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Authors: André Brink

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Fiction, #Literary

Devil's Valley

André Brink

Devil’s Valley


Flip Lochner—embittered boozer, self-described loser, burnt-out crime reporter, would-be historian, failed husband and father—finds himself on the farthest edge of civilization one day, descending on foot into a region that lies so deep within the walls of wild mountains it is all but impossible to reach. The Devil’s Valley has been home for 160 years to a breakaway sect of inbred Boers shut off from the rest of the world, and Lochner has come to dig into their stories, to establish their history, to know their truth.

With Devil’s Valley, South African writer André Brink, author of A Dry White Season, takes the reader on a wild ride into all the dark places of human nature that people most like to avoid. He makes a landscape and social history of these dark places as he brings his protagonist face to face with an agrarian community sternly committed to keeping outsiders out and inner secrets in. It’s a place where dream worlds, death worlds, and this world blur and blend, where God and the Devil daily wrestle for the souls of the inhabitants, where simple human dignity is all but out of reach. What is history in such a place? What is truth? “The problem is that I have no bloody way of making sure what I have to show for my efforts,” Lochner muses on his experience. “Statements, testimonies, accounts, or just a damn handful of ravings?”

Devil’s Valley asks the reader to wonder about his or her own history, especially those parts we all like to leave out yet mutter silently to ourselves, the parts that skitter through our own moonlit night lives accompanied by owls and baboons.

Schuyler Ingle

Come A Long Way

BEEN SITTING here, waiting for you,” said the old man, not bothering to look at me.

My fucking heart missed a fucking beat. Cautiously, as if I had reason to feel guilty, I shifted the rucksack on my back. I’d noticed the old dude from quite a distance, perched on the rocky outcrop, as grey as the grass. Without dislodging a stone or missing a step I’d come down all the bloody way from the top where the four-by-four had dropped me, heading straight for the small herd of mottled goats; and what with the sun coming at an angle from the front there was no shadow either to warn him; yet there he was on the ridge, in his stupid old·fashioned skin trousers and waistcoat and floppy wide-brimmed hat, his back to me, staring out across the deep ravine, and saying in that level voice, as if he’d bloody well been watching me all the way, “I been sitting here, waiting for you.”

I put out my hand. “Flip Lochner, Oom.”

“Ja, I know mos.” The crusty old customer was still gazing into the distance, so I had to drop my hand. “You come a long way in this snow.”

Around us the mountains were shimmering in the late-summer heat. Bloody baking-oven. I wiped the sweat from my face with my sleeve. “Snow, Oom?” I enquired cautiously.

“Ja, didn’t you see? The mountains are white.” I decided on the diplomatic approach. “I can imagine it must be pretty cold here in winter.”

“Man, woman, child and beast, they all died of exposure.”

He drew the skin waistcoat tight on his sinewy body, shivering briefly as if he could actually feel the cold. He looked fucking ancient, but very straight, kind of patriarchal, his angry grey beard stained with tobacco juice like a tuft of dry grass pissed on many times, the mouth caved in, chewing on his gums. Something left on a shelf well past its sell-by date.

Devil’s Valley

“I suppose that’s the Devil’s Valley down there?” I asked sort of unnecessarily after a while.

“What’s it look like to you?”

“More like Paradise.”

A reluctant grunt made his Adam’s apple jump. Then, a touch more affable, he said, “We always believed Adam and Eve must have lived down here. I mean, before God got angry with them.” Adding as an afterthought, still without bothering to look at me, “Name’s Lermiet. Lukas Lermiet.”

It wasn’t the sort of name one comes across every day or forgets once you’ve heard it. I could barely hide my surprise. “But that’s the family name, isn’t it?”

“Well, what did you expect?” he asked in a huff. His voice was like old bloody dry grass rustling, and with a Dutch accent to it.

