Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

Red Dog

Rate this book

A blistering, brutal novel of the South African frontier from a major new literary voice

Winner of four major South African prizes

At the end of the eighteenth century, a giant strides the Cape Colony frontier. Coenraad de Buys is a legend, a polygamist, a swindler and a big talker; a rebel who fights with Xhosa chieftains against the Boers and British; the fierce patriarch of a sprawling mixed-race family with a veritable tribe of followers; a savage enemy and a loyal ally.

Like the wild dogs who are always at his heels, he roams the shifting landscape of southern Africa, hungry and spoiling for a fight. This is his story; the story of his country, and of our blood-soaked history.

Red Dog is a brilliant, fiercely powerful novel-a wild, epic tale of Africa in a time before boundaries between cultures and peoples were fixed.

Willem Anker was born in Citrusdal in the Western Cape in 1979 and lectures in creative writing at Stellenbosch University. His first novel, Siegfried, was published in 2007. Red Dog was published in Afrikaans in 2014 and won six major literary prizes in South Africa. It is his first novel to be translated into English.

432 pages, Kindle Edition

First published October 20, 2014

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Willem Anker

7 books15 followers
Willem Anker is op 3 Februarie 1979 op Citrusdal gebore. Hy matrikuleer in 1996 aan Hugenote Hoërskool op Wellington. Tans doseer hy kreatiewe skryfkunde aan die Universiteit Stellenbosch. Hy het in 2007 sy D.Litt aan dieselfde universiteit behaal.

In 2004 skryf hy die teks vir die ruimtelike teaterstuk Skroothonde wat by Aardklop die Aartvarkprys vir innoverende werk wen. Sedertdien het hy bekendheid verwerf as dramaturg. Siegfried, wat in 2007 by Kwela gepubliseer is, was sy eerste roman en is met die UJ-debuutprys en die Jan Rabie/Rapportprys bekroon. Sy roman Buys (Kwela, 2014) is met die WA Hofmeyr, Universiteit van Johannesburg, kykNET-Rapport, Helgaard Steyn en Hertzogprys bekroon.

Het jy geweet?

· Siegfried se eerste weergawe is in 2002 geskryf as deel van ’n MA-studie aan die Universiteit Stellenbosch.
· Sy doktorsgraad, wat voltooi is met prof Louise Viljoen as promotor, kyk na hoe die skrywers Breyten Breytenbach en Alexander Strachan die nomadiese figuur of swerfkarakter in hul tekste gebruik.
· Smag, sy Afrikaanse vertaling van Sarah Kane se toneelstuk Crave, is in 2008 landwyd by kunstefeeste opgevoer. Dit was sy eerste betrokkenheid by die vertaal van 'n toneelstuk.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
41 (20%)
4 stars
57 (28%)
3 stars
56 (28%)
2 stars
32 (16%)
1 star
12 (6%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 50 reviews
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,254 reviews49 followers
April 3, 2020
Longlisted for the Booker International Prize 2020
I started this book before the Booker International shortlist was announced, and I can understand why it missed out, but I found it rather impressive, if bloodthirsty. The latter is hardly surprising for a book inspired by Blood Meridian. I am not going to write a long detailed review - Paul has done that already and Margitte wrote a very good one on the Afrikaans original.

Anker's protagonist is Coenrad de Buys, a real if larger than life adventurer who lived in South Africa in the late 18th and earlier 19th century. His story is wild and entertaining, and Anker borrows freely from other writers and sources. I took a chapter or so to get used to the style - the first few pages in particular are written in a showy florid style, but it becomes quite compulsive once the action gets going. It is a little overlong, as the skirmishes, raids and intrigues become a little repetitive, but overall Anker makes a good job of creating a multi-faceted character.
Profile Image for Margitte.
1,146 reviews501 followers
April 17, 2015

This book is a fictional rendition of the live of the the outlaw, scoundrel, frontier farmer, Coenraad De Buys. The character was taken from the footnotes of history and brought alive.

The institutionalized history, forbidding an alternative perception or interpretation, excluded characters such as Coenraad De Buys. One of the main reasons was that he was a scroundrel pioneer, who refused to be bordered in by either politics, religion or social rules. Almost seven feet tall, born in 1761, from French Huguenot parents, De Buys took up migration for the most part of his life. He was the first white man to settle in the northern part of South Africa. He had a belligerent and obstinate personality. He was known as a fearless,often cruel, wild man, an excellent hunter, who did not tolerated opposition of any kind. He had several wives, none of them white, and would later become known as the father of the Buys folk. One of his wives was a formidable Xhosa princess from a prominent family. The European colonists despised him in no uncertain terms, yet he often facilitated relationships and agreements between the bitter rivals: the Xhosas, Bushmen as well as European settlers. Being highly intelligent, literate, as well as eloquent in three languages-Afrikaans, English and Xhosa-was unusual for the time. He was also accused of being the instigator of many wars between the groups in the southern parts of the country.

Henry Lichtenstein, who met Coenraad at least once, wrote in his Travels in Southern Africa, 1803-1805:
" His uncommon height, for he measured nearly seven feet; the strength yet admirable proportion of his limbs, his excellent carriage, the confident look of his eye, his high forehead, his whole mien, and a certain dignity in his movements, made altogether a most pleasing impression. Such one might conceive to have been the heroes of ancient times; he seemed the living figure of a Hercules, the terror of his enemies, the hope and support of his friends."

Lady Anne Barnard, wife of the British colonial secretary, wrote in one of her famous letters about the frontier farmers, that they were gigantic men : "They were very fine men; their height is enormous; most of them six feet high and upwards; and I don't know how many feet across ...they even reach seven feet."

