Book Reviews HERMAN CHARLES BOSMAN: UNTO DUST

HERMAN CHARLES BOSMAN: UNTO DUST

 

Herman Charles Bosman: Unto Dust, 1963, Cape Town: Human and Rousseau (Pty.) Ltd.

A. WOMEN IN THE STORIES

‘That playful irony of Bosman's, that sly, mocking, humorous Afrikaner intelligence'[1] makes Herman Charles Bosman's stories hilarious and hugely entertaining.  Comedy arises from perceptions, attitudes and interactions between men.  When Schalk Lourens, the narrator of most of the stories, goes courting, humour lies, not in his interaction with the young women, but with their fathers. Men are presented in all their quirkiness as amusing and generally lovable.  They are open and honest in their beliefs, attitudes, prejudices and even in their subterfuges which are quite transparent.  The humour that attaches to men is hearty and warm. But women are outside of humour. Unlike men, their innermost desires and thoughts remain unexpressed and hidden. Not being open and easy to read, women are susceptible to distrust and suspicion. Women's actions are not playfully ironic; they are involved in the bitter ironies of the struggle for freedom. 

1. FORWARD WOMEN

Pink Roses and Brown Water 

Magda Burgers  

In Pink Roses and Brown Water, Schalk Lourens, still a child, visits a pig farm where he experiences a moment of wonder at the profusion of roses growing near a little brown brook.  The beauty and perfume of flowers he has never seen before leave an indelible impression of joy and well-being in his heart.  

Years later, as a young man, he comes to a farm where he meets Magda Burgers to whom he is immediately attracted and begins frequenting her home on the pretext of trying to understand why he needs to vote for Magda's father, Willem, in upcoming school elections.  In the course of these visits he tentatively begins to make his intentions clear and Magda does not discourage him.  Then one day two young farmers, the brothers Van Breda, come to discuss the purchase of pigs.  Willem, who has never allowed Magda and Schalk to be alone, goes off with the Van Breda brothers.  Schalk takes this opportunity to pour out his heart to Magda and shares his most poignant experience of the roses.  Magda tells him that this is the very farm of his boyhood memories, takes him to the spot where the roses still grow in abundance, slips away from him and goes to the barn, to her father and the Van Breda brothers.  And it is déjà vu; he hears Magda's voice among the men's just as he had heard the voice of the previous farm owner's wife resounding among the men's when he was a little boy.  That wife's intrusion into the men's conversation was ambiguous.  So is Magda's only in a different way.  She does not side with her father but with the visitors and her disloyalty is both to her father and Schalk, who is forced to acknowledge that Magda is in pursuit of one of the Van Breda brothers, the one with the cleft in his chin. And Schalk loses the delight of a long cherished childhood memory; now the ‘roses clambering over the wire-netting shed no heady perfume.'  (27)

Magda is presented as devious and unreliable.  She uses Schalk's tender reminiscence as a means to pursue her own objective.  And as her behaviour reflects on the behaviour of the previous farmer's wife, she seems to symbolise the perfidy of women in general. 

Seed Time and Harvest

Martha Steyn

Martha Steyn has an affair with a church elder and has his child.  Jurie Steyn accepts the child as his own and a special bond develops between him and Kobus, whom he believes to be his son.

Cometh Comet 

Maria Englebrecht 

Maria Engelbrecht has an affair with an insurance agent who suddenly leaves for Cape Town.  Then the Engelbrecht family trek away to the north to find water for their animals.  Ocker Giljan, the bywoner, decides to remain behind. But when things become too difficult on the farm he goes off to join the Engelbrecht family and makes a proposal to Maria's father. Just as Joseph married Mary, Ocker Giljan, Maria's father's bywoner, offers to marry Maria and become a foster father to her child. The appearance of the comet marks the birth of the baby. 

2   MANIPULATIVE WOMAN

The Wind in the Trees 

Sarie van Biljon

Gerrit van Biljon goes to great trouble to plant a row of blue-gum trees for his wife Sarie whom he courted under a blue-gum tree. The trees will take a few years to shoot up and about twenty years to reach their full height. He plans to spend his afternoons with his wife and children under the blue-gums, perhaps read a book but mainly to rest.  After eight years, the trees are almost up to their full height.  Schalk sees Sarie and her youngest child sitting in the shade of the trees, and assumes that ‘Gerrit van Biljon rested as peacefully under the withaak by the foot of the koppie at the far end of the farm.'  (99)  Gerrit's was a labour of love but he didn't get to enjoy the fruits even in death.  It seems the planting of the blue-gums at Sarie's insistence - a seemingly romantic scheme probably cost her husband his life. In the end her husband gets to rest but not under the blue-gums.

