Friday Night Book Club: Read an excerpt from Bare Ground, the debut novel by acclaimed non-fiction writer Peter Harris
More about the book!
The Friday Night Book Club: Exclusive excerpts from Pan Macmillan every weekend!
Staying in this evening? Settle in with some hot chocolate and this excerpt from Bare Ground, Peter Harris’s first novel.
Harris’s 2009 work of non-fiction In a Different Time: The Inside Story of the Delmas Four was awarded the prestigious Sunday Times Alan Paton award as well as the Booksellers’ Choice Award. He is also the author of the bestselling Birth: The Conspiracy to Stop the ’94 Election.
Esteemed author Mandla Langa has nothing but praise for Bare Ground:
‘Bare Ground is about the transient nature of dreams, but it is also an unyielding and engrossing critique of our new society, which grapples with the scourges of corruption and greed,’ Langa says. ‘The novel will lead to society’s continuing appraisal of the policies of government in the face of rapacity reminiscent of the 1886 Gold Rush.’
About the book
As the head of Wits Mining, the last major mining company to do an empowerment deal, Max Sinclair has a mandate from the board and a clear directive: to sell a share of the company to a black consortium. Born and bred in the city that remains, at heart, a mining camp built on gold and the greed of men, Max is used to being a player in the high-stakes game of deals and political influence, and he keeps his cards close to his chest.
There is no shortage of takers for the deal. A shareholding spells possible riches for some – like Sifiso Lesibe, geologist and newest member of the board – and increased influence for others. Support for the deal from government is crucial, particularly when it comes to mining and mineral rights. Politics, power and money are an irresistible combination. Mistrust is everywhere and nothing is as it seems.
Former human rights lawyer Musa Madondo has seen the rise and fall of many a former comrade and he knows he is not immune to the tug of temptation. When Walter Berryman, a former client and friend, comes to Musa for professional advice, in fear of his life after having stumbled across evidence of large-scale industry collusion, he finds himself drawn into an underworld of intrigue and sophisticated espionage every bit as ruthless and deadly in the present day as it was during the country’s struggle for liberation. And in Johannesburg, as in politics, things change in an instant.
Read the excerpt:
The family has retreated before the midday heat to sleep, the great stone villa quiet, battened down, lilac blue shutters drawn against the white glare of the Provençal sun. The bleached stone surrounding the swimming pool is a frame for the sky blue of the water. In the distance the ruined château of the disgraced Marquis de Sade looms majestically as it sits astride the village of Lacoste, clustered tastefully around the hilltop.
On the right of the villa is Bonnieux, one of the most beautiful and well appointed villages in all of France, carved by the medieval Templars in the twelfth century into the very rock of the cliffs that first gave it purchase.
The singing of the cicadas in the forest behind the villa is tumultuous and incessant, a ringing in the head for those unable to sleep. Inside the villa, the thick stone walls and granite floors ensure a measure of coolness for those occupants who are having an afternoon rest. For most, the lunchtime bottles of rosé have managed to procure deep sleep. The child, irritated by the ceaseless screaming of the cicadas, waits fractiously in the solitude of his room for the call from his mother, the signal that he will again be allowed into the sun, and the swimming pool which beckons. Long and rectangular, the pool runs symmetrically from the house, lining up in its sights first the rows of vines in the valley below, and then the château of the Marquis de Sade.
In the pool, a baby descends gently to the shimmering white tiles on the bottom. The hands wave in slow motion. Bubbles from her perfect mouth, framed by strands of blonde hair, small crystals, accelerate lopsided as they rise in a silver stream to the surface. And then stop.
It wasn’t the first funeral Musa Madondo had attended that turned out to be an exercise in hypocrisy. Now, when the man was dead, speaker after speaker solemnly declared that he was a great man – well, almost. ‘A man who lived his life with integrity and honour,’ the first speaker declared. ‘A life of sacrifice and commitment,’ another intoned. Yet, when the man had been alive, he had felt alone, bereft of friends and company, or so he had told Musa. Why should it take a man to die for him to achieve recognition? What was it that compelled the speakers to claim him as theirs now, when they had never done so in life?
Too late, thought Musa. The man was dead and incapable of listening now. And actually, although they might never have expressed this to his face, he knew that some of the eulogisers had actively disliked him. They spoke of good times past, when they were young and immortal, before life had stamped its heavy boots on their innocence and dreams.
Each eulogy stressed the special role the speaker had played in the deceased’s life, how close they had been, and how much the man would be missed; each intimating a friendship and bond no other could claim. The pallbearers, some in dark suits, were a history lesson on their own: two government ministers, a captain of industry, a director general, two comrades in full military uniform from a time gone by, a hero of the struggle now in her seventies, and an academic whose face was familiar but whose name escaped Musa. The priest summed it up, really, quoting from the Book of Revelations. ‘And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away … He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son.’