With this background in mind, a fictional tale is spun around the infamous Coenraad De Buys. The author brings this man's legend alive in a very objective manner, by attributing strengths and weaknesses to a man who was ignored by history, simply because he did not fit the bill of a hero as it was presented, through many generations, to the people of South Africa.

"History favours the victor. There is always the risk that the history novelist could manipulate the facts in the misguided belief that it makes the story more enjoyable to the reader. This is dishonourable. The great challenge facing the historic fiction book writer therefore is to conduct extensive research on the subject to ensure the accuracy of the novel, and then to write it in such a manner that with a minimum of licence the reader escapes the boundaries of academia whilst enjoying a good story and a satisfying learning process at the same time."(Source: sahistorynovelist.com)

In this book, history is rewritten through the extensive research filling the pages of this lengthy book, written by an author who is a member of the younger generation of authors. In context it translates into modern characteristics attributed to the historical characters. For instance, homosexuality is suggested in some of the unlikely characters, while others was indeed known in history as having been homosexual. This might have been a literary freedom taken to the extremes for the shock value.

Whether it is a factual account of Coenraad De Buys, one will never know. That it was entertaining in its brutal truth, is a fact. The objectivity lies in the fact that the circumstances in which the wars took place were described in elegant and poetic prose, but with a daring honesty, spotlighting the atrocities and barbaric cruelty of everyone involved.

Since the history of the region was already known to me, it is where we live, and I myself did extensive research about the same region, the book became a bit stale and uninspiring to finish. It was no longer fresh or pleasant to read. Nothing new could be added after the halfway mark; it became a repetitious recollection of wars and violence, and migration, and then war and violence again. That was, after all what Coenraad De Buys was all about. Or rather, what he was most remembered for. But he could be gentle and kind, friendly and wise, to those he trusted enough. It was confirmed by factual letters written about this much-despised man, but this part of his personality, which had him become the king of several black tribes on a few occasions, as well as leader of many rebellious white frontier farmers, was never included in official history versions of the white 'Christian' European enclave.

What I do appreciate about the book is the research that has gone into it and the brilliant prose with which history is re-introduced to a new generation of readers. One can only hope that young adult readers will be interested enough in our history to read the book. Books like these are essential to inform, as well as bring a new understanding, or insight, to our own paths through time and space, since it exposes the detail that was left out of the older versions of the country's tale.

It will be very hard for older readers to digest this book. Coming from the old school of thought where a particular viewpoint was presented, actually forced upon the nation, as the truth for so many generations, and to be confronted with a different one, will not be a pleasant, neither acceptable experience. One can only hope that historical fiction writers won't rattle the cages too far, since this genre is also a form of 'live' history. Although it is fiction and suppose to be entertaining as well, it is still regarded as another true presentation of history and truth can lose its way in a too vibrant imagination. It is sad when that happens (i.e Dan Brown).

My main objection throughout my life was always the way historical figures were presented in both literature and history books. From an early age I rebelled against the goddized, or divinified, figures presented to us as heroes. We were not allowed to view them, or even explore, any other possibilities openly. During my research into this part of history(and I am a researcher by 'trade'), I read original material from the period: letters, reports, newspapers and personal diaries and got a totally different picture as was presented to us. For instance, the 'trekkers' who moved away from the British Rule into the African interior, brewed witblits, similar to the American moonshine; had 'lively parties' with singing and dancing around the ox wagons, molested young girls, and had illicit affairs, as well as babies, with young girls, while being 'married' to another woman. Couples had many children before a missionary arrived that could marry them officially. It became a huge problem for missionaries meeting up with them from time to time.

I found these facts in historical diaries and could only shake my head when a well-known author used it in one of his novels. He was ostracized for blemishing the memory of the noble 'trekkers'. He was basically banned as a personna non grata from the establishment. I, of course, knew where he found his information, since I, too, had to crawl around in dark, dampy, dusty cellars to find those diaries.

It was tough to accept that everyone was lying to us by omitting the whole story. And when it finally was possible for authors, who took a tremendous risk in doing it, to use the information, I was elated by their courage. Authors of literary novels 'humanized' these people again and brought the welcome balance necessary to digest our own weaknesses and strengths. They brought the color back into the stories and opened up a wealth of possibilities to young minds. I am forever grateful to them.

This book is not a laid-back, relaxing read for the reader who just want to be entertained by a good story. It will be appreciated by the more serious readers of literature. Like André P. Brink and Ettienne Van Heerden, this author writes in a genre demanding time, patience and an open mind. They were, and are, regarded as authors who grabbed the bull by the horns.

The prose was excellent, but the story itself, although informative, was rendered without high and low points, or even a thrilling element. No excitement. Dull. Sadly. However, it portrayed the everyday lives of all the people very well.

One tiny element in the book that tickled me, is that a missionary had a printing press, but it is never mentioned anywhere where they got the paper from in the 'Godforsaken'African wilderness. I am still curious.

Since I was interested in the book because of the subject and the region it brought alive, I enjoyed it and I am glad that I have read it.

Other books that can be considered in this genre, based on the same region:
The books of Margaret Poland - especially if you're interested in the superiority complex of the British immigrants who thought they did everyone a favor by being here. Her books are very much subjective;
James A Michener's The Covenant (objective and very well researched);
Max Du Preez's Of Wariors, Lovers and Prophets - an introduction to the footnote figures in history presented in short compelling essays. Excellent research done by the author.

Another author who explored South Africa and neighboring countries and wrote mesmerizing travel journals about the history of the places he visited, is Lawrence Green. He wrote his tales around the 1900s to way into the 1970s and did extensive historical research into the earlier periods. He even confirmed an unknown, and very rare, fact about my own family, which only serious researchers could have found. This element in one of his books validated his facts, to me, at least. So yes, I am impressed with the work he has done.

