Kites of Good Fortune: An Introduction by Jim Armstrong

It was no less an author than Henry James who declared,  to his correspondent Sarah Orne Jewett,  that the “historic” novel was an impossibility, a form that limited author’s creative freedom by the fetters of actual events and personalities it imposed.  “The real thing”, he warned,  “is almost impossible to do and in its essence the whole thing is as nought”.  One hesitates to disagree with The Master,  but his observation is belied by our everyday reading experience.  Since his day, historical novels have become a genre of fiction which enjoys much success even if they are not as popular as mysteries,  spy thrillers and romances.   One has only to recall Charles Frazier, Brian Moore and Barry Unsworth,  to limit mention only to recent American, Canadian and British authors.  Perhaps in answer to Henry James, one might admit that the historical novel has implicit rules, which impose a special discipline on its practitioners, just as do other genres of fiction, even if James was unwilling to accept them.

South Africa, with its incredibly rich history,  has only begun to be explored,  one is tempted to say exploited, by its novelists.  The Dutch East India Company period, especially, with the notable exception of novels by Andre Brink and Dan Sleigh, is as yet fairly unfamiliar ground for the novelist and novel reader,  despite the now ample historiography of the period.

But one might ask, by what right do novelists annex the past, which historians like to claim as their own? Well, the answer there is that historians give us facts and factoids taken from archives, libraries, museums, holes in the ground and from each other, together with their interpretations of these facts.  They are thin on emotion and dialogue, the stuff of our everyday lives.  It is here that the novelists find open ground, waiting to be populated with characters that are recognizable, yet different from our contemporaries, by virtue of their historical context.

The task of the historical novelist is to convince us that we have somehow stepped into the past and are eavesdropping on conversations we can understand and identify with.  Parenthetically, a major hurdle for the novelist here is to avoid anachronisms and neologisms which will give away the contemporaniety of the writer and tear the historical tapestry.  The best example I can recall of this is in Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s, The Leopard, a solid 19th c. Sicilian tale, where suddenly the narrator breaks off and looks up into the sky and sees a squadron of B-24 Liberators on their way to bomb the Germans!   The suspension of disbelief comes crashing down,  even as the bombers fly on.  For neologisms, I can think of an Afrikaans novel, which climaxed with a Khoi woman up a baobab tree,  having a stream -of-consciousness reverie full of Jungian terminology.

All that by way of introducing Kites of Good Fortune by Therese Benadé.

The book is solidly based on archival and museum research.  The principal characters,  Olof Bergh and Anna de Koning, are historical personages on whom documents exist in the Cape Archives and in published archival sources.  The chief male character,  Olof Bergh, was a Dutch East India Company employee whose career can be followed archivally in some detail.  His story provides an armature on which the story of Anna de Koning can be created.  Unsurprisingly, there is much less in the documents about her.  It is a truth universally acknowledged that women’s lives are less fully recorded archivally than men’s.  (Hence the novelist).  But there are documentary flashes, as when she fishes Willem Adriaen van der Stel’s wife out of a dam: that comes from Adam Tas’s Diary.   

Unlike many historical novelists, the author has chosen not to use the easy device of an invented peripheral character as narrator, who witnesses the action and serves up a running commentary on it.  She has chosen Anna de Koning herself as her narrator.  This was a bold decision, but it works and works well.    Indeed she has no invented characters at all; they are all historical personages  [except for one musician].

The inner life of Anna de Koning had to be invented,  and the author has done that very effectively,  in such a way that the reader is involved and interested.   Whether the historical Anna de Koning had any of the qualities and skills with which the novelist has endowed her is something the historian will never be able to tell us.   But for an hour or two she will live for the reader in a way that makes her time more accessible.

The critic John Lukacs wrote “Historical novels which have no resonance in the present are bound to prove only of antiquarian interest”.  Kites of Good Fortune does resonate for the contemporary reader in that it does intimately reveal a woman involved in the timeless life crises of birth, becoming, love, lust, matrimony, old age and death.   Along the way she encounters a cast of historical characters whom the author brings inimitably to life.  

As for Henry James, well,  he might just have agreed.


Jim Armstrong is a retired Overseas Field Director for the U. S. Library of Congress