Who Killed Piet Barol? - Richard Mason ****
The Piet Barol of Richard Mason's latest novel is not the same Piet Barol you might expect to find after his adventures in History of a Pleasure Seeker. Even though we know that Barol was heading off on a steamer for foreign lands at the end of that novel, Who Killed Piet Barol? nonetheless takes an unexpected turn away from the class and erotic considerations of a businessman's family in turn-of the-century Amsterdam and locates their former tutor now in a very different society in South Africa several years later in 1913, where the concerns around matters of class and gender distinctions - and their expression in sexual behaviour - are given another dimension through questions of race and inequality.
As a married businessman himself now with a child, a furniture manufacturer in Cape Town, it's not surprising that Piet Barol is a different person in Mason's new novel. What remains of Barol however is his charm and adaptability. On the steamer from Amsterdam to South Africa, Piet Barol has met and married Stacey Meadows, an American dancer who has been working in cabarets in Paris. Arriving in Cape Town in 1908, the couple have introduced themselves as European royalty but the expensive lifestyle is becoming hard to maintain. Fortunately, Piet's wife has managed to obtain a new commission for him to refurnish the mansion of a wealthy businessman that just might save them from ruin.
Who Killed Piet Barol? can be heavy going through the opening that establishes the character in this new world - perhaps even more difficult for readers familiar with the character of the previous novel rather than for new readers - but it is only really the set-up for the much more interesting matters that arise when Piet Barol sets out with two of his native Xhosa servants to a remote village location where he hopes to obtain cheap (or even free) mahogany wood for his new commission. The trees of the wood he has been looking for are indeed impressive, but it is going to take all Piet's charm and cunning to convince the little Gwadana village that worships its ancestors in the trees to let him cut them down.
Piet's endeavours - going as far as to learn to become half-way competent in the native language - becomes rather more complicated however on account of the internal affairs within the village. The old traditions and superstitions don't just relate to the forest, but to matters relating to marriage, omens, evil spirits and - although very different in nature to those in Amsterdam - to the roles of men and women, to class and to sexual freedom. If there is little in common between the cultures of History of a Pleasure Seeker and Who Killed Piet Barol? it only highlights the contrasts between the societies in Amsterdam and Cape Town during this historical period.
The actual period where the world is about to embark on a war that will change the face of society forever, seemed to be more significant in History of a Pleasure Seeker. There was almost an allegorical quality to Barol as the embodiment of a new type of common man with intelligence and education who would arise and have greater influence in this society and help break down its rigid class structures. The war is still significant in Who Killed Piet Barol?, but in South Africa the escalation of hostilities in Europe is far removed from everyday concerns. Piet however could still be said to have ambitions to conquer the world in his own way, breaking down social and race barriers towards a more natural way of living. Mason even brings the social order within the animal kingdom into the book to great effect, adding a whole other dimension into behavioural patterns.
Piet Barol then might not alone be an agent of change, but he is one that challenges and exploits the prejudices of the wealthy elite, showing a rather more enlightened, humanistic attitude towards the natives, going as far as to learn their language and treat them fairly, if not quite as equals. Piet Barol still comes first. Make no mistake, Barol is still a man of his time, a white European with an air of entitlement and a willingness to use exploit the superstitions of the natives and use it against them much in the same way that he uses the snobbery of the white colonials against them. Barol might seem very different from the tutor who charmed his way into the skirts of the Vermuelen-Sickerts in Amsterdam in order to advance his position, but the same charm that enables him to move in higher reaching channels is also in evidence here, and Richard Mason once again captures the exotic and the erotic force of that ability, but within a much wider context this time.
Clearly however, as you will no doubt gather from the title, Richard Mason doesn't intend to take the character any further than this, which is somewhat disappointing, On the other hand, it's clear that, as the book develops, the author becomes less interested in the white European outlook and much more interested in the perspective of the black South African population. Many of the characters he explores here are indeed much more interesting than Piet Barol, but Barol has nonetheless served his purpose, and Mason (who was himself born in South Africa)has successfully extended, contrasted and brought to a likely conclusion many of the themes that he introduced in History of a Pleasure Seeker.
Who Killed Piet Barol? by Richard Mason is published by W&N on 8th September 2016.
Who Killed Piet Barol? - Richard Mason ****