Thu, 27 February 2020

There can't be many marine scientists who write fiction books, let alone love stories, but Lynton Burger's She Down There is one. Does it pass muster? Read on. By Spike.


COVER TO COVER: The novel She Down There takes you on a spiritual journey beneath the sea.

When you read the back cover of She Down There, it's a rollicking rollout of short punchy odes to the mystical and the marine: "She is Half-Away Woman. Her name is her destiny: half woman, half sea creature. Down with the octopus she dives. She swims with the sea lions and the orcas. She rolls with sea otters in the kelp."

Ernest Hemingway would be proud. His prose was similarly clipped. His words? Terse. Some works also heaved with ocean. Only with more drunkenness. His prose was punchy. With more punching. There was bullfighting. And salt. And sweat. Evocative. Bloody. He was athletically descriptive, with tales of manhood, and marathon fights with giant marlin.

This reader was relieved to note that between the covers we move away from these staccato mini-ads into a more soothing, lyrical flow - an oft sibilant narrative about characters emotionally immersed in the ocean by an author on a calculated quest to evoke deep empathy for the ocean. Much of the book takes place underwater.


DANCING TWO BY TWO: Humans can do good when they meld with the natural world around them.

We read about a mixed race soul who hails from an indigenous cultural region in a northwestern Canadian archipelago called Haida Gwaii. She is an enigmatic creature called Claire Lutrísque, with a spiritual connection to her Haida roots.

... talks to her in the whisper of the currents and the crackle of the coralShe is a diver, and a good one. She senses stuff. Her spirituality is expressed via a mystically metaphoric bond to an Innuit sea god called Sedna, "She Down There": the feminine custodian of the undersea. As queen of its creatures, She Down There feels pain when her creatures die, of which they are doing a lot these days. Lutrisque has an uncanny connection - although Burger remains at pains to depict this through subconscious or "dreamstate" pathways - to Sedna via her granny, her nan, who has passed away, but still talks to her in the whisper of the currents and the crackle of the coral.

In the mildest of spoiler alerts, she is "hurled by tragedy on a southward path, to the warm waters of Mozambique, where she joins the fight to safeguard the region’s coral reefs".

Okay, so this is where it gets interesting for us South Africans. As you read on, you are slightly intrigued if a little skeptical to learn about a Khoi San character from the Karoo. The Karoo is dry and hot and the furthest from water that you can imagine.


VITAMIN SEA: The symbolic role of the Orca is also expressed as a potent sentry for the deep.

You think? But as the book hots up, so to speak, the strands slowly start to mesh. For starters, the Karoo upon which our second hero walks is a primordial sea floor. His name? Klaas Afrikaner.

Now here's the thing. Us South Africans are strange creatures. When our countrymen proffer their artistic toil - whether words, performance or imagery - we have had a tendency to become squeamish and cynically critical: a typical throwback to our collective inferiority complex, when we thought we were internationally unworthy. "Klaas Afrikaner?" You think? Then you do think. It rhymes with "baas". It rhymes with Afrikaans? Irony drips from the surname. After all, he is brown, and one of those people marginalised during what FW de Klerk doesn't call a crime against humanity. Sigh.

If you stay with it, more double meanings, puns and plays on words drip from that name, enough to shame De Klerk, who should know better. Many of us lived through that era, and this will resonate. For others, it provides the contrasting components of a successful plot. A large part of the book takes place in Africa, first in the unlikely terrestrial zone of the Karoo, then in a Navy training base in Yzerfontein, and later in the tropical climes of Mozambique.


SHE DOWN THERE: Queen of the sea creatures, custodian of the underworld, she feels everything.

On the farm, Afrikaner - the child of a farm labourer - has an adolescently lustful crush on the white daughter of his dad's boss. In a sudden eruption of desire - the sight of his love arriving on the farm in her dad's bakkie has made his knees go weak - he is sent tumbling from a windpomp scaffolding.

He plunges into the dim depths of the reservoir. Stunned by a crack to the head, he is half a breath away from drowning. In this fate-induced dream state, he is fired into the murky minutiae of a revelatory underwater world of wriggling creatures and cosmic epiphanies. His course is set.

Years later, in a clever and ironic segue into our dark and chequered history, he finds himself the first coloured diver in the Apartheid navy as he trains in the kelp off South Africa’s West Coast, earning begrudged respect from the macho "manne" who are his peers. This culminates in a covert military mission to Maputo to blow up ANC safe houses, which is based on actual events.

Boom! Stage set.

Fast forward seven years to a (slightly) more enlightened time in Mozambique, where our (former) Navy diver resides in exile, "languishing as a divemaster in the sleepy coastal town of Tofo. But the shark-fin trade is threatening the only thing that keeps him going. So he too must rise to his calling".


DIVER DOWN: Much of the narrative takes place in the briny depths beneath the surface.

This calling of course is shared with the beautiful Claire Lutrísque, and you find yourself waiting in suspense for when and if their "shared love of the ocean” will bring “these kindred spirits together".

She Down There is a love song to the ocean and her animals. But the story is also a funeral eulogy. There is pain and suffering in the loss that Sedna has borne so relentlessly since the spread of the human pestilence that sickened our skies and poisoned our water. Among the many possible extinctions to choose from, Burger goes with that of the Steller's sea cow: the placid ancestor of the grass grazing, undersea herbivores the dugong and the manatee.

She rests on the reef that never sleeps and listens to the gentle splattering of rain on the silver ceiling aboveWithin 27 years of its discovery by German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller in 1741, the slow-moving mammal (it grew to nine metres, and weighed up to 10 tons) had been hunted to extinction for its meat, blubber and skin. Near the beginning of the book, after the last of these peaceful creatures has been extinguished by human hunters, and after the tortured anguish Sedna suffers on behalf of all creatures, life slowly resumes beneath the surface of the sea: "The shock waves thud through her chest when the storm swells reverberate back off the cliffs. Then, when it is calm, she rests on the reef that never sleeps and listens to the gentle splattering of rain on the silver ceiling above. And the sound of a million pebbles shifted by the receding surge, the gentle conkle-conkle on the shore, infuses her everlasting sigh. The same sigh that speaks to the hearts of all humans on all shores, without them knowing why."

There is redemption here. It lies in the collective spirit that bonds us together. We must find the thread. That is the only way we can save Sedna and her sea.

Buy the book, here.

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