Under Siege


by Giles Foden
Knopf, 291 pp., $25.00

A hundred years ago, on February 28, 1900, the South African town of Ladysmith was relieved from being under siege. The half-starved British garrison, which had held out against the Boers and their Prussian-made artillery for 118 days, watched in disbelief as the enemy’s ox wagons set out on their long retreat over the mountains toward the Transvaal. That evening, the first cavalry patrol from the relief army commanded by General Redfers Buller splashed through the Klip River shallows and into Ladysmith.

The young Winston Churchill (the sort of brat correspondent who tells generals in the middle of a battle that their plan is all wrong)wrote an eyewitness description of this liberation moment: “Suddenly from the brushwood up rose gaunt figures waving hands of welcome….” This was all invented. Churchill only reached Ladysmith many hours afterward, when night had fallen. In much the same way, Buller staged a victorious entry into Ladysmith two days later, although he had in fact already ridden into town forty-eight hours before and had met the garrison commander, shaky old General Richard White, almost accidentally on the street. From the military point of view, this was the supreme moment of the entire Boer War. The two Englishmen glowered at one another in soldierly embarrassment. “Well, how have you been getting on?” Buller is supposed to have asked. “All right, thanks,” replied White. After that, they couldn’t think of anything else to say.

There were three famous sieges in that war: Kimberley, where Cecil Rhodes in person spooned out soup to the citizens, Mafeking, and Ladysmith. For a long time, Mafeking was much the best remembered in British folk memory. It had little military importance, but its relief by the British army touched off an orgy of patriotic street celebration (“mafficking”) in the cities of Britain. Ladysmith mattered more, all the same. This was in part because its defense was decisive for the outcome of the war. The Boers, to the astonishment of the world, had defeated the mighty British army in a string of battles at the outset of the conflict, and the fall of Ladysmith might well have persuaded Britain to seek a negotiated peace. As it was, the focus of the war in 1899 had narrowed down to the success or failure of Buller’s drive to relieve the town.

But Ladysmith was important in other ways. The siege of this little Natal railway town and the long, bloody campaign to rescue it involved tens of thousands of men in the fighting and tens of thousands of noncombatants, mostly women and children, in the misery, displacement, and destruction which took place around it. The suffering of Afrikaner Boer families and the mass murder by disease and hunger inflicted on them in the British “concentration camps” are well known. The equal or greater suffering of African people in the region, the first to be conscripted as wartime beasts of burden and the last to be considered for food or relief supplies, has only been recognized in the last fifteen years or so. And among all these thousands were a number of observers or participants whose subsequent lives were remarkable and who in different ways made history. Churchill rode with the relief force, and was present at the hideous battle of Spion Kop during Buller’s first unsuccessful attempt to break through to Ladysmith. He might have seen the wounded at Spion Kop being rescued by an Indian stretcher-bearer unit raised and led by a young barrister from Durban; Mohandas Gandhi was to become the only archenemy in Winston Churchill’s long life who entirely baffled him. And Churchill certainly did catch sight of another pioneering figure who was to change the consciousness of the human race: William Dickson, the first man in history to film a war, mounting his bulky “biograph” camera on railroad flatcars or heaving it up the scorching crags of Natal.

Among the besiegers was the young Boer rifleman Deneys Reitz. Later to rebel against the settlement which ended the war, Reitz became the author of the tragic memoir Commando —a book which became a British best seller after its publication in 1929 and which continued powerfully to maintain the heroic myth of Afrikanerdom in Britain long after the imposition of apartheid in 1948. Close to Reitz, commanding the volunteer Irish Brigade raised by Irish nationalists to fight against British imperialism alongside the Boer Republics, was John MacBride. Future husband of W.B.Yeats’s love Maud Gonne, this dark and ominous figure was to end up canonized in the “terrible beauty” of 1916, executed by the British for his part in the Easter Rising. And within Ladysmith, fuming to get their stories out by heliograph or lines-crossing runner, was a clutch of mighty late-Victorian journalists: the classics scholar George Steevens of the Daily Mail (who died at Ladysmith of typhoid), Donald MacDonald of The Argus, and the great H.V. Nevinson, socialist and feminist and most celebrated reporter of his generation, who represented The Daily News.

