Think of beautiful prose about the ebb and flow, the life and death of humble fish and you might turn to Margaret Craven’s remarkable little 1967 novel I Heard The Owl Call My Name in which the salmon is celebrated with language so delicate and crisp, so succinct and gentle, it heals broken things. Duncan Brown’s publication on the legitimacy of trout in South Africa reaches in a similar direction in terms of the caveats offered to describe the poetry of fly fishing; as a researched inroad into xenophobia, it balances different writing styles with good intention.
Writing as both an academic and as a guy who fell in love with the choreography of fly fishing when he was a small boy, Brown yields a text here which teeters on the side of being too academic, and yet the intent and focus of the material which looks at the history and present of trout in South Africa is compelling, touching as it does on the mindset behind xenophobia, be it applied to people from elsewhere, trees that are not indigenous, or indeed trout, brought from 1890 to stock South African rivers to lubricate the recreational sport of fly fishing.
It’s an immensely readable book, with language succinct and clear in its articulation, but if you’re not a seasoned fisher, or one who has never indulged in the sport at all, you might find yourself being eased by Brown’s words into terrain which feels too deep with the technicalities of the field and you might experience the urge to struggle and try to escape the detailed grasp of the material.
Ultimately, it’s worth the determined focus: while it does not bring to life the urge to fish, it does offer a sensible and beautifully developed insight into how the natural world cleaves to that of humankind, replete as it is with gross inconsistencies in its moral behaviour and the rule of ego on so many levels. It’s an important book, coming at the complexities of xenophobia from what seems an unexpected angle, but in doing so it offers caveats of truths about the horrors of racist behaviour.
But more than that, the text is peppered with moments of true poetry which evoke Craven’s beautiful love affair with the salmon and make this book worth holding onto and dipping into again and again.
- Are Trout South African? Stories of Fish, People and Places by Duncan Brown (2013: Picador Africa Johannesburg).