The October Killings by Wessel Ebersohn
I’ve just finished The October Killings by Wessel Ebersohn (Minotaur Books, 2011) which is an outstanding political thriller cum police procedural cum crime novel. But as I sit here with a blank screen in front of me, I find myself surprised by this reaction. At this precise moment, I’m not entirely sure why I think it so good. This requires a little thought. In part, it begins with the origin of the plot. It’s a sad admission that the last book I read based on the South African experience was more than thirty years ago. Nevertheless, Biko by Donald Woods remains firmly embedded in my memory as a magnificently brave book. In his own way, Wessel Ebersohn is also prepared to stand up and speak honestly about later events pre- and post-apartheid. This story begins in 1985 with a raid by South African Defence Force troops across the border to eradicate ANC rebels. Young Abigail Bukula survives thanks to the intervention of Leon Lourens, a young white soldier and, later, the bravery of Michael Bishop who worked for the ANC.
This sets the theme of the book. The question for discussion is what qualities do we recognise as heroic? In some senses, it’s easier to define in a fight when, despite the danger and the position of relative disadvantage, the individual continues the struggle. This may be reckless. It may even be suicidal. But it’s usually magnificent when you see it (and survive). So we’re looking for people who give their all for the greater good of society. It can be political leaders who defy the odds to establish a new reality. It can even be academics if they supply the persuasive force to move the masses. To many, Karl Marx is heroic even though the result of the class struggle was determined by the people on the streets. The labelling all depends on how those with access to the discourse write the history. Myths become facts until they are inconvenient and then are dismantled into folk memories and slowly forgotten as the generations die. So would Abigail be a hero? She’s the child of activists who were murdered for their beliefs. She not only survived the massacre, but also escaped from jail the next day. Or perhaps the man who rescued her was the hero. Had the ANC not sent him, she would probably have died. Or perhaps it was the white soldier who defied orders and threatened to shoot his commanding officer unless he spared Abigail’s life.
It would depend on who you asked and when you asked the question. Abigail’s parents were considered terrorists by the government of the day. When the ANC later took power, the same victims were martyrs to the cause. As an insubordinate soldier, the saviour was a race traitor. After the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had done its work, he could live openly in South Africa without harassment. And Abigail? Well, she became a lawyer working for the Justice Department. And Michael Bishop? It’s a curious thing about killers. When their services support the winning side, they are quietly lauded and protected. But what happens after victory is declared? Should they continue to kill because that’s what they enjoy doing, will they lose the protection offered by those in power? Or, with their image as unsung heroes tarnished, will they be thrown to the wolves?
Now the tables are turned. Twenty years later, Leon comes to Abigail for protection. It seems someone is killing off all the members of the team that crossed the border. In the hope of working out who would be motivated to systematically kill all these men, she tries to visit Marinus van Jaarsveld, the captain in charge of the death squad. To get inside the prison where he’s held, she enlists the help of Yudel Gordon, a psychiatrists specialising in the criminal mind. Together, they begin to probe the mystery and confirm all the deaths took place on the same day in October. With only days to spare, Leon disappears. Now they must increase the speed of their investigation. Suspicion naturally falls on the elusive Michael Bishop except no-one admits to seeing him for years. When Yudel has a theory about where Bishop might be found, they recruit Deputy Commissioner Freek Jordaan to their team. He puts together a police team and sets a trap.
In all this, I hope you have asked why Abigail is trying so hard to save a white man. This is more than the simple repayment of a debt. It’s an affirmation of the relationship between the races in the new political reality. That she can work equally well with the ageing Yudel is further evidence of her commitment to accept people regardless of their race, gender, age or apparent abilities. She’s simply motivated to get results. Given she starts off this investigation at a disadvantage, I suppose this makes her a heroine.
The October Killings is a fascinating look inside a country I have not actively thought about for some years, a very good crime story or political thriller, and a thoughtful examination of what it takes to be a hero — not just in physical terms but also in matters of the heart when it comes to the process of reconciliation as opposed to revenge. The core of the book can be summed up in a single sentence, spoken by Abigail to Yudel, “One night in Maseru I was saved by a good man, defending an evil cause, and on the next I was saved by an evil man, fighting for a good cause.” It’s only when you step back and see the breadth of the book that you can also understand why it’s so good. So, even though you might not immediately consider reading a book set in South Africa, you should definitely make an exception for this. It’s wonderfully engaging!
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.