BY ALAN MULLER
Addo, Adder, Addis. To Shawn Xaba, the protagonist of Dan Wylie’s The Wisdom of Adders, these places may just as well be one and the same. In 2170 South Africa, places have been stripped of their historical weight by an ecological cataclysm, rendering most of the country’s landscape barren and largely unpopulated except for a few isolated communities and freeway bandits. Set in (what used to be) Grahamstown, and the Eastern Cape, the young Shawn, after abandoning her work post and missing curfew, is sentenced to collecting coal from the “Coastal Line” near Port Alfred some 60km away. In a world where motorised travel has become a thing of the past, this is, of course, easier said than done.
To add to the arduous journey, Shawn, accompanied by the mysterious Mali, must navigate the Atomscorch – a landscape ravaged by radioactive fallout from a malfunctioning nuclear reactor some 100 years prior. Additionally, after global capitalism and industry had ravaged the planet, there had been the “Millennial Mission of Twenty-One Hundred”; a failed mission to colonise Mars that resulted only in the eventual death of the cosmic colonisers on the planet. Between the reader’s present and 2017, there has also been a near total loss of historical context and knowledge as places and institutions take on new names that are mere homophones of the places they used to denote. Port Alfred is reduced to Palfred which has since been overcome by rising sea levels while national highways like the N2 and N10 have become the Entu and Enten and home to bandits and are traversed only by brave merchants who scour the Atomscorch for “trinkets and techno-baubles”.
Wylie’s post-apocalyptic novella is at once both an emptying out and filling up in terms of its ecocritical approach to such a disaster. While the landscape is initially all but emptied of its flora and fauna (humans included), nature proves resilient and increasingly intrude into the narrative as it progresses. The novel begins and ends with the elusive adder while a jackal proves omnipresent yet is only as visible as it chooses to be. More striking though, is the discovery that Shawn and Mali make in Adder (an area west of what was Grahamstown); a species long thought eradicated by humans and the Atomscorch. Nature, it seems, has a way of bouncing back from the most aggressive assaults.
Although nature and acological crises come to the fore in The Wisdom of Adders, the novella’s plot and setting are not entirely emptied of their political baggage. A centralised government may be something of the distant past and is not even mentioned but racial politics does rear its all-too-familiar head. While South Africa has become “a country of browns”, there are rare racial exceptions in the form of ‘Throwblacks’ like Mali and even rarer ‘Whitebacks’ like the Tharfields. While the backstory of why Mali’s lineage remained black is unclear, the Tharfields openly boast about their 1820 settler roots and how they remained ‘pure’ by resisting what they saw as shameless miscegenation as the population shrank.
The Wisdom of Adders is a stylistically slick novella that incorporates poetry into its already lyrical prose. Before embarking on her journey, Shawn is befriended by the mystical Stormchaser who gives her a collection of his poetry to take along. She and Mali read some of these to one another along their journey and the reader is able to glimpse a flash of Wylie as a poet also. Having published seven collections to date, his poetry is able to stand on its own but complement the novella well in their ecocritical themes. Wylie’s seventh collection, Slow Fires seems to function as a poetic genesis for this novella with its focus on the lives of animals and inevitability of the cycle of birth and death (read Finuala Dowling’s review of the collection here). The novella also mirrors a scene from a poem titled “Even a darkness which may be felt” as people run to scoop up locusts, making the best of an approaching swarm.
The Wisdom of Adders joins a growing body of outstanding ecocritical speculative fictions to emerge from South Africa in recent years such as Henrietta Rose-Innes’ novels Nineveh and Green Lion, Cain Prize-winning story “Poison”; and Nick Wood’s “Thirstlands” and “Of Hearts and Monkeys”.
The Wisdom of Adders can be purchased from Amazon.