Ladysmith was an experience that sobered and changed the men and women who survived it. Bumptious young Churchill took away from it a sense of the splendor of reconciliation between enemies, an idea which was to fascinate him all through his life. The carnage at Spion Kop confirmed Gandhi’s developing thoughts about passive resistance through submission. Nevinson, after Ladysmith, could not forget his discovery there that a war correspondent was the prisoner of a vile military discourse, about numbers and objectives and casualties, whose function was to obscure the true face of battle. And a certain Trooper Foden was irrevocably changed by it all too. He wrote letters home from Ladysmith to England recording what he had seen and felt, and his letters moved somebody, now unidentifiable, to copy them into a “tatty black book.” A few years ago, the book was found in a family attic by Giles Foden, the trooper’s great-grandson.

This is Foden’s second novel. Its predecessor, The Last King of Scotland (1998), won the Whitbread First Novel Award in Britain and was much praised for its original manner and sinister theme. It was a sort of contemporary-historical novel; the “Last King” was Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator (who had an unnerving passion for Scottish martial history and for the cause of Scottish independence). But Foden, although basing his fiction on a great deal of research and interviewing, was not so much trying to re-create “what went on” during the black Holocaust of Amin’s reign as to pick the lock protecting some rare enigmas of human motive. A handful of Europeans chose to stay on when almost all their fellow whites had fled, and to remain close to Amin. They became his courtiers in the midst of unpredictable carnage, mascots who could never feel safe from one instant to the next but who—in ways they could never afterward quite articulate—were bound to this monster by a mixture of awe, terror, and also real affection. Foden, in his novel, reinvented one of these ambiguous figures as a young Scottish doctor. Cunningly, Foden rebalanced the social and moral landscape of Amin’s Uganda so that it reflected what such a man might have noticed, and obscured what he preferred not to see or know.

Ladysmith is much more ambitious. This, too, is a historical novel, or at least a novel set in history, and once again Giles Foden has carried out an exacting program of reading and research. But this time the cast of characters has expanded to a small crowd. “Real” people are there: all those mentioned above, from Churchill to Nevinson, have parts. The politics and strategy of the Boer War, the chances and dilemmas as they were perceived at the time, are conveyed to the reader mostly through the dialogue of these characters. “All the Boers I have spoken to—well, I haven’t actually spoken to all that many—say they are afraid that Britain will take their land away, as they did with Cape Colony. That’s what caused the original Great Trek up to their republics, isn’t it, Mr. Torres?”

To get away with this without collapsing the whole narrative into clunkiness is a delicate operation for a writer, but Foden is skillful enough to manage it. He also gets away with a formidable plaiting-together of multiple perspectives. The novel is told through some fifty short segments, switching constantly back and forth across the experiences of about fifteen separate characters and recounted mainly in the third person. By clever signposting, often subliminally faint, these separate strands of experience are made to converge and gradually to weave into an account of a single, convincing Ladysmith—not “theirs,” because there can be no such common image for all these characters, but by illusion “ours.” With the narrative sections come collage fragments: newspaper clippings and advertisements, pastiche soldiers’ letters home, battle scenes. (In Foden’s version of Spion Kop, he acknowledges the force of Thomas Pakenham’s account in The Boer War (1979), one of the most shocking and passionate renderings of close-quarter fighting in modern historical prose. Foden borrows detail from Pakenham where he needs it, but has too much sense to try to outwrite him.)

The novel starts with a scene which seems to have nothing whatever to do with South Africa, but which turns out to have everything to do with the plot. Foden has a big talent with several gifts wrapped up in it: he sees freshly, he invents incident with a strong originality, and he addresses the reader in a deceptively light manner which helps literary baits to be swallowed whole. Ladysmith opens in Dublin in the 1880s, with a word about the true color of Guinness. “Just where the cheerful liquid flows over the lip of the bottle, you will see a beautiful deep colour glittering like a jewel. It is a moment in time, and it is called the ruby point. The landlord told me that.”

This light remark, anything but artless, becomes a sort of log-on password with which the reader returns to Ladysmith after interruptions. The narrator here is a dispossessed Irishman, who has come to Dublin and joined the Republican Brotherhood in its backstreet armed struggle against the British. A rendezvous is betrayed; his young wife, mother of his two baby daughters, is shot dead by police in the gunfight that follows. The Brotherhood gets Leo Kiernan and his children away to Liverpool, and pays his passage to distant South Africa.