3.  FRUSTRATED WOMEN

Graven Image 

Louisa Wessels

This is a hilarious tale but not when looked at from the point of view of the woman in it.  Louisa Wessels, who was being courted by one young man, is being forced into marriage with another, Karel Nienaber, whom her parents consider to be a more appropriate match.  When she sees a wood carving of Karel, Louisa is made painfully aware that she does not love him but she is trapped.  The carving, however, presents her with a way out of her predicament.  Schalk Lourens, narrator of the story, knows that the Bechuana do not make graven images of themselves as these can be used as voodoo dolls.  To get rid of an enemy one simply makes an image of that person, sticks a knife through it and allows the symbolic death to cause the actual death.  Although Karel, Schalk and others laugh at the ways of the local African people, they secretly believe in such occult powers.  When Karel gives the image that has been carved of him to Louisa, she sticks several rusty nails into it and after he finds it in the kist with her trousseau, he quits her and the bushveld and goes to work in Zeerust.

Marico Moon 

Annie

In Marico Moon, as in Pink Roses and Brown Water, an event from the past has a sad echo in the present.  Petrus Lemmer who accompanies his sister's stepdaughter to a dance behaves in an outrageous way at the party getting drunk, insulting the women and spilling peach brandy on Dirk Prinsloo. He is either thrown into the dam or falls into it and is put on Schalk Lourens's cart to be driven home. As Schalk and his passengers, Petrus, Annie and Dirk, ride along through the cold night, Petrus Lemmer voices his disapproval of parties and hides under the pretence that nothing untoward has happened at the one from which they have just come.  Annie, however, contradicts him sharply and points out unequivocally that he spoiled the party.  He dismisses her remarks, ‘It is no use arguing with a woman,' he explained.  Women couldn't understand reason, anyway.'(69)  He insists that he was at the dance for Annie's sake.  ‘He said that if he hadn't been at the dance he would like to know what would have happened.'(69) But Annie's sharpness indicates great frustration at his having been there.

Petrus then tells the story of a dance where he first saw Grieta and thought he was in love with her. Annie interjects, ‘Then did you go and meet Grieta, Oom Petrus?' ... ‘By the third withaak,' ... ‘Under the moon?' (72)  It is clear that she has heard the story before.  Petrus says he did meet Grieta and in the moonlight suddenly realised that he felt nothing for her.  According to Petrus, Grieta simultaneously realised that she wasn't attracted to him either.  When the cart stops at Dirk Prinsloo's house, Dirk turns as he gets off and says to Annie, ‘It's funny,' ... ‘this story of your uncle's ... It's queer how things like that happen.' (73) As Schalk, Petrus and Annie continue on their way, Schalk thinks he hears Annie crying. It seems that she has been through a similar experience as Grieta but in her case she is not indifferent to the young man, presumably Dirk.

Petrus, an overprotective relative has not allowed Annie the freedom to make her own choices. His attendance at the dance for her sake has made it impossible for her and Dirk to find each other.  He has, so it seems, interfered with and vitiated her efforts. 

4. DECEIVING WOMEN

Dopper and Papist  

Gertruida Reilly  

In Dopper and Papist, Schalk Lourens, the narrator of most of the stories, is travelling with a Predikant and an Ouderling to a meeting of the synod of the Dutch Reformed Church.  On their way, we hear in the discussion between Predikant and Ouderling, consideration of ‘abstruse point(s) of religion' (10), i.e. dissatisfaction with tithes, ways to coerce an official into making an appointment of the Predikant's son, and condemnation of the conversion of Bapedi to Catholicism with its ‘idolatrous form of the Papist Communion service.' (9) The travellers, bound by the church tradition of prohibition, invent a subterfuge, all are aware that it is a subterfuge, that allows them to drink up a bottle of brandy to ward off the cold.

Then they arrive at the home of Gertruida Reilly, ‘a sweet Dopper girl turned Papist.' (31) Gert, the driver of the cart, and Schalk are astonished when the Predikant asks them to stop there for coffee.  When Gertruida opens the door, she is glad to see them as her daughter has a snakebite wound and she has sent for a priest to pray for the child.  She had thought she was opening the door to the priest but the Predikant has arrived first. The Predikant agrees to pray for the child in the Catholic way.  He tells his companions that Gertruida ‘does not understand that I have no authority to conduct this Catholic service for the sick.'  (34) So he is conducting a prayer to save the child but the prayer will have no efficacy. The Predikant is a pragmatist, and it is clear that he allows himself a great deal of latitude below the rigid surface of dogma. 

Gertruida, like Magda, in Pink Roses and Brown Water, is portrayed as a betrayer of her people.  She has followed