By Dan Sleigh
Translated, from the Afrikaans, by Andre Brink
Harcourt, 768 pp., $30
By Uwe Timm
Translated, from the German, by Breon Mitchell
New Directions, 340 pp., paperback, $15.95
By Abdulrazak Gurnah
Pantheon, 272 pp., $23
It is that time of the year again when literary know-it-alls tell you which books you should bring to the beach. You know the sort of thing: sports memoirs, clever romances, slick comedies, a break from that stodgy winter diet of Gibbon and Proust. Some of us, however, know better. We know that when temperatures rise and midriffs are bared (oh dear) readers need ballast, not fluff, novels that will keep you on the beach long after everyone else has left and will make you look at those sand dunes with an altered eye.
When the Dutch landed on Africa's Cape of Good Hope in 1651, they were not on a beach vacation; they had come to stay. ''And where shall we go?" the chief of the indigenous Goringhaicona tribe asks a Dutch official, posing the question that imperial powers were to answer with varying degrees of barbarity over the next four centuries. Dan Sleigh's monumental first novel, ''Islands," which is based on decades of his research in the National Archives in Cape Town, covers the first 50 years of white settlement on the tip of Africa, a particularly vile chapter in colonial history, which unfolds here with an appalling symmetry. On the one hand, the brutal expansion of the Dutch settlement; on the other, the degradation, enslavement, and murder of the native people.
Inevitable, really, although the natives didn't see it that way. ''Now what will be easier," the Goringhaicona chief challenges the Dutch governor, ''for me to help you destroy the Gorachoqua, or for you all to go away? Then the war will end. Leave us to graze our cattle and to hunt and kill one another." Later, employing the same troublesome logic, he points out that ''you Hollanders took the land on which our people lived for years. If we go to Holland, will we be allowed to do the same there?"
Sleigh constructs his novel around two mixed-race love stories -- bloodstained rather than rosy affairs -- and follows lesser characters through lives that encapsulate this sprawling history. He tells us too much, particularly toward the end, when the novel's early translucence evaporates under the accumulated weight of event and coincidence, but if ''Islands" leaves us exhausted, perhaps it should.
Centuries later, the Germans encounter similarly recalcitrant Africans. ''You used me so many times as a pack animal when there was peace," a rebel leader writes to the German district officer in southwest Africa in 1905, ''and what can I see in your peace but the destruction of us and all our people."
In his astonishing novel ''Morenga," Uwe Timm jokes that ''in the beginning was the pop of a champagne cork" celebrating the establishment in 1885 of the German Colonial Company, which would ''civilise an underdeveloped and backward land." From 1904 to 1907, however, Kaiser Wilhelm's army in present-day Namibia was repeatedly humiliated by guerrilla bands led, most notably, by Morenga (later called the black Napoleon), a charismatic leader and brilliant tactician who was killed in 1907 and whose Hottentot people were virtually exterminated by starvation and forced labor. Timm tells the story of what became known as the kaiser's first war through the eyes of Gottschalk, a military veterinarian whose letters suggest a naïve dreamer, musing, for instance, in 1904, ''It's a fine thought that at some point there will be eyes in this wilderness reading Goethe, ears listening to Mozart." The following day, reporting to German headquarters in Windhoek, he passes a corral packed with naked, starving natives. ''That's our concentration camp, Moll explained, a new innovation based on the English experience in the Boer War."
Timm has clearly researched journals, letters, and company reports as meticulously as Sleigh has, but he uses them sparingly to greater dramatic effect, compressing events and human responses in a way that is both mesmerizing and shocking: Conrad leavened with sardonic humor. Gottschalk's gradual disintegration and transformation are the novel's fulcrum -- ''[He] brooded over the fact that one's thoughts and words often failed to match the landscape, like pieces of luggage that proved impractical once they had been dragged along." But Timm's descriptive powers cause each German officer and soldier, each rebel leader, Herero or Hottentot ''savage," to materialize suddenly before us in a landscape that is equally, almost disturbingly present. ''The general staff should get down on their knees and thank the Hottentot rebels," a prescient Lieutenant Elschner finally tells Gottschalk. ''They can test on a small scale what might be used in a larger and more dangerous situation."
After all that turmoil, Abdulrazak Gurnah's beautiful, elegiac novel ''Desertion" seems as restful and seductive as the Zanzibar shore it describes. Hassanali, the shopkeeper, and his wife and sister have suffered only minor upheavals under British rule until that morning in 1899 when an Englishman, Martin Pearce, staggers in from the desert, collapses at Hassanali's feet, and alters the family's fate. ''What kind of man would leave his home to wander in a wilderness thousands of miles away?" Hassanali wonders, asking another of those awkward questions repeatedly posed by the colonized, one that Pearce himself should have considered. A careless romantic who reviles the brutish imperialism of Burton, a plantation overseer; is embarrassed by the old-boy heartiness of Turner, the district officer; and yet fails those he claims to respect, Pearce is thankfully not the novel's main concern. As ''Desertion" leaps from 1899 to the 1950s and the desperate years of independence and revolution, Hassanali's sister, Rehana, and her descendants are, for a change, the main story.
Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times.