In 1888, the De Beers company began marketing the diamond as a must-have symbol of love, commitment and status, creating unprecedented demand. But their diamonds, although beautiful, were harvested via aggressive mining operations that have left a legacy of pain, crime and destruction.
Perhaps not unlike a sparkling diamond on an outstretched finger, alluring despite its origins, Matthew Gavin Frank’s Flight of the Diamond Smugglers: A Tale of Pigeons, Obsession, and Greed Along Coastal South Africa is a work of strange beauty born of personal tragedy. Frank and his wife Louisa’s sixth miscarriage set him on the path to this book—an often unsettling, thoroughly researched, poetically expressed mélange of memoir, historical analysis and philosophical meditation.
Frank writes that the couple “feared all this love we had inside of us would ever remain stupidly, perfectly unrequited,” so in 2016 they went to Louisa’s birth country of South Africa to hold a memorial at the Big Hole, a former diamond mine and historical site that was a frequent destination for her family. The author became fascinated by the Big Hole’s origins and the history of mining in the area, including the pigeons that have been used as tools of thievery.
The narrative’s path is not linear; instead, Frank follows the flow of his prodigious curiosity. He interviews mine workers and corporate staff, muses on human failings and fragility and develops a friendship with a boy named Msizi and his pigeon, Bartholomew. Msizi smuggles the bird into work sites, covertly affixes diamonds to Bartholomew’s feet and sends him aloft. Frank observes their relationship with a sharp yet sympathetic eye. It’s a relationship of function, fondness and unease under the threat of punishment were they to get caught. Frank also tries to contact Mr. Lester, a shadowy figure known for his cruelty and power who may be behind the disappearance of diamond smugglers like Msizi. Is he even real, and will he allow himself to be found?
Suspense builds as the pages turn. Betwixt and between, there’s much to marvel at, from the far-reaching aftermath of diamond mining to the ways old memories have a hold on us. Readers will empathize with Frank’s efforts to process his grief and with Diamond Coast residents’ search for glints of hope in a grim desert. Through it all, pigeons soar in the sky and alight on the ground, offering companionship, a particular set of skills and thought-provoking fodder for metaphor.