However, this book, Buys - 'n grensroman(Buys - a frontier novel) is a welcome contribution to history as we need to know it. It could have fitted well into the American frontier literature. There is something Cormac Mccarthy-ish to it. Yep, the brutal truth it is.

Profile Image for Paul Fulcher.
Author 2 books1,170 followers
November 14, 2020
Aanskou my: Ek is die legende Coenraad de Buys. Kom, laat ek jou besmet, my erflik belaste leser. As jy hier lees, sien jy wat ek sien.
Behold me: I am the legend Coenraad de Buys.  Come let me contaminate you, my reader of tainted stock.  If you read this, you see what I see.
'Buys: ’n Grensroman' (≈ 'Buys: a Border Novel') by William Anker was originally published in 2014.  The author explains the origin of the novel here: https://www.litnet.co.za/tien-vrae-wi...

The translation from Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns  (also translator of Agaat) was published as 'Red Dog' in the UK by Pushkin Press.
The novel is an imaginative and powerful first-person retelling of the life of the legendary Cape colonial frontiersman Coenraad de Buys (1761-1821: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coenraa...
From the writings of the German physician, explorer, botanist and zoologist Hinrich Lichtenstein (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hinrich...), we have in his "Travels in southern Africa in the Years 1803, 1804, 1805 and 1806" a contemporary account of encountering Buys at the height of his fame, or rather infamy, in the company of the Dutch Commissioner General De Mist (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacob_A...). This is from the 1812 translation by Anne Plumptre (the novel includes both the original German and a more modern translation):

The representations which rumour, too much addicted to exaggeration, had given us beforehand of this extraordinary man, were corrected from the moment of his entrance.  His uncommon height, for he measured nearly seven feet; the strength, yet admirable proportion of his limbs, his excellent carriage, his firm countenance, high forehead, his whole mien, and a certain dignity in his movements, made altogether a most pleasing impression. Such one might conceive to have been the heroes of ancient times; he seemed the living figure of Hercules, the terror of his enemies, the hope and support of his friends.  We found in him, and it was what according to the descriptions given we had little reason to expect, a certain retiredness in his manner and conversation, a mildness and kindness in his looks and mien, which left no room to suspect that he had lived several years amongsts savages, and which still more even contributed to the remove that his conversation the prejudice we had against him.  He willingly gave information concerning the objects upon which he was questioned, but carefully avoided speaking of himself and his connection with the Caffres.  This restraint, which was often accompanied with a sort of significant smile, that spoke the inward consciousness of his own powers, and which was plainly to be read that his forebearance was not the result of fear, but that he scorned to satissfy the curiosity of any one at the expense of truth, or of his own personal reputation, made him much more interesting to us, and excited our sympathy much more than it would perhaps have been excited by the relation of his story.

This novel opens up that restraint, and Buys gives us his own retrospective account of his life. He refers to his narrating self as Omni-Buys, aware of what is being written about him at the time, and also how he will be perceived by historians in our time.

I am omnipresent. I am Omni-Buys. You will find me in many embodiments. You will come across me as itinerant farmer and anthropologist, rebel and historian.  I am a vagabond, a book-bibber, a smuggler, lover and naturalist.  I manifest as hunter, bigamist, orator, pillager, patriot, stone-shagger. I am a warrior and a liar; I am a scoundrel and a teller of my own tale. I am going to blind you and bewilder you with my incarnations, with my omnipotent gaze. I am a bird of passage; I am the wind beneath your wings. Stroke the small of my back and you will know I am no angel. I know you well. I know you can’t look away.
Longlisted for the International Booker the judges cited: " A work that reminds us how translation is a creative force that destabilises linguistic conventions.  A novel of serpentine, swashbuckling sentences that capture the mounting cruelty of the colonial project in South Africa.”

One elephant in the veldt that has to be addressed is the origin of some of those sentences. In the author's afterword, after citing his own historical sources, he tells us:
As far as other quotations, references and rewritings are concerned, Omni-Buys saw it all, read every word.  As he plunders mission stations and cattle kraasls, so he plunders the texts of others far and wide in order to tell his tale.  Should you then stumble across the remains of other authors, notably Samuel Beckett and Cormac McCarthy, regard it as the homage of a scoundrel.

The Beckett influence wasn't so clear to me but the novel definitely has echoes of McCarthy, and in a rather mean-spirited review of the book in the TLS (https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/mc...) the reviewer pointed out that some passages are very close adaptations of passages from Blood Meridian, and suggested (see also https://www.theguardian.com/books/boo...) that these were closer to plagiarism than homage. In a fascinating game of translation tennis, the passages concerned were first translated into Afrikaans by the author, then translated back into English by the translator without referring to the originals.

The translator's own take on the controversy - which also needs translation assistance for English-speakers - is here: https://www.litnet.co.za/willem-anker...

Personally, I think it is a clever device. The passages concerned don't particularly standout from the rest of the prose, so it isn't that the author is (as the TLS review rather suggests) leaning on the quality of McCarthy's prose. Although it would have been nice to have the passages highlighted in the afterword to aid the reader, and I suspect there must be similar, yet to be spotted, clever borrowings from Beckett.
Controversy aside, Buys is a memorably drawn character and, as a narrator, his omni-nature enables him to set the developments in the Cape in the context of the wider world, notably the French revolution:

The words liberté, égalité and fraternité are insubstantial and vague enough to fly over at speed. In Paris, the citizens storm the Bastille in the name of liberty, and on the eastern frontier there’s nothing left but liberty. Indeed, as is always the case with messages that have to travel too far, the French slogans have a totally different look when they arrive, scurvy-ridden and scuffed, in Graaf Rijnet.
Perhaps we can also chop off a few heads.  The devil take equality and fraternity. But liberty sounds like a good idea.

and Buys does largely use the temporary chaos to mistreat some Hottentots without fear of intervention from the authorities. 

