might be read as no problem at all: He can be seen as a fertility trickster figure, a kind of malevolent spirit.

Such a character requires a suspension of disbelief similar to the kind needed to believe in Swift's little people, the Lilliputians or Voltaire's Micromegas, or the Cyclops of the Odyssey or Rabelais' Gargantua, who starts out a giant and ends up a normal-size man. In ancient tribal myths fertility demons such as these abound. The ancient aboriginal people of Northeast Australia, for example, believed in fertility demigods, called Quinkans, who were blessed with penises so long they could use them to pole vault for great distances across the land.

In T'kama's case, a crisis proves a paradoxical solution of sorts. Crazed with thirst, the tribe comes upon a river. Kols, the only one of the group who can swim, jumps in and is immediately chased by a crocodile. T'kama unwinds his penis and throws it like a rope to her rescue; she pulls herself to safety.

Without giving away too much of the outcome, I can say that this is a story for anyone who enjoys reading about troubled love or the classic plights of fabled giants.

And it's funny.

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