Then the narrative moves to Ladysmith. Twenty or so years have passed. The Boer War is just starting. A young woman called Bella Kiernan, daughter of the taciturn Irish landlord of the Royal Hotel, has decided to have her long hair cut short by Antonio Torres, the Portuguese barber. “These items for sale also, the notice in the window said. To wit: three mother-of-pearl looking-glasses, four scissors, three large and two small combs….” So the chapter opens. The items are curtly, luminously stated, in the Foden manner, and the fact that Bella casually buys one of those looking-glasses sticks in the mind for no apparent reason. It is meant to. Much later in the novel, the memory of the looking-glass becomes a key-code, gradually making a connected but terrifying reading out of apparently disparate events.

The tales of Bella, her sister, Jane, and her father run through Foden’s story of the siege. They tell their own stories, and are seen—distantly, middle-distantly, or close up—by other narrators: by the decent, limited Trooper Tom, who falls for Bella; by the trio of intellectual journalists sharing a bungalow; by a refugee Zulu woman and her boy who work in the hotel garden; by Torres, the hairdresser from Portuguese East Africa. Outside, with the relief force under General Buller struggling toward Ladysmith, the novel follows “the Biographer”: the man with the early “biograph” hand-cranked movie camera. He is imagined by the author as a beady-eyed, very discreet homosexual who watches with ironic amazement the arrogance of the officer class and the dumb obedience of the young men whom they send to their deaths. In Durban, before the relief column sets off, the Biographer wanders about collecting exotic impressions (the pastiche of his Edwardian letters home from Africa is beautifully done). Stepping into a Hindu temple where a political meeting is going on, he finds that “the main speaker was a small, slight young man with sharp black eyes that darted here and there from behind round spectacles.” We know instantly who this is, even though it is two more pages before he introduces himself as “Gandhi …Mohandas K. Gandhi.” They will meet again at Spion Kop.

The least successful of these central characters are the African family of Muhle the Zulu, his wife, Nandi, and his young son, Wellington. The problem is not in their plight, which is all too true to history. Expelled from the Rand mines at the outbreak of the war and marched back toward their “homelands,” the family is separated when Boer troopers attack the column and drive Muhle off to help haul guns up the hillsides above Ladysmith. Injured but then befriended by Dr. Sterkx, a warm-hearted Boer physician, he tries desperately to escape and reach the besieged town, where his wife and child are trapped. Wellington, searching for his father, agrees to try to carry dispatches for Nevinson through the Boer lines. All this is carefully researched and plausible. But Foden somehow fails to bring these three to life. (He also makes the white members of his cast refer to “Africans,” a term which I don’t think came into general use among whites in South Africa for many years to come; they were “natives,” “kaffirs,” Zulus, or worse, while “African” remained the terminology of the distant Colonial Office in London.) In complete contrast, The Last King of Scotland was peopled by vividly convincing Ugandans, and it was the Scottish characters in the novel who remained stiff and two-dimensional.

The siege itself is most of the book. And it is superbly described—a slow gathering of hunger, fear, and despair rendered in the best Foden detail. The links with the outside world are cut, save for the unreliable signaling flicker of heliograph mirrors. The Boer guns overlook the dry plain in which Ladysmith sits—the “Long Toms” and “Lazy Susans” sending their slow, wailing, wavering shells into the town day after day, until the inhabitants and defenders grow almost casual about them. (Perhaps the best literary stroke in this book is Foden’s scene of a cricket match, played out with true British phlegm and good humor until the Boer artillery gets the range of the field.) The food stocks run down; everyone exists on hot mugs of “Chevril”—made from boiling down the carcasses of horses killed by shelling. Some of the civilians, including Mr. Kiernan at the hotel, suggest that they should accept a Boer offer and leave under a flag of truce, but they are outvoted by the patriot faction. As houses are destroyed, these noncombatants retreat to deep dugouts excavated into the clay bluffs of the Klip River. It becomes impossible to keep oneself clean, or to avoid the deepening stench. Disease, typhoid above all, spreads and kills people as the water supplies are contaminated.