“I’m sorry, but it just struck me…” I tried to collect my thoughts. “I mean, the first man who trekked into this valley—when was that? In the 1830
—was also a Lukas Lermiet, wasn’t he? Lukas Seer, they called him. And then almost nothing more was heard of them for well over a century and a half. It was only the other day, in Stellenbosch, that I heard the name again…”

“Is that what you come for? To nose around? We minding our own business here.” For the first time the old fucker looked at me. The kind of look that unsettles one even in broad daylight: colourless eyes peering through a tangle of grey eyebrows, dulled by cataracts, with a remoteness about them, an absence. What was uncanny about it was this: on the one hand it seemed to miss nothing, picking up all the shit that had ever happened to me, all the hidden agendas behind it, even those I hadn’t resolved for myself yet. On the other hand he seemed to be staring right through me, in one way and out the other, as if I was a bloody sheet of glass through which he could see everything in the landscape that had been there before us and would outlive us: the cliffs and ridges folding away, layer upon layer under the fucking endless sky, the slopes reaching down, all steep and forbidding like, to the long narrow valley at the bottom, as bloody void and whatever as it must have been in the time of God and Genesis.

“It’s a piece of history that’s never been written up properly,” I tried to justify myself.

“With good reason, if you ask me. Why would anyone want to write it up?”

“So that people will know.”

“What for?”

I had to calm his suspicions. “Oom, I promise you I won’t offend anyone.”

The old number scraped his throat and spat a green gob mere inches past my face.

So Very Sudden

“I met Little-Lukas Lermiet in Stellenbosch,” I began again.

No answer. He was sitting there like a dumb piece of rock.

“The day he died I was on my way to see him,” I went on. This might be the only bait he’d swallow.

But he still didn’t bother to answer; I couldn’t even be sure that he’d heard me.

“You might say I owe him one,” I explained. “To come here, I mean. To look up his people. It was all so very sudden.”

“Little-Lukas had no business to go where he went. He had no right to flap out about us,” snarled the old man. “He got what he deserved.”

“Oom?” I asked, taken aback.


“I take it he was a relation? The same name and all.”

“None of your business,” he growled.

“Well…” I knew when there was nothing more to squeeze from a stone. “At least I thought I’d come and see for myself.”

Open Eyes

“You can still go back,” said Oom Lukas in his raspy voice, so gruffly I wasn’t quite sure if he’d spoken or just cleared his throat. “And if you want my advice you’ll turn back while you still can. Once you put your two feet down there it may soon be too late.”

“No, Oom, I can’t let such a chance go by. I’ve been waiting for this for years. And after I spoke to Little-Lukas…”

“Then you going into it with open eyes.”

Words I was to remember only too fucking well, much later, too late.

“If you don’t mind, I can go down with you when you go home,” I proposed.

“You’ll be waiting a long time.”

“Don’t you live down there in the valley, then?”

“Says who?”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“That’s your worry.” He sat mumbling to himself for a while before he spoke up again: “You want to go down, you do it on your own.”

“Perhaps you could at least show me the way?”

He sniffed, and for a while he seemed to have switched off. Then he raised his hand-carved kierie. “Go down this little slope to the break in the cliff, and past the two big boulders of the Gate. You can wait down there, someone will come. And down in the kloof Lukas Death will take over. You can stay with Poppie Fullmoon. I already told them to expect you.”

“But how could you have known? I haven’t discussed this with anyone.”

Ignoring the question he said, “That’s to say if your mind is really set on it.”

“It is.”

“All right, then get going. But mind the snow, it’s very slippery. We’ll talk again.”

Hooking my thumbs under the straps of the rucksack that was giving me hell, I began to go down the slope, my heart in my throat. I’d been warned that it could take days to find one’s way down to the valley.
you make it. More than one climber had fallen to his death down these cliffs—and they were experienced mountaineers, not people whose systems had been fucked up by years of smoking and drinking and whatever, especially whatever. And could I really rely on the word of an old dodderer whose head had clearly taken a knock?

God’s Grandmother

Down below me stretched the Devil’s Valley, much as it must have been when it was first torn into the earth’s crust. Ungodly cliffs on either side, with ridges and bands in reds and oranges and browns, greys and blacks, thrown up from their original horizontal layers by bloody unimaginable forces. Some had been shoved into diagonal or even perpendicular positions, others were rippling like petrified waves. The kind of landscape that turns a man into a fucking ant. As if’the earth itself had turned and tossed in a pre-dawn slumber before it sort of sat up, all bleary-eyed. And down at the very bottom lay the deep slit of the valley, half-hidden behind dark thickets of natural forest. The kind of view that turns on a dirty mind.

