The Devil's Chimney
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The Times


"A Rare Feather in Her Cap"

The Devil's Chimney is an allegory for the structure of South African society in this century. The novel's spine is a set of crumbling racial distinctions, stacked up like old bricks: the English, the Boers, the poor whites, the Coloured, the Bantu, the Jews. Under the pressure of personal, political, moral, economic, and climatic forces, South Africa lurches ful book about terrible things.

The Devil's Chimney is set close to the Cango Caves, south of the Swartberg Pass. It interweaves the lives of two women; one a young feminist longings lifted from conventional pornography. By the time we arrive at the three-in-a-bed foray, located in a pondokkie (crude hut), with dung on the floor and pumpkins flying off the roof, it's natural to wonder if Landsman's story is about to collapse into ludicrous cliché. She is saved by turning her imagination away from sex and towards ostrich farming. Here she voyages into the abyss of violence underlying apartheid.

It's a familiar, distressing history and a challenging context for any writer. Anne Landsman's first novel is an imaginative feat of the highest order. She captures the anguish and cruelty of her subject in a mesh of finely wrought imagery and creates an example of the rarest form of fiction, a beauti—struggling to run an ostrich farm in 1910, the other an aged alcoholic reminiscing through a mist of gin in the 1990s. Both women lose their men and their babies and experience sexual draws multiple subtle parallels between the dealings of the feather industry and the troubled society of South Africa at large.

The intricate system for classifying ostriches by gender, size, colour and quality of plumage echoes the segregation of its human population. Prize birds are branded with a star and those destined to supply feather dusters are marked with a black dot.

The violence intrinsic to ostrich fanning mirrors the brutality of diseased social relations. When they are plucked, the ostriches are hooded, just like the Coloured torture victims unveiled by the Truth Commission. The exposure of the feather industry to fashion markets reflects the complex dependency of South Africa on the international economy. The collapse of the feather market in 1915 foreshadows the end of apartheid and the social chaos it unleashed.

An uncharitable account of The Devil's Chimney might point out that it contains a single clever idea, fleshed out in the kind of polished prose that is mass produced in American creative writing programs. But no one sensitive to the poetry of a wild, unique country could fail to be moved by Landsman's evocation of the land of her birth. She shows us a harsh but dazzling landscape where "there is always something to poison, or, shoot, or chase". She takes us to the Cango Caves and brings each of their caverns to life. Across the miseries of contemporary South Africa Anne Landsman opens a beautiful feather fan.