Peter Anderson’s The Unspeakable tells the story of young videographer Adrian Erasmus who, while working on a project about the discovery of a prehistoric skull, has flashbacks of his upbringing on Magnet Heights, a farm in the Ysterberg near Pietersburg. The filming of the Wonderboy skull and its discoverer, the professor Digby Bamford, takes place in the bushveld after an extended roadtrip with the professor’s girlfriend, Vicky Daintree, and Adrian’s assistant, Nando Killing Boy Ndhlovu. The tensions between this party of four increase as Rian, as he prefers to be called, remembers one deplorable incident from his past after another. As past and present become intertwined in his mind Rian’s true nature is steadily revealed.
The Unspeakable reads like a confessional of past and present sins; those of fathers, forefathers and countrymen. The reader is plunged into Rian’s streams of recollection and reality – at times wholly separate and distinguishable and at others a merged river of guilt and consequence.
Running, being a prominent theme in the book, is Rian’s default defence and offence. He is seen running from his memories and from present troubles. Running in a sense offers him an escape from those who deserted him and those whom he deserted. Rian’s running, which is at times aimless, does very little to bring him absolution or freedom. Another theme, that of being a warrior, finds its expression, uncharacteristically, in the anti-heroes who overcome, not their own failings, but the already weakened and suppressed; even the innocent.
This visceral account of a young white man’s inner world at the height of apartheid in South Africa succeeds in giving the reader the perspective of the unashamedly guilty. It is packed with unspeakable and intimate accounts of atrocities committed in that time. At times the violent and sexually perverted acts described seems gratuitous, included only for shock value. But when I considers the gross crimes that were in fact committed in that time, one could say that The Unspeakable offers a near-accurate if not an accurate account of the dominant white male psyche of the time. A quote from the book puts this forth beautifully: “Here, nothing short of a machine gun could stammer out all that needs to be said.”
I found the book lacking, at times, in its consistency of contextualising the time period and location, and when the protagonist was in the present or past. Perhaps the author intended through them to give a dreamlike quality to the story; a story that could very well be the reader’s dream.
The commentary on the racist regime of the day was also problematic for me. It came across as ambiguous throughout the story and appeared almost tacked-on, added as an afterthought towards the end. A more unified or integrated approach would have driven the point across and would have been more believable.
What The Unspeakable manages to do very successfully, though, is keep you paging in suspense during its many action scenes.
Peter Anderson, the author of this book, is said to have been under threat of imprisonment for ‘terrorism’ against the apartheid regime and as a result fell silent, believing that as a white man he had no right to write. The Unspeakable then is the fruit of overcoming that stifling conviction and acts, perhaps, as an apology for the violation of innocence.
The Unspeakable is available in hardcover or paperback from the 21st of September on Amazon.