Thursday, May 31, 2012

What a wonderful circus

Usually my blog posts are about English books - but every once in a while a book comes along that is so special I simply can't resist the temptation to spread the word, even though it has not been translated into English. Or not yet, I should say, because I really hope Afrikaans author Sonja Loots's Sirkusboere will soon be available to a much wider readership.

Sirkusboere, as you might have guessed, means 'Circus Boers' and tells the incredible-but-true story of a group of Afrikaans soldiers who, having lost the Boer War against the mighty British Empire, become part of a kind of 'freak show' in the USA. They are transported to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also known as the World's Fair, in St Louis in 1904, where they are exhibited along with Wild West legends like Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley, spectacularly painted 'Red Indians', and picturesque tribes from 'Darkest Africa'. Some of the Circus Boers, like the dour old General Piet Cronjé who surrendered to the English at the decisive battle of Paardeberg, eventually end up at the tacky amusement parks of Coney Island in New York.

Numerous novels and non-fiction books have been written about the Boer War, but astonishingly enough most South Africans are still unaware of this bizarre epilogue to the war. All hail to Loots for excavating the historical facts through years of research and turning it into a wonderfully entertaining story of human frailty and foibles. The three main characters - the flamboyant English circus owner Frank Fillis who dreams up the whole idea of 'performing' the Boer War for American audiences; the restless and ambitious younger General Ben Viljoen who grabs the chance of making money, publishing his memoirs and mixing with the rich and famous; and the already mentioned General Cronjé, rigidly religious, deeply conservative and seemingly wallowing in self-pity - are totally convincing, each with his own strengths and weaknesses. So are many of the minor characters, like Cronjé's black farm labourer and henchman Fenyang who gets dragged into the war - and the circus - completely against his will.

Loots's prose is beautiful, at times as playful and joyous as circus music, then again sad and sombre like a funeral dirge, with lovely sensual passages and lots of humour too.

But what struck me most of all, is how relevant the characters' anguish still seems, more than a century after the Boer War. In the new democratic South Africa there are many characters like Ben Viljoen and Piet Cronjé, middle-aged white men who lost the Apartheid war against 'terrorists' on the country's borders and are trying to get on with their lives with varying degrees of success. Ben Viljoen wanted to have nothing more to do with his homeland under a new ruler and spent the rest of his life in New Mexico; Piet Cronjé returned to his roots on his family's farm and spent his remaining years trying to justify his actions and decisions during the lost war.

And the dreaming, scheming Frank Fillis, always looking for fame and fortune, trying to make money out of war and misery, is another universal and timeless character.

If you don't know much about the Boer War and can't read Afrikaans, you'll have to keep your fingers crossed, with me, that Sirkusboere finds a translator who could do it justice. As for the rest of you, I urge you to read it in its original version. You won't be sorry - and you can quote me on that.  


  1. I surely hope this excellent book goes to English, Marita! And thanks for all the favourites you posted - expanded my reading list tremendously!

  2. I won't wait for the translation - it has been years since I read in Afrikaans but I can still do it! Can't wait!

  3. Matt, this wonderful book has just won a major South African literary award - the M Net Prize - so I rest my case!