But if anything Buys's controversial nature arises from the way he treats all equally - no more a friend of the white settlers than those who have been there longer. Having largely lived with the Xhosa during the 1790s, he returns to live with the settlers in the first decade of the 1800s, but becomes estranged from them when he testifies against a woman who mistreated her slave.

His one true friend is the Dutch missionary Johannes Theodorus van der Kemp (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johanne...) or Jank' hanna as he is named by the Xhosa. And much of the narration explains how we Buys trades on his own unique role as a bridge between the two cultures:
The noose is tightening all the time around this mode of survival, this migration between Christian world and Caffre world.  These shifting alliances are getting even more dangerous, ever more distrusted by both factions.  But on this day at the end of the eighteenth century, I can still survive in the interregnum.  

The English title comes from a pack of wild dogs that follow Buys around for years, originally led by a one-eared red dog (Buys himself bit-off the other ear in a confrontation when he was 12 years old).
My one major reservation with the novel however, concerns the more micro-level plot. The author - or perhaps Omni-Buys - has carefully researched each historic mention or documentary piece of evidence about Buys' life. But at times it feels that each document then has to be included, and the story of how it was written has to be told, so that what could have been a very effective and powerful 200 page character study, becomes a rather bloated 400+ page novel, and I must admit my attention and interest often waned for periods.

2 stars for the reading experience, although I admired the intent.
Profile Image for Abbie | ab_reads.
603 reviews451 followers
March 8, 2020
(#gifted @thebookerprizes) I’m sorry that my first review since the longlist has been announced for the International Prize can’t be more positive, but I’m also glad I read this one first. Surely they can only get better from here on out?
You might have seen that Anker has been criticised for this novel, described in the English afterword as a ‘homage’ to Cormac McCarthy, while a few reviewers think it’s closer to plagiarism than a homage. Indeed, when I started reading but before I looked up the author, I instantly got Blood Meridian vibes, with the main character Coenraad de Buys bringing to mind the terrifying Judge Holden.
Red Dog is a grim, brutal, bloody fictional biography of Buys, a real figure from 18th century South Africa, and really just not my cup of tea at all. Buys is described as a ‘polygamist, swindler and big talker’ and that pretty much sums up the novel. It’s told from Buys’ perspective which is tiring after 100 pages never mind 400. Had I not been reading it to review the whole longlist I probably would have DNFd. It’s all hunting and rape and massacres and horses and nipples and murder and torture. In short it’s a LOT, and although it’s clear Anker has done his research and this is likely a fairly accurate account of colonial South Africa, it’s very difficult to plod through and even more difficult to stomach.
Literature should be challenging, yes, and not sugarcoat or romanticise brutal historic events and usually I have quite a high tolerance for reading about various atrocities. But something about this book just wore me down and the repetition left me feeling restless and even bored at times.
As a translation, however, it is fairly impressive. Michiel Heyns has translated it from the Afrikaans but kept a lot of the language to really transport the reader to the scene (as much as you might not want to be there). The tone is very cold, which serves well to emphasise the brutality of Buys and his life.
I think I would have appreciated learning about this particular period of South African history in a non-fiction account, or even just from a different perspective. As it is, I’m very glad to be finished with it and out of Buys’s head.

Profile Image for Andy Weston.
2,386 reviews140 followers
March 23, 2020
Set at the birth of South Africa in the late 1700s this is the story of Coenraad de Buys; a brigand and survivor, a rapist and a wedded family man with numerous wives and children, a colonist and yet a fugitive, but above all, a revolutionary and a hero. He is a larger than life character, even at seven feet tall, and very much the centre of this epic tale, pushing those interact with him to bit parts - perpetually followed as he rides by packs of wild dogs.
Its part novel, part historical account, with any gaps in official documentation filled with Buys’s vividly imagined daily life.
Reflected in the story is the violence of a country in which life was gruesome, lawless, bestial and short. There’s a fairly detailed history lesson also, especially if (like me) you’ve never covered this in school. Consequently it’s a lot to take, and rarely an easy read, as fascinating as the narrative is as Buys’s life unfolds. It’s 450+ pages are chronologically split into four parts; in retrospect it would have been more appreciated if read as two books of 220 odd pages each.
Profile Image for De Wet.
248 reviews13 followers
March 22, 2019
Coenraad de Buys, jou rowwe bliksem.

Hierdie was vir my 'n boek van twee helftes.

Die eerste 230 bladsye dek rofweg die eerste 40 jaar van Buys se lewe. Hierdie is dan ook verreweg die beste gedeelte van die boek, 'n lekker skop in die maag met heelwat uiteenlopende gebeure om die aandag en verbeelding vas te vang.

Hier so van bladsy 200 af al verander die pas egter en verval die boek al te dikwels in 'n groef van alledaagse sleur. Buys wat nogmaals huis oppak en elders vestig. Buys wat jag. Buys en Gaika se op en afs. Buys wat nog 'n paar meidjies bykom. Buys wat sukkel met sy vroue. Buys en sy mede-rampokkers wat suip en baklei. Buys wat hier 'n stam aanval, daar 'n sendelingstasie. Herhaal. Herhaal. Herhaal.

Ek het my vrek gesukkel om deur hierdie laaste 200+ bladsye te kom. Die storie neem amper die terloopsheid van 'n snelgeskrewe dagboek aan by tye. Uit 'n geskiedkundige oogpunt bly die tydvak en hoe die land en sy inwoners daardie tyd gelyk en oor die weg gekom het interessant, maar die storie en vertelling boei nie meer soos aan die begin nie.

