The Mission

Tim Couzens’s new book is an extraordinary murder story, remorselessly researched. LEON DE KOCK travels with the scholar-writer to the scene of the crime

A Story Unfolds: Couzens reads the signs of the land at Tafelkop hill in the Free State

MOST people — errors and exceptions excluded — try to let tortured bygones slip into the far-gone past, and stay there. And the rump of us — again, E&E excepted — are inclined to restrict our dealings with the past to the honeycombs of our personal histories. We move in the glow of the present, one arm outstretched towards that imagined future.

Our fingers are ever so busy, working the alchemy of engagements with other people via the rat-a-tat of e-mail and SMS, sabres of repartee flashing along electronic cable or the GSM 900 wavelength. We swim in the rapids of our own intoxicating lives.

Not Tim Couzens. A character from an older world, he doesn’t carry a cellphone, he reluctantly uses his wife’s e-mail, and he writes 450-page books in perfectly legible longhand.

When Couzens drives — a lot of the time on crooked old roads to ancient places like Morija and Thabo Bosiu in Lesotho — he lets his own life subside. He has the dispassionate scholar’s gift of turning the looking glass around, away from himself. Instead, he does a rare and curious thing. He reads the land. The land that runs deep and hard into the past.

One of Couzens’s favourite tricks is to stop time in its tracks, to empty a small bus of its passengers — in our case a dozen or so writers and publishers — and hold a lecture on the side of the road to Villiers.

He’s pointing to a hill in the distance called Tafelkop. Most South Africans have passed it by scores of times on the way to the Natal coast without so much as a second glance. But within minutes, in the languorous and beguiling tones of a myth-maker, a laconic gatherer of the disparate, Couzens begins to weave the strands of the many stories that converge around the oddly flat, unspectacular Free State hill.

The place, in the nineteenth century, to which the Bakwena came. The origins of the Basotho. The swamps, at the foot of the hill, leading to a cave where, for the Bakwena, the first humans were made. A landmark along a line of blockhouses used by the British to corral the obstinate, infuriating Boers. The tedium of the poor-bastard Tommies in the oven-hot, air-starved blockhouses.

Before you know it, you’ve been ridiculously captivated for at least 20 minutes beside a dust-blown road. Time has dissolved. No one moves.

Couzens loves this land with the dispassionate but intense fervour of a scholar whose trousers might not be fashionable, and whose blue shirt might be hanging out from beneath a well-worn cream pullover, but whose mind is like the hole down which Alice falls.

And down which his listeners fall too.

Into a murder story.

It unfolds in Couzens’s new tome, Murder at Morija, and along the winding road to the old Basutoland.

It is a story almost like a French art movie — thick with the half-spoken phantoms of personal motive flitting through the hard, clear air of moral rectitude.

In 1920, at Morija in Lesotho, a Swiss-French mission patriarch, the scholar-evangelist and Protestant sign-bearer Édouard Jacottet, is murdered. He is poisoned by the hand of his own daughter — one of the three surviving girls whose lives were wrenched by the monsoon of evangelical zeal that hit South Africa in the nineteenth century.

Held in the brace of stern behavioural codes as restrictive as the all-enclosing clothing they were wont to wear, two of the daughters buckle.

One of the daughters has a scandalous affair with a missionary who runs the Morija Book Depot, Sam Duby. Duby’s fierce, morally piercing eyes burn like sentinels in the African desert. Looking, now, at the sepia traces of his tightly sprung physical bearing, it is clear that the tempest of his secret passion — deflowering the daughter of his missionary colleague — can scarcely be imagined.

Another Jacottet daughter, known to be obsessive and somewhat unstable, commits the ultimate indiscretion — not only does she have an utterly forbidden sexual liaison with a black scholar at the station, she also becomes heavy with child. It is a heaviness that eventually breaks in a series of catastrophic consequences, including a traditional Basotho abortion, the psychic consequences of which are impossible to fathom.

The greater consequences eventually break lives — her father’s and her own — as surely as her father’s mission, and those of his famous predecessors, touched the great mountain kingdom of Moshoeshoe.

In Couzens’s hands, this story, initially chanced upon and then remorselessly researched, becomes a mise en abîme, a mysterious French box inside an ever-widening cascade of contextual frames of reference.

