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The Expedition to the Baobab Tree

by

Translated from by

Published: Published April 2014

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ISBN: isbn: 9781935744924 | e-isbn: 9781935744931
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“Thanks to Stockenström’s rich language (wonderfully translated by award-winning novelist J. M. Coetzee) and brilliant use of symbolism, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree is a heartbreaking story about what we stand to lose as humans, and about how what we stand to lose can never be returned.”
— Three Percent

 

“Using image-rich and poetic language, the illiterate narrator vividly evokes enslavement, isolation, and longing.”
Publishers Weekly

 

Book Description

Translated by Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee.

 

In J.M.Coetzee’s stunning translation: a powerfully symbolic story in the voice of a slave that explores the depths of imagination, isolation, fear, and love. A slave woman is the only survivor of a failed expedition into the depths of Southern Africa. She shelters in the hollow trunk of a baobab tree where she relives her earlier existence in a state of increasing isolation. We are the sole witnesses to her moving history: her capture as a young child, her life in a harbor city on the eastern coast as servant to various masters, her journey with her last owner and protector, and her life in the baobab tree.

I'd love to read the entire novel to you, passage after passage because it's not only the story of a woman who struggles her way to freedom, but someone through whose eyes we see a world of existential beauty beyond the boundaries of dispiriting struggle. This slim book takes a place high in my own pantheon of beautiful novels come to us out of Africa.

Alan Cheuse, NPR


[A] powerful, brief narrative about slavery.... J. M. Coetzee’s tersely brilliant English translation, which first appeared two years later, carries a tremendous lyrical charge... [His] tightly paced, restrained rendering of a complex text gives due weight to every word. It should ensure that Stockenström’s compelling picture of suffering and loss becomes a classic in English as well as Afrikaans.

Elizabeth Lowry, Times Literary Supplement


This J.M. Coetzee-translated novel of a young African girl’s life, memory, and survival by one of the most important writers on the continent is one of the year’s most important books in translation.

Flavorwire


Using image-rich and poetic language, the illiterate narrator vividly evokes enslavement, isolation, and longing.

Publishers Weekly


Stockenstrom’s starkly dramatic tour de force is deftly translated from the Afrikaans by Coetzee, by whom it could as easily have been written.

Eileen Battersby, The Irish Times


Thanks to Stockenström’s rich language (wonderfully translated by award-winning novelist J. M. Coetzee) and brilliant use of symbolism, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree is a heartbreaking story about what we stand to lose as humans, and about how what we stand to lose can never be returned.

Three Percent


[Stockenström's protagonist] discards the constraints of human language, culture, and systems of categorization; unraveling her conditioning as a slave, she improvises a language of her own, a vocabulary masterfully crafted in Stockenström’s prose and expertly preserved in Coetzee’s translation.

Dana Khromov, Asymptote


It’s a disturbing journey through the many pathways of this former slave’s memory, which gives this short book its power. Highly recommended.

The Mookse and the Gripes


The Expedition to the Baobab Tree is a bittersweet novel that paints a complex psychological picture of slavery, and one woman’s struggle to maintain her humanity even under the most difficult circumstances.

Words Without Borders


In a week when #WomenInTranslation month is announced for August, I find I'm already deep into the theme, reading this wonderful stream of consciousness narrative, translated by J.M. Coetzee.

The Guardian Witness


“Every few years, a book comes along that I read only a few pages at a time, lingering over exceptionally well-crafted prose…this slim work... should be on every postcolonial studies reading list.”

The Daily Beast


Although it might be tempting for readers to view the lasting significance of Stockenström’s lyrical, visionary and moving work solely in terms of racial apartheid, this novel, like Coetzee’s work from the same period, the masterful Waiting for the Barbarians, transcends the binary opposition of black and white. Baobab is an allegorical meditation on the male drive to dominate that which it labels the other—whether women or barbarians.

Deborah Helen Garfinkle, The Kenyon Review


The life and experiences of the narrator are complex and multifaceted, and the psychology that developed in response to them is no less so. The Expedition to the Baobab Tree feels more real, and thus more successful, because of this ambivalence. The narrator is a novice when it comes to free thinking and self-analysis, which makes it a joy to observe her in the act, even when the heroic façade falters momentarily

Cory Johnston, The Literary Review


Expedition to the Baobab Tree in many ways lacks precision or hard edges, like a dream half-remembered. This creates a heightened awareness of the details that matter, however, and, spurning allegory or symbolism, it has some real force to it.

Danny Yee's Book Reviews


Seldom does a future Nobel-winning novelist moonlight as a translator, but JM Coetzee shines with his 1980s English version of Afrikaans writer Wilma Stockenstrom's The Expedition to the Baobab Tree .



Starred Review from Publishers Weekly:

First published in the U.S. in 1983, before translator Coetzee became a Nobel laureate and South African author Stockenström won prizes for fiction and poetry, this mini-masterpiece is less a novel than an intimate monologue illuminating the nature of slavery, oppression, womanhood, identity, Africa, and nature itself. The narrative begins in a hollow of the titular baobab tree, where an unnamed female slave has taken refuge. Between forays to a nearby stream, she recalls her past, stringing together memories like the beads left by natives, who think that she’s a tree spirit. She remembers being captured by slave traders who sell her to a wealthy man with a taste for innocent girls. After giving birth, she is separated from her baby and sold to a spice merchant. Her third owner is the merchant’s youngest son, for whom she entertains guests and manages his household. When he dies, she begs a friend of her owner’s brother (the merchant’s eldest son) to purchase her, and then joins her new owner and the merchant’s son on their ill-fated expedition into the interior. Using image-rich and poetic language, the illiterate narrator vividly evokes enslavement, isolation, and longing. She never uses specific names, locations, or dates. She has little sense of time. All the slave possesses is a sense of self, despite the confines of her life, which Stockenström portrays with such a winning combination of art and artlessness that, 25 years after its introduction to English-speaking audiences, this tale still proves moving and vibrant.

 

Eileen Battersby at The Irish Times names The Expedition to the Baobab Tree one of her favorite titles of 2014

Flavorwire lists The Expedition to the Baobab Tree one of The Best Independent Fiction and Poetry Books of 2014

The Independent names The Expedition to the Baobab Tree one of the  best translated books of the year.