Buys is so 100 bladsye te lank, voel ek, en is 'n boek wat sy troefkaarte te vroeg en te vinnig speel en die leser dan met 'n flou hand tot by die eindstreep probeer bluf.

Ek wil ook byvoeg - 'n kaart wat Buys se omswerwinge rofweg aandui i.p.v. die kaart van die Europese gebied van die Kaap wat wel voor in die boek verskyn (meeste name van riviere en kleiner sleutelpunte is so klein gedruk dat mens dit in elk geval nie kan lees nie) sou baie gaaf gewees het.

(Teen die tyd hoef ek seker nie melding te maak van die feit dat dit hoegenaamd nie vir sensitiewe lesers is nie)
Profile Image for Madri.
212 reviews7 followers
May 19, 2015
“Ek gaan jou verblind en verbyster met my gestaltes, met my alvermoënde blik. Ek is ʼn trekvogel, ek neem jou op vlerke. Streel oor my kruis en jy sal weet ek is geen engel nie. Ek ken jou goed. Ek weet jy kan nie wegkyk nie” (10). Buys: 'n Grensroman is 'n dig verweefde teks, uitdagend, indrukwekkend, grensverskuiwend, eenvoudig briljant.
Profile Image for Waldimar Pelser.
53 reviews38 followers
June 2, 2016
'n Absolute moet. Engelse lesers, hopelik is daar gou 'n vertaling.
Profile Image for Lavi.
260 reviews19 followers
July 4, 2020
So this was definitely a literary journey. I am quite sad and surprised that this book did not make it on the Booker International shortlist for 2020. When it comes to translation and the use of language, this extremely complex, detailed, brilliantly phrased translation from Afrikaans to English, with its plethora of authentic historical words and concepts, including a weird passage in full German, is a much more obvious celebration of languages in their diversity than some of the other entries.

The book itself was one of the most difficult books I have ever read. Small-lettered, detailed to the extreme, written in a genre I am not well-versed in (western), but with such specific day-to-day detail of a country I have fallen in love with but cannot claim to yet known the minutia of. It took a hot minute to get through this book but I recommend it to thorough readers and thinkers. In terms of the violence in it, it is supposed to be extremely violent but since I am not a pansy, I can claim that I have read much more hardcore and graphic books.

The novel presents the immense, bigger than life persona of Coenraad de Buys, an outlaw of the Cape Colony and beyond, in South Africa's confusing 18th-19th century. Wilderness, toughness, violence, clan wars, entirely different groups and ethnicities fighting each other and bleeding the land of its animals, riches and people. And all of this told by Omni-Buys, the character's own omniscient variant. I am into this kind of immense ego trip and am curious to learn more about Coenraad and the wars described here when I return to South Africa.

Recommended to readers who are not afraid of difficult books and who are not brainwashed by modern political and social sensibilities.
Profile Image for Ray  Theron.
49 reviews
May 15, 2021
Based on the life of a man living on the frontiers of the Cape Colony in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Willem Anker's character Coenraad de Buys is, like the original, a larger-than-life man (literally, being almost seven feet tall). He was a man who would fill most modern people with horror, revulsion and repugnance. But then modern people do not have to live the life he had to.

It is not an easy read; it cuts to the bone, minces no words and does not pander to any politically correct sensibilities, but it is a novel everyone who wishes to have an understanding of life in southern Africa at the time when the southward migrating Nguni nations met with the northward-moving settlers of Dutch, German, French and even Scandinavian descent simply must read.

The interwoven lives of the settlers, the Nguni (especially Xhosas) , Khoi and San were filled with cattle raids, counter-raids, punitive strikes, internecine warfare and the mayhem one finds on most frontiers where the controlling hand of government does not yet enforce law and order.

It is against this background that we have to view Buys. But he was also intensely bound to nature, a man who felt most at ease alone in the veld or the bush. Coenraad is a lover of women as much as a lover of nature; he is a leader, charismatic when he wants to be, but also ruthless and strong. His wandering along the eastern and northern frontiers of the Cape Colony more often than not shows him closer to the Xhosas than the whites of the Colony, whom most on the frontier despised. His closest friends are a Khoi and a missionary. Buys is a pater famílias like few others in history, but at the same time he is subjected to the tribulations of living with women like any ordinary man.

Beware that the language is the language of the period. I don't mean that Buys speaks Dutch on the pages of the novel, but the words and terminology he uses are of his time, so if you are offended by words like "Kaffer", Bossiemans" and "Hotnot", you had probably best give this one a miss -- because if, unlike the people who forged the frontiers at the time, your sensibilities are fragile, they will be offended. Anker uses these terms because those were the ones used at the time... and then they were not meant or used derogatorily at all, merely as descriptive, the same as we would even today use words like Arab, Indian or Asian.

If you have the stomach for it, and if you can cope with the almost Joycean (vide Ulysses) style of narration, you will find Buys as entertaining, enlightening and ultimately as emotionally laden as I did. Willem Anker has created an enduring and great work here. No wonder it was nominated for the International Booker prize. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Profile Image for Alistair Mackay.
Author 3 books45 followers
August 11, 2021
It says a lot about American cultural dominance that I’m more familiar with characters from the American colonial frontier (Wyatt Earp, Davy Crockett) than with South Africa’s own Coenraad de Buys. Red Dog is the fictionalised-but-accurate story of Buys, a legendary frontiersman and outlaw of the Cape Colony in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

He was a remarkable character - unpleasant, violent, but fascinating. He moves between the Cape frontier and the areas to the east and north of it, making war, raiding cattle, hunting and trading ivory, taking wives, killing indiscriminately, leading insurrections against the colony. He is reputed to have fathered more than 300 children by various women; none of them white (I’m always up for historical accounts that disprove the nasty racial puritanism that came to define South Africa in the 20th century). Red Dog traces Buys’ whole life from his birth in the Langkloof to his death on the Limpopo and tells it in a poetic, epic way. Through Buys’s story the reader gets to experience the anarchy and violence and cruelty of life at the frontier and during the Mfecane.