Musa looked at the packed pews, seeing men and women nodding wisely, taking comfort from the words. Then the priest suddenly changing tack. ‘But the fearful and the unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone; which is the second death.’ The mourners were no longer nodding. Lips were pursed; some looked straight ahead. He heard someone whisper, ‘That’s a bit rough,’ and he smiled to himself. This priest knows his congregation, he thought. A lone voice in a godless place.
Afterwards, the mourners gathered on the circular tarmac outside the Braamfontein Crematorium. Many of the gravestones in the cemetery behind were dilapidated and forlorn. Sunglasses on, people exchanged sad pleasantries, kisses on cheeks, hands on shoulders, tissues touched to eyes, meaningful hugs. ‘He was a good man.’ None mentioned how he had died. It probably didn’t help that the cause of death remained unclear, as did the circumstances of his passing. There were those who claimed this was no normal accident; that things were found in the car that told their own story; that he’d had a recent brush with the law. There was also talk of suicide, of a man tormented, driven by fear and isolation. A man at the end of his rope.
Personally, Musa had ruled out suicide. But he hadn’t ruled out murder.
If truth be told, and there was no reason why it shouldn’t be, Max Sinclair struck one as a picture of success. Certainly, his charm was a quiet one, attentive almost, regardless of who he was talking to, and people didn’t forget that. He was one of those men who are often described as being ‘hard to say no to’. And that was a fact. Not many people turned Max down, whatever it was he was offering, or asking for. True, he did have a reasonable pedigree – good family, fine school, Oxford – but the bulk of his wealth was his own doing. Property and construction initially, then mining.
Now close to sixty, his hair still thick and dark, Max’s blue eyes looked not so much at you, as through you, making you feel that you needed to say something, anything really, that would please him and secure his approval. He was tall and slim, and he always seemed to know what to do with his hands. His gestures were almost, but not quite, languid.
There were some detractors, very few though, who spoke of him as being ruthless, or worse, in business, but in Johannesburg, a city built on gold and still somewhat proudly flaunting its mining town mentality, that was more of a compliment than an insult. Besides, when a man was as successful as Max Sinclair, there were always stories that did the rounds. Whatever the original truths, they were supplemented and altered in order for them to be more interesting to the listener, or the relevant dinner table, and so they became legend, and the myth of Max was born. He himself would neither admit nor deny when approached for comment, saying airily, ‘People talk too much.’
The story about how he was meant to have first made his money is worth telling, even though no one really knew if it was true. Some said they knew the woman, others said the builder had told them the story word for word. But when questioned more closely on their source or challenged by a contrary version, the narrator would become vague, if not defensive. No one wanted to be seen to be ‘exaggerating’. People would stop taking you seriously.
The most often-told version was that Max managed to get hold of an eight-storey apartment block in downtown Johannesburg, and this was before other developers caught on to the inner city, before the new gold rush, as they called it. The place was pretty run-down but still a grand old building, wood panelling and brass. His plan was to knock out the internal walling of the old apartments and turn the building into office accommodation and then to secure a tenant to take the entire building. Risky stuff, given the flight of most of the major companies from the city to Sandton in the north, where the construction of an entirely new city was well under way. Amazing, but that’s what South African busi-ness does. If they don’t like something, they just make another plan. And cost is not really a factor. In this instance, they thought the city of Johannesburg was going to seed, which, frankly, it was, invaded by squatters and the like with many of the buildings deserted. It really wasn’t safe at all. And so they simply took their money, and their business, to a place ten kilometres away and built a new high-rise city, nestling in the safety and greenery of Sandton. The city of Johannesburg was only just over a hundred years old anyway; it wasn’t as though they were leaving the centre of London, or Paris, for that matter.
So Max saw his opportunity and he jumped at it, picking up a building in the middle of town for virtually nothing. He put in a paltry offer, fully expecting the owner to reject it with the contempt it deserved but, hey presto, the owner accepted. Then he took his money and fled the city, leaving Max the proud but worried owner of a serious structure in the middle of the city. The plan was simple: get the few tenants in the building out, renovate and lease. The owners and tenants were the easy part. They were only too happy to be given reasonable offers (okay, not that reasonable) and move to a more salubrious part of Johannesburg. Squatters were forcibly evicted; niceties of eviction orders and legal proceedings were bypassed. Max felt that those who had themselves trespassed and broken the law were not entitled to receive the largesse of the legal system.
There was, however, one recalcitrant owner, an old lady who refused to accept the package offered by Max.