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“Knot of Stone”: A murder mystery, a sangoma and history rewritten

  • Category: Reviews
  • Posted on October 28, 2011

The author, Nicholas Vergunst, and the cover of Knot of Stone. The author, Nicholas Vergunst, and the cover of Knot of Stone.
Knot of Stone is a tale about historical detection written in a modern style. It begins with the discovery of a skeleton five centuries-old in the shadow of Table Mountain, writes Joseph Nthini for The South African.

Nicolaas Vergunst first heard about an alternative version of the murder of Dom Francisco d’Almeida, the Viceroy of Portuguese India,  20 years ago. Then, seven years ago he had an encounter with a sangoma who told him what the ancestors felt needed to be done, and Vergunst began writing Knot of Stone.

His story begins with the discovery of a five-centuries-old skeleton in the shadow of Table Mountain. Two unlikely protagonists Sonja Haas, a Dutch historian, and Jason Tomas, a jaded Afrikaans archaeologist team up to uncover the truth. History fingered the Khoisan as Almeida’s murderers but Jason and Sonja follow the entangled clues which take them from Cape Town to ancestral burial sites in Spain, Portugal and France, remote mountain sanctuaries, and sacred springs. The evidence doesn’t add up and soon Sonja and Jason discover that the closer they get to the truth someone wants them dead.

Knot of Stone is a tale of historical detection, incorporating multimedia from library requisition forms, karmic biographies, pictures, maps and handwritten lists to e-mails, online chats and other technological innovations to create a multi-layered and textured narrative. Vergunst counterbalances this contemporary technology with the use of messages from the ancestors via a sangoma, myths, legends, superstition and oral tradition that challenges the convention of history as something based solely on documents and records. Knot of Stone provides an avenue in which other histories can be written – especially within the African context that favours oral traditions.

The interwoven threads in the narrative and intertextual linkage with other well-known sources such as Aristotle’s Sierra Nevada, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, and numerous other historical and religious texts are very engaging and help to position Knot of Stone. It is no wonder then that others draw comparisons with Dan Brown and Umberto Eco.

Knot of Stone offers a brilliant mix of fact and fiction that blurs the lines. Vergunst was keen to stress,

“Several characters in the book like artists, historians, and archaeologists are living people in the real world. Much of the discussion that takes place between these characters is, in fact, based on discussions I had with them in my pursuit to find out what really happened.”

That explains the realistic nature of the dialogue and the thoroughness of the author. Vergunst was born in Cape Town of emigrant Dutch parents. He worked as an artist, art teacher, curator, and journalist. After a career with the national museums of South Africa, he resigned to write this novel. He has since lived with his wife Ellen, a Dutch diplomat and political historian, in Kiev, Kinshasa, and Strasbourg.

Vergunst’s debut novel is both challenging and inventive. It sets South African history in context of international developments spanning the 500 years since Almeida’s murder. Knot of Stone is an engaging and intelligent read, but above all it is a labour of love and a tale of discovery that stresses one message: uncover the truth.

Source: The South African

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