It is a hard book, very “masculine” and not the kind of thing I’d normally read, but I found it gripping and illuminating and powerfully written.
Profile Image for Francine Maessen.
599 reviews34 followers
November 29, 2021
Hmmmm I'm not sure. I wonder what Buys' position in South African culture is. Is this book showing the flaws of a 'hero' or the 'nobility' of a bad guy? Either way, I'm not convinced. Buys is just a murdering dick and I don't care that he sometimes loves one of his wives.
What I did like is learning about life in the rural areas of what we now call South Africa around 1800. I didn't realise the violence was ubiquitous, it felt like stories from the 'wild west'.
Profile Image for Jackie Law.
876 reviews
June 17, 2019
Coenraad de Buys was the great grandson of French immigrants who farmed in the Cape area of South Africa from the seventeenth century. His grandfather and then father married Cape Dutch women and had numerous children. When his father died of suspected poisoning, the seven year old boy chose to live with his sister, Geertruy, raising livestock he received from his father’s estate on her husband’s farm. By the early 1780s Coenraad had his own farm and had taken a common law wife of slave descent. He became one of a number of white and coloured people who were on the Xhosa side in the frontier wars against the Boers and then the British. Due to his stature and self-confidence his antics became legend.

Willem Anker has taken the known facts about this larger than life historical figure and woven a tale of day to day living on the raw and brutal South African frontier. As well as Europeans trying to force their ideas of civilisation onto the native population, the warring tribes of indigenous hunters and pastoralists are seeking alliances that they believe will prove advantageous. Cattle rustling is common. Ivory is bartered for guns and ammunition. Women are commodities to be given or taken.

From an early age Coenraad values his freedom. He nurses a hatred for his mother who he blames for his father’s death. He also hates his brother-in-law who regularly beats him until the boy leaves to live elsewhere. By taking a coloured woman as his wife, Coenraad ostracises himself from much of the white community, including his wider family. He struggles to settle to farming with its government mandated laws and expectation of submission.

“A bureaucracy understands maps, not land. A company does not understand war, it flourishes in meetings.”

“The commission does not succeed in persuading the Caffres of the principle of private property”

When farmers mistreat the natives who work for them, complaints can reach tribal leaders who may then have the farm burned to the ground. With the wars in Europe at this time, including the French revolution, there are changes to deal with and growing resentment. Farmers cannot rely on central support so take matters into their own hands.

“all news is half a year old here. It is uncertain who is ruling us”

“The devil take equality and fraternity. But liberty sounds like a good idea.”

Coenraad lives a savage lifestyle and his ruthless treatment of, particularly, the bushmen he encounters is described in distressing detail. Written as his own account of his life, there is occasional acknowledgement that some of the scenes depicted may have been embellished, perhaps to ensure other vicious men remain wary.

“Everybody wants to rule and nobody wants to follow”

“revolutions end up making bureaucrats of the most hardened rebels”

Coenraad befriends a local chieftain and crosses the border to live amongst natives taking multiple wives including the chieftain’s mother. During this period he befriends a missionary to whom he acts as interpreter. He tries settling to farming again but is forced to leave after he testifies against a white women who has been torturing and murdering her slaves.

With no wish to return to the Cape colony, Coenraad, once again, packs up his by now large and complicated family and heads north.

“If the law says a man can no longer be what he is, then it’s time to clear out”

“If you want to start behaving like a free human being, your boss must make you less than human”

Coenraad, not for the first time, has a price on his head. As a result he struggles to trade for ammunition. Empty guns prevent him from defending his cattle. After a lifetime of fighting and periods of feral existence, his aging body is failing.

The story is lengthy and brutal. Coenraad travels around the country, murdering and thieving, taking whatever pretty woman catches his eye whilst expecting his wives to remain loyal. He is base yet a fine orator. He seeks learning whilst meting out death without apparent empathy. His attempts to settle in one place offer him the chance of wealth but his refusal to bow to authority, including that of society and the church, leads to periods when he must fight alongside whoever rules the land he has moved on to.

The narrative pulls no punches in evoking the cruelty and violence of the time and place. The natural beauty of Africa barely merits a mention. Coenraad’s sexual urges are described in detail. All of this adds to the portrayal of a man whose reputation became a part of his currency – a cloak he wears with pride and alacrity.

The structure and writing style work well in bringing to vivid life a torrid country and its vying people. It is not easy to accept how humans and animals were treated but this is a part of South African history and an aid to understanding subsequent issues that still reverberate. Coenraad’s story offers a perspective on complex aspects of European empire building. It is a fascinating if at times gruelling read.
Profile Image for Coenraad.
797 reviews39 followers
July 2, 2016
Die lees van hierdie boek was oorweldigend en asembenemend. Die verhaal loop ver en wyd op die spore van Coenraad de Buys, uit die laat agtiende, vroeë negentiende eeu. Sy paaie het die grense van die Nederlandse / Britse / Bataafse / Britse kolonie aan die Kaap oorskry, asook die grense tussen rasse (wat destyds polities veel strenger was as seksueel) en die grens van die reg. Groter as lewensgroot; daarom ook die lywigheid van die roman. Buys, in sy hedendaagse gedaante van Alom- Buys, 'n teenwoordigheid vanuit die verlede in die hede, fluister sy storie in die leser se oor.