It was like being the first man ever to set foot in this place. I could imagine the sensation the original Lukas Lermiet must have felt looking down here, the kind of randiness that marks every first man: seeing the earth unfolding ahead, just waiting to be conquered. With my tape-recorder and my camera, here we come.

In the motherfucking cliff-face ahead of me was a single breach. That must be the ‘Gate’ the old man had spoken about. The two huge boulders he’d pointed out were speckled grey on the outside, but where the crust had eroded the rock was flame-red. I stopped for a moment to look back. A hundred yards higher up I could see the old dried-up turd still perched on his rock surrounded by his grazing goats, motionless like a stone carving, and worn away by wind and sun, water, lightning. Brittle and fragile, a mere twig of a man, older than God’s grandmother.

Infamous Fruit

Y TIME is running out. From where I’m sitting now, just out of sight of the sprinkling of whitewashed houses and the squat stone church, I can look out over the scorched slopes. It is hard to believe how much has happened in the time I’ve been here. From deep inside the Devil’s Valley, like Jonah from the belly of the whale, I’ve got to cry out or something; But who will hear? No matter, I’ve just got to try, there’s nothing else I can do. The day I came down here, when I passed through old Oom Lukas’s high gate, the rocks mottled with lichen, bird shit, dassie piss, the crap of baboons, pollen blown by the wind, all this was still waiting to happen. Yet in a way it was already there. Sure, the old number had given me due warning, but how could I have known what he meant? These tilings always come too late. One prepares to face the threats one knows, not the fucking unknown. And at that moment all was still unknown.

Would I have turned back, that afternoon, if I’d then seen what still lay ahead? Jesus, it would have spared so much. For me, for Emma, for everybody in the Devil’s Valley. All the violence of suffering, suspicion, intrigue, grudging memory, blood, betrayal, scorched earth. All these things which today converge to spell ‘knowledge’—or, more pretentiously, ‘wisdom’. Yet I have a hunch I would have pressed on regardless. I mean, would Adam have turned down his woman’s infamous fruit—apple or apricot, mango or fig—if
been wise before the event? No way.

Tall Tales

The problem is that I have no bloody way of making sure what I have to show for my efforts. Statements, testimonies, accounts, or just a damn handful of ravings? A man who spent his whole life trying to fly. A woman who drove a stake through her husband’s head. A savage who fathered seventeen children on the grave of his enemy. A witch who turned into a white goat when the moon was full. A girl who gave her own body as ransom for her father’s life. The dead and the living celebrating New Year together. And a hell of a lot more, plumes in the wind, lightning on the horizon. But with no substance at all, just bloody inventions and tall tales. How can I get this to make sense? This is what bugs me. Especially now, with my time running out.

When I first came here I was still cocksure that it would all work out. And when the old fart up there told me his name was Lukas Lermiet it was like a sign that I was on the right track. Okay, I was ready to see almost anything as a good sign. For what I had behind me didn’t bear much thinking of: fifty-nine years old, a wife gone off with someone else, two children who’d kicked me under the arse, the job at the newspaper where all my juniors had long been promoted past me, a fuck-up of a life. With only one thought in my mind: now it was all or nothing, now I was going for broke, to feed the rat that had begun to gnaw again, the old dream I’d thought I’d given up. Another man, I suppose, could shit on a dream like this, but for me it was ambitious enough. Perhaps I still had it in me. I mean, for Christ’s sake, it wasn’t as if I meant to move heaven and earth, or change the world. Have a heart. All I planned to do was to write a little tract of history, something to hold its own, something different from the daily news. From our crime reporter. Jesus, at fifty-nine. Starting each day in front of the cracked mirror: the nicotine-stained fingers, the purple spiderweb across nose and cheeks, eyes bloodshot, liver spots, the man who passes for me. Flip Lochner, pleased to meet you. A sight for sore eyes. But I haven’t always been like this, God is my witness. And this may be just about my last’ fucking chance to prove it, right?

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