Eye Brother Horn (Catalyst Press, 2022) Bridget Pitt | A Review by Beverley Jane Cornelius
Eye Brother Horn (2023) by Bridget Pitt, is the story of two brothers who, though devoted to each other, are at odds with the world, each in his own way. Daniel and Moses are the sons of an English Reverend at a Christian mission station in Natal in the mid- to late-1800s. While Daniel, the biological son, experiences debilitating sensitivity to the natural world around him because of a painful empathy with the animals he sees hunted, Moses, the adopted son, feels torn between two cultures without a sense of belonging to either. Both boys dream of travelling to England where each hopes to become his own man. But their patriarchal benefactor challenges their bond and their aspirations.
The novel begins – in Part One 1862 to 1864 Bhejane – with a clash between hu/man and nature when the baby, Daniel, and his carer, Nomsa, survive a close encounter with a rhinoceros: “Two tons of bone and muscle hurtle towards the women gathering grass for weaving. Their grass bundles fly up as they flee screaming” (Pitt 2022:1). Nomsa, with the baby strapped to her back, trips and falls leaving her and the baby helpless with the rhino looming over them. But having lunged at them three times, the rhino retreats. Daniel is unharmed yet forever affected, with “a look of strangeness in his eye, as if he’d been lost in distant worlds” (1).
This opening scene foregrounds not only the tension between hu/man and nature but between all the disparate forces at play here: at Umzinyathi Mission there is an intersection – sometimes a melding, sometimes a clash – of culture, religion, language. For example, while Daniel’s father, the reverend of the mission station, calls their survival of the rhino encounter a miracle, there are other theories amongst the local inhabitants, “including witchcraft, ancestral intervention, and good luck” (2).
These events at Imzinyathi occur within the greater context of British colonialism. The positioning of this local scene within the broader frame of colonialism is illustrated by Cousin Roland, a character who epitomises colonial ideology with his words and deeds, while illustrating – through his mobility between India, Africa, and Britain – the range of the British Empire at the time.
The author forestalls a dominating coloniser’s narrative, however, by foregrounding language from the outset. isiZulu is seamlessly blended into the narrative, beginning with Reverend Whitaker’s moniker, “umfundisi, the teacher” (2) and the way that the boy, Daniel, is spoken about following the incident with the rhino: he is thereafter known as “inkonyane likabhejane: the Rhino’s child” (2). Throughout the book, though explanatory phrases in English at times follow the use of isiZulu, the reader (if not familiar with isiZulu) is left in most instances to infer the meaning without explanation. Thus, blended language is seamlessly incorporated in the novel, giving the narrative an authentic context, a sense of place, time, and culture; as well as making prominent the inevitable entanglement of language and culture, and the formation of a transcultural and/or liminal space in a colonised place. In this context, though, there is disparity and conflict; the novel examines, with this story of brothers, the oppositions inherent in colonial discourse, which “at the very least, […] creates a deep conflict of consciousness of the colonised” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, & Tiffin 2007:37).
The boys are inseparable in their early youth, only becoming aware as they grow that there are differences between them: one is a biological son, the other adopted, one is white and English, one is black and Zulu. This brings into sharp relief in the novel, the division at the time between the white Englishman and the colonial subject, the illogical disparity and inequality, the foundations of which are the “[r]ules of inclusion and exclusion [of colonial discourse that] operate on the assumption of the superiority of the colonizer’s culture, history, language, art, political structures, social conventions, and the assertion of the need for the colonized to be ‘raised up’ through colonial contact” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, & Tiffin 2007:37).
Ultimately, these ‘rules’ will force the boys apart, but not because they are binary opposites of each other; rather, because neither Daniel nor Moses can live by these prescribed rules, each with his own reasons for subverting his expected role. Thus, the novel explores the theme of the ‘in-between’ space, which is occupied by ‘hybrid’ characters in a cross-cultural situation, by deviating from expected or cliched characterisation.
This is signaled early in the narrative – in Part Two 1871 The Python and the Gun – when the word ‘birthright’ “erupts between [Daniel and Moses], like the sudden blast of a trumpet, like a call to arms” (50) in a childish squabble about their 13th birthday presents.
Though Daniel uses the word ‘birthright’ in the argument, subsequently he in fact subverts his role as a colonial Englishman: instead of assuming the guise exemplified by his missionary father or landowner uncle, he clings instead to his ‘birthright’ as a young man born and raised on the continent of Africa. He has an affinity with his natural environment, rejecting patriarchal, colonial culture. He is emotionally sensitive and spiritually curious. Moses is more pragmatic; he is fascinated with science. As the boys grow older, the divide between the adjacent worlds they straddle becomes more apparent: on the one hand there is a traditional African existence with the environment, on the other there is the modern emphasis of change and ‘progress’ that is being imposed by the colonising force.
This divide is brought into sharp focus – in Part Three 1871 to 1876 Evolution – on a visit (with the church) to King Mpande. Here, Moses is immersed in Zulu culture, experiences the heritage he has been denied through his upbringing; he confronts the notion that he can never feel a sense of complete belonging to either the mission station or to the Zulu nation. Instead, he puts his faith in science, eschewing local customs and spiritualities.