En dis die taalgebruik wat Anker hom in die mond lê, wat die leeservaring so intens en heerlik maak. Sy woorde is tegelyk hard én teer, grof platvloers én poëties, kru (seksueel, rassisties, gewelddadig) én strelend verleidelik. Verslawend, eintlik, sodat die leser hom (skrywer én verteller én karakter) die onnoembaarhede vergewe: die buitensporige wreedheid (maar ons moet seker die bronne glo oor hoe ons met mense omgegaan het wat ons nie werklik as mense beskou het nie), die stroping van die land vir geldelike gewin (olfant- en renosterjag is niks nuuts nie, ons weet nou maar net ons moet keer), die verhoudings tussen mense en binne families wat soms op unieke maniere hel of hemel kan wees.

Uiteindelik die wete dat daar aan alles 'n einde kom, en net rekords en herinneringe bly oor. Hoe sal jy onthou word, en vir hoe lank? Wat moet jy doen sodat iemand oor tweehonderd jaar oor jou 'n roman sal skryf?

Buys en Willem Anker het literêre pryse soos 'n stofsuier aangetrek - elkeen ten seerste verdien. Dit is 'n groot en grootse roman wat lof, aandag en baiebaie lesers verdien. Is dit die Groot Afrikaanse Roman? Dit is sekerlik 'n aanspraakmaker. Maar vir meer variasie en 'n ryker vermenging van tradisies, lees eers André P. Brink se Bidsprinkaan vóór jy Buys ook daardie kroon gee.

Buys is a huge novel (in length, in impact, in its grip on history) about a larger-than-life character Coenraad de Buys. Anker deserves all the praise heaped upon him in the form of reviews and literary prizes: the varied language use (crude and poetic, brutal and enticing) just about hypnotizes the reader and makes one read voracious usly to the end.
Profile Image for Alex Rogers.
974 reviews5 followers
March 7, 2020
Brutal, hyper-masculine, lyrical, infuriating - a hell of a book, best thing I've read from SA for many years. Superb translation from Afrikaans allows it to flow. Not everyone's cup of rooibos, but it's like a magic mirror into SA's dark settler past, and an unflinching look at men, power and frontier life. Exceptional and deeply unsettling
Profile Image for Trisa Hugo.
Author 5 books29 followers
January 25, 2017
Die woestaard, plunderaar, veelwywer, filosoof, hedonis, Coenraad de Buys wat ook saggies met 'n vlieg kon praat en 'n kruiekonkoksie maak om 'n kindjie se gebrande voetjies te versorg, is 'n verskriklike karakter. Ek dink ek is 'n bietjie verlief op hom.
Profile Image for Michael Clark.
117 reviews17 followers
January 5, 2023
Red Dog by Willem Anker (translated from Afrikaans by Michel Heyns) is a merciless, sanguinary novel that vividly captures the cruelty of the colonial project in late 18th and early 19th century South Africa. The novel brims with violence, bloodshed and human ruthlessness, and showcases the toxic masculinity that, in many ways, remains a key feature of South African society.

The novel is a first-person retelling of the life of the infamous colonial frontiersman and renegade, Coenraad de Buys (a figure from the fragments of South African history). To describe Coenraad as unconventional would be an understatement - a larger-than-life (literally he was over 7 feet tall) polygamist, rapist, instigator, colonial antagonist, criminal, father to a chief, Xhosa collaborator, and outcast. He's a complex bellicose figure that finds himself trapped in a web of his own portentous actions in a merciless time. And just like the pack of wild dogs that follows Coenraad for generations grows increasingly feral, Coenraad's wild nature progressively alienates him - from civilisation, from his family and loved ones, and eventually from himself. As Coenraad says: "Maps are as old as mankind. Ever since the first scrawling of the migratory patterns of game on the walls of caves we have been drawing lines and living within them. Every line becomes a knot that tightens around you."

Anker's beautiful prose (and Heyns' translation) expertly brings Coenraad to life - his masculine bravado and charisma is permanently on display, but Anker also offers us glimpses behind the masculine facade. Coenraad's love for his daughter, Elizabeth, and his deep affection for his missionary friend, Johannes van der Kemp, are particularly poignant examples that spring to mind. And while Anker acknowledges Cormac McCarthy as an influence, he is undeniably a unique and fiercely talented voice in South African fiction (admittedly Anker could have done a better job of acknowledging quotes). The novel is also a remarkable meditation on the traumas of toxic masculinity and isolation.

I rated Red Dog at 4 stars. I would have rated it higher but there are times when the ransacking, murdering, pillaging and constantly nomadic movements become a little repetitive. The novel could easily have been half its length and would have been much stronger as a result.
716 reviews6 followers
November 18, 2020
Forgetting that this book has been longlisted for the International Booker Prize, I couldn't get through 20% of this novel when I put it down. It reminds me that movies that were complete trash have won the Best Picture at the Academy Awards or the Palme D'or at Canne. That doesn't make it a good novel. Just because he's Afrikaan doesn't make what he writes any better or worse.

Leaving aside that the novel has been accused as plagiarism of Cormac McCarthy, the author admits that it owes a lot to his book, but when does admiration equal stealing. This book reminds me of a biography I read about Nathan Bedford Forest, a cavalry general on the Confederate Side. He may have been a skilled tactician, but the man was a monster. His troops would blow through towns killing and raping and if people were lucky he didn't burn down the town. He considered anyone on the other side (and some on) fair game.

