Written by Uwe Timm
Review by James Hawking

German Southwest Africa in 1904-1907 provides the principal setting for this recently translated 1983 novel about the suppression of the Herero and Hottentot rebellions. Well-selected fragments of German military documents convey some of the horror of dehumanizing philosophy. A particularly gruesome position paper poses genocide or enslavement as the only possible outcomes for the natives. The rebels prove to be clever and courageous with a skilled leader named Morenga, but the relentless power of the German military delivers masses of men, weapons, and even camels to crush this desert revolt.

In spite of the grim setting, the novel has many skilled comic characterizations. The colonizers include a trader who notices that the natives are a poor market for European-made goods because they make every pot and button last a lifetime. Veterinary Lieutenant Gottschalk, whose diaries narrate some of the book, shows the locals how to save their cows’ lives with steel dentures. Language makes up a major theme of the book, with Gottschalk and a friend trying to learn the Nama language with its complex clicking consonants: one learning for the beauty of the language and the other picking out the most practical expressions. German characters are frequently described by which dialect they are employing. I am in no position to judge Breon Mitchell’s translation for accuracy, but I recently attended a reading given by him and the author, and Timm seemed to approve of the translation. It reads smoothly while moving from shock to humor and back again with well-selected words and phrases.