Even the lofty Fleet Street correspondents, with their learned jokes about how Ladysmith is a new Troy, are not immune. Steevens dies raving; Nevinson goes down with fever, but narrowly recovers. The actual fighting—the unsuccessful Boer assaults, the British sorties to spike Boer guns on the heights above—becomes almost incidental to this gruesome struggle for survival inside Ladysmith itself. Spy mania gets a grip on weakened minds. Torres, the Portuguese barber, is arrested and threatened with death. His crime is not just being a foreigner, and a detached, skeptical foreigner at that; he is accused of selling mirrors, and those mirrors might be sending signals to the Boers. (But the reader, noting the odd reticence of Bella’s father, Leo Kiernan, and having been introduced to John MacBride in the Boer trenches above Ladysmith, already has a pretty good idea of who is using one of those mirrors and for what purpose.)

It’s at this point that the trigger of this intricately engineered novel is pulled. Circumstances, so carefully built up, now release their energy into consequences. Bella, still half-committed to her Trooper Tom, is shocked to find him on guard outside the cage where Torres is being held. Worse still, her father has been conscripted into a tribunal to judge those—like Torres—accused of spying; the Irishman sits there, flanked by British officers, and acts the loyalist role for all his life is worth. Bella, in rebellion, confronts her own long-repressed feelings for Torres and allows them to surface. For the first time in her life, she defies her father. She finds him sitting in his room in the hotel, now half-wrecked by shelling, his revolver on the desk in front of him. He refuses to help her save Torres, and pushes her out of the room, telling her that she must never return until the siege is over.

Now everything starts to unravel. Love, of a desperate kind, is in the air. Trooper Tom is guided to the bed of a Cape Malay woman by her father; his brother Perry, a soldier in Buller’s army on the other side of the mountains, finds himself bathing naked in the Tugela River with the ardent Biographer. Torres, in the internment cage at Ladysmith, embraces a blonde Afrikaner woman—the wife of Muhle’s good Dr. Sterkx in the Boer camp—when the falling shells drive her into his arms. And Bella plans her escape with Torres: an escape so astonishing and so surely told by Giles Foden that it’s a moment better left undisturbed for the reader. It’s that “ruby point” glimpsed for a moment as the Guinness flows. It initiates a climax for so many people and so many themes in the novel that the final relief of Ladysmith (which ends this section) arrives as the numb anticlimax which in many ways it was.

There follows a postscript, “The Monologues of the Dead.” Voices of the main figures in the novel are heard from the future, talking about the past. This future may be near or far. Mrs. Sterkx is perishing in a British concentration camp, watching Boer babies die and coming to believe that they are all victims of a deliberate British genocide intended to exterminate the Afrikaner race. Nevinson, a middle-aged reporter crouching on the killing fields of Gallipoli in 1915, is haunted still by Ladysmith ghosts. Jane Kiernan, thirty years later, begins to comprehend why her father killed himself on the day of the relief and—after a lifetime of searching—discovers what has become of her sister, Bella, and her lover, Torres. As for Wellington, the intrepid Zulu boy who ran the Ladysmith blockade with Nevinson’s newspaper dispatches, he does not find a voice until 1960. He has become an old black man in a South African prison, a defiant witness for freedom who burned his apartheid passbook in public. It is the time of the Sharpeville massacre and the Treason Trials, and Wellington is in court with the young Nelson Mandela.

Even before the dead begin to speak, it has become clear that this is not just a historical novel or a well-contrived romance set in a “real” background from the past. What makes Ladysmith more ambitious than The Last King of Scotland is that it attempts to study the passage of time and the process of causation. The engine that keeps this novel in motion is not just the progress of the siege but the sense of lives lived before and afterward, of events and the memory of events slanting away into the steepening perspectives of age. Foden achieves a subtle, disconcerting effect with his characters; when they speak and act, the reader will often be aware—as if hearing a tomblike echo—of how they will look back at what they have said and done at Ladysmith, generations after the world has forgotten its name. And often they will look back with incomprehension. I did that, but why did I do it? What I said then still matters—but how could I have said it?

Nevinson at Gallipoli wonders why he cannot get Ladysmith out of his mind.

It may be that every moment in the history of humankind is a crucible like that. In any case, one could not account for even the tiniest fraction of the sparks that fly out—unless every single thing that moved our ancestors, that spurred their appetites and emotions, came down to us as a message with the colour of our hair and the shapes of our noses. But still it would not be enough, as the role of chance and of the incalculable dooms us to a continuous functioning.

Wellington, in his cell, is less surprised that he remembers. A century of South African history, between Ladysmith and the release of Nelson Mandela, is condensed into his remark: “For one like myself, at least, the siege has never really ended.”