After the Civil War ended he kept his cavalry together and continued to fight a guerilla war as head and founding leader of the KuKluxKlan. He thought nothing of terrorizing black sharecroppers, burning their crops, raping the woman and lynching the men. He was/is a great folk hero to many in the South to this day. So much like the monster this book is written about. Three hundred years after he spent his life, living his way, he is being absolved of all the horror he did. Well I guess the Nazis and the SS just have to wait another two hundred years to be lauded.
Profile Image for Mel.
108 reviews
May 2, 2021
The life of Coenraad de Buys, quite the character who lived on both sides of the frontier of the Cape Colony in the latter half of the 18th century.

I struggled with the writing style - the language was somehow lyrical yet crude (an odd combination), and at times I didn’t quite follow what was happening. A better grasp of the Cape Colony’s history and the Boer Wars would have helped, which is a reflection on my limited knowledge rather than a criticism of the book. The crudeness and violence got quite repetitive, but I pushed on because I wanted to know what would become of de Buys. What a fascinating person - complex, irascible and very much did his own thing on the fringes of acceptable society. The story of an interesting character, but the florid writing gets in the way - I’d only recommend this if you have a particular interest in (and some working knowledge of) this period of South African history or de Buys.

As a side note, this book sparked a debate around homage vs plagiarism - I haven’t read Cormac McCarthy so can’t add to the discussion, but if this interests you, it’s worth looking up, particularly since this involved the extra layer of translating McCarthy’s work into Afrikaans and then back into English (for the English translation, obviously).
Profile Image for Mandy.
3,123 reviews266 followers
November 20, 2020
This is an original and inventive historical novel of the South African frontier with some very fine writing indeed – but I just couldn’t finish it. The historical background is indeed very interesting and the book is a fictionalised biography of Coenraad de Buys, a remarkable and notorious colonial frontiersman. It takes us from his childhood to his death – but I’d bailed long before that. The problem with the novel for me was that it is so repetitious – murder, mayhem war, killing, atrocities, sexual exploits, extreme violence – on and on and on. Over and over again. Relentless. I found de Buys a totally obnoxious character and had no interest in following him on yet another violent spree. It wasn’t long before I found myself plodding through the narrative and not long after that I gave up the struggle. I think the book does have some merits, portraying vividly as it does this lawless period in history and the tribes and colonisers who fought over the land. But its failings outweighed its merits.
Profile Image for Ashley.
396 reviews14 followers
May 28, 2021
3.5 stars.

Described as the Afrikaans equivalent to McCarthy, Red Dog is the brutal, dark and exceptionally grim fictional account of Coenraad de Buys. Buys, a remarkable figure from South African history, is best described as a larger than life swindler and a big talker with enormous self-confidence.

Taking place towards the end of the 18th century, the novel follows the various atrocities committed by Buys. While his cruel and gruesome exploits make for enjoyable reading, after a while, the book felt a little repetitive. I feel that this novel would have been a lot stronger, if it were around 100 pages shorter.

Throughout the book, the stylistic similarities to McCarthy are quite clear, the cold, almost bestial tone instantly reminded me of No Country For Old Men. The books sharp brutality, along with the fantastic translation work by Michiel Heyns creates an almost explosive reading experience. If this book had an editor to tighten up some sections, it would have been a perfect read.
Profile Image for Jo Birkett.
521 reviews
November 15, 2021
Almost a 5 star but I won't read again so 4.

Set in late 1700s in S Africa, then a Dutch colony, a brutal and violent setting. Protagonist interesting, an intelligent and questioning mind & open to people unlike him but entirely of his setting so himself brutal & violent. I almost stopped a few times as violence sickening - described as 'a continual and continuous war of everybody against everybody' - all factions unthinkingly wiping out all other factions, all viewing each other as vermin and perpetuating cycle of violence, but undeniably interesting time/place & character. And some funny bits.
Profile Image for Abbie.
276 reviews
November 23, 2020
I had a really tough time with this book. As an international Booker Prize long-list, and an author from South Africa (I haven't read any books from authors from South Africa before) I was intrigued. The writing was strong, but I found the narrative to be wandering and the main character completely unlikeable (although I think that was the point). This may be one of those books where had I read it at a different point in time in a different mindset, I may have enjoyed it more. But I did not enjoy reading this book and do not recommend it.

I just reviewed Red Dog by Willem Anker. #RedDog #NetGalley
Profile Image for Elle.
405 reviews1 follower
April 9, 2021
I listened to this on audiobook and it was heavy going. It is set in 18th and 19th century South Africa. Although fictional, this is the story of a man of his time, and what a time of upheaval it was. Brilliantly written, this story is not for the faint of heart, but definitely a great book for lovers of history and historical fiction. I am glad I choose this as an audiobook as I absolutely loved listening to Peter Noble's narration; both he, and Willem Anker's writing put me smack bang in the middle of the beautiful country that is South Africa. I loved it!
Profile Image for John.
41 reviews
January 24, 2023
Probably deserves a better rating than that because the writing was excellent but I grew weary of the story a little more than half way in. It’s brutal and you can’t read it without conjuring up a 100 things that grew out of it and stories like it that shape the world today. The hero wasn’t so much, and his crusade was selfish and tiresome. That he existed in history is not fascinating, it’s commonplace. Again, beautifully written and a history I knew little about, but I have read it and I feel like I got smacked around a bit. Good writing can do that, but I don’t have to like it.
Profile Image for Robert Luke.
40 reviews
November 13, 2018
Really frustrating this book. I loved the storyline, was very interested in the subject, but found myself doing other things rather than reading it? Eventually I realised that I found the style of writing uncomfortable to me. So instead of enjoying the story unfold, I was getting stressed reading it. Sorry, just not my style and so frustrating as I so wanted to enjoy this fascinating part of South African history - crucial you could say.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 50 reviews

Join the discussion

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.