Thus, with the goal of pursuing a scientific education in England, Moses withstands great hardship – in Part Four 1877 to 1978 The Silence – while Daniel, contrastingly, is crushed by the injustices of their lives. Through the boys’ respective responses to their mission station upbringing, the novel (reminiscent, perhaps, of Lewis Nkosi’s (1986) Mating Birds, and Farida Karodia’s (1991) A Shattering of Silence) examines the impact of Christian colonial mission stations in southern Africa. Contrasted with their father Rev Whitaker’s zeal is his cousin Sir Roland’s attitude that “the real world is a little different from a mission station” (177). When Roland attempts to break the bond between the two boys, at pains for Daniel to understand that Moses is not his brother, Daniel emphatically clings to his belief that “Moses is [his] brother everywhere,” not only when they are at the mission station (212).
These tensions mount in Part Five 1878 My Brother Everywhere: between the two brothers, between them and Sir Roland, between the various thematic forces in the novel (for example, religion vs African spirituality; coloniser vs colonised; hu/man vs environment). The brothers’ bond is tested by the choice to either give up or go on: to return to their father’s mission station or to continue under Sir Roland’s patronage and eventually acquire an education in England. Moses is prepared to endure saying, “[i]f this farm has taught me anything, it’s that there’s no place in this colony for me. The AmaZulu think I’m a peculiar black umlungu, and the abelungu think I’m an impudent over-educated native” (232). For Daniel, though, endurance becomes impossible. He is in physical agony while on the hunting safari, in Part Six 1878 The Black Imfolozi, because of his empathy with animals whose fear and pain he feels – physically – when they are hunted and shot. Here Pitt juxtaposes magical realism, African Knowledge Systems (AKS), and African spirituality: Daniel describes his “body-jumping” (72, 134, 263, 307), during which he seems to enter and feel the animal’s pain, as something almost unbearable. He seeks help from a powerful sangoma. He is predisposed to accept the intervention of African spirituality from the ‘mystic’, having witnessed his mother’s healing through traditional medicine when he was a child (she was cured with the leaves and bark of the isibhaha tree). This particular sangoma is a specialist who, he is told, is “a doctor who enables the ancient spirits to speak to you with the whistling voices of the birds” (272). She explains how Daniel could free himself of his ability/affliction through ritual. Ultimately, overwhelmed by pain and injustice, Daniel takes matters into his own hands – in Part Seven 1879 Eye Brother Horn –with devastating consequences.
In tracking the boys’ trajectory from childhood to early adulthood, while highlighting the effects of colonialism and of Christianity in the region, there is also a mapping of the ecological effects of colonial land use.
Pitt’s environmental concerns are the golden thread in this text. Though not overt, the environment is the dynamic backdrop to this bildungsroman.
Throughout the novel – from the opening scene where women gathering grasses are accosted by an angry rhinoceros, to the final paragraphs in which a dog chases a sandpiper, and the gift of clay animals is given – elements of the natural environment are a touchstone. The “more-than-human” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, & Tiffin 2007:71) is considered from multiple perspectives to show the effects of colonial enterprises on the landscape, and the subsequent effects on traditional, indigenous lifestyles.
As they travel across Natal to reach Sir Roland’s sugar estate, for example, they witness how much of the land is under crops of “coffee, cotton, and sugar cane” (194) where “[y]ou can almost hear the march of the sugarcane as it consumes ever widening tracts of grassland and forest to grow more sugar,” (194). They come across small traditional villages – umuzi – with “rising mounds of beehive huts surrounded by small fields of corn and vegetables” that are affected by the “pressing of the English farmers around them” and where there is the worry that, “[s]oon there will be no more place to graze our cattle” (195).
Felling trees to make way for sugarcane on Roland’s estate, Daniel considers how “the stumps and brush will be burned, the land will be ploughed and all traces of that chattering web of former lives will sink beneath the sugarcane” (210). He wonders: “does this stump remember being a tree […] does the earth remember the feel of the elephants’ feet?” (210).
Eye Brother Horn is a compelling examination of the effects of colonisation on people and the environment, that is, on the human and the ‘more-than-human’; as well as an exploration of the life-changing impact of Christian missionary interventions in Natal. With its portrayal of brothers whose fates subvert stereotypically expected roles, it questions the in/ability to intervene in human and ‘extra-human’ lives and is a call to more conscious and empathetic interactions.
Bridget Pitt (2022) Eye Brother Horn | Catalyst Press | ISBN 978-1-946395-76-4
Beverley Jane Cornelius is a lecturer at University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).
Ashcroft, Bill, Griffiths, Gareth, Tiffin, Helen. 2007. Post-colonial Studies: The Key Concepts (second edition). New York: Routledge.
Karodia, Farida. 1993. A Shattering of Silence. Johannesburg: Heinemann.
Nkosi, Lewis. Mating Birds. New York: St Martins Press.
Pitt, Bridget. 2022. Eye Brother Horn. El Paso: Catalyst Press.
 Natal is today known as KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), a province of the Republic of South Africa.