And being the raconteur-to-the-death that he is, and the scholar for whom the devil is in the detail, Couzens’s book grows and grows and grows, like Jack’s beanstalk, until it commands a panorama as wide as the glorious peak of Thabo Bosiu, where Couzens will take you up and patiently, lovingly explain the deep social history of what most people see as mere geology.

For the fast or less-than-leisurely reader, a measure of patience is required. The story goes that Random House author Antjie Krog, upon reading to the point where the pot has been simmering for 300-odd pages — and at which point Couzens gently launches into an excursus about the history of poisoning — flung the book across the room. I sympathise with her.

But then Krog went and picked up the book, and when she had finished it, she phoned publisher Stephen Johnson and exclaimed: “Wat ’n fokken boek!” (“What a f*****g book!”) Again, I empathise.

It’s that kind of read, challenging you to extend your interest beyond your immediate curiosity.

Which is, of course, Couzens’s trademark as a scholar-author. Broaden your horizons, he urges, and do it on a series of levels — go to places, travel, talk, historicise, contextualise and, finally, chase the phantom of meaning. But do the homework first, before the signs on the land, and the speaking memories, fade away completely.

Couzens is one of the few people left who still does this, who escapes the consumerist solipsism, the passing thrall long enough to get seriously interested in other lives and other times.

Although he turns the story into an extensive and quite exhaustive biography of Jacottet, wrapped in a history of southern Africa as it pertains to Lesotho (and almost everything does), wrapped in a murder story, he refrains from overt interpretation.

Apart from the murder, that is, for which there was never a trial, and which Couzens all but solves in the course of the book. Instead, he sets up, in architectonic, novelistic style, a narrative structure which prompts several frames of understanding.

As he explains, doing another impromptu talk on the plains before Makhoarane hill, which cradles the Morija mission station, the story suggests a number of interpretive modes.

It is an Elizabethan revenge tragedy — the erring daughter killing the condemning father, whose strictures suffocate the very life out of her; it is an Oresteian Greek tale of fate, with children being sacrificed on the altar of the gods’ purposes, fathers dying at the hands of children, wives paying the ultimate price for men’s pride . . . destinies infected at the root by acts of sacrifice.

Then there is also the biblical interpretation of the search for salvation in the “moral wilderness”, tortured by the sense that a lapse into sin would bring damnation.

Ultimately, however, the final twists in the story enforce that most cruel of interpretations — black comedy. As Couzens points out in one of his many moments of incidental insight, death by poisoning often leaves the victim with a grin on his face: risus sardonicus.

Couzens reminds his listeners that Aeschylus, the father of tragedy, died comically when an eagle, mistaking his bald pate for a rock, dropped a tortoise onto it, killing him instantly. So completely arbitrarily — so cruelly without warning or meaning — may many of us come to our inglorious ends.

A striving and a striving and an ending in nothing, Olive Schreiner wrote in The Story of an African Farm, although Couzens will tell you that missionaries such as Jacottet changed the face of the land, laying their hands on people’s souls, fathering African writing, bringing African languages into standardised orthographies, delivering education — in short, easing people into a modernity that was inevitable anyway, with a stern form of love and care.

But the deep story lies in the Freudian drama of repression and the unstoppable return of the repressed. Consider the irony: a Protestant missionary family, themselves the beacons of enlightened virtue in a land “benighted by heathens”, finds within its bosom a riot of lust and vipers of moral transgression — and the Father himself issues an edict that the story be hushed up, that people lie about it.

Upon this moral knife point — a deeply Freudian and darkly comical twist — the integrity of an entire mission hangs in the balance. And it is in this delicate tension that Couzens teases out his immensely suggestive story.

The murder was hushed up, for the most part. There was no trial. For Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Garroway, Resident Commissioner, it was clearly inconceivable to hang a milk-white Swiss-Frenchwoman, the daughter of a foremost moral exemplar, by the neck until she was dead. Equality before God has its limits. The entire mission community and Morija conspired, in the interests of probity and “decency”, to suppress the story.

Until, almost 80 years later, a man with large spectacles and the most insatiable curiosity came along, asking uncomfortable questions and digging up all manner of papers. The rest is history.

Murder at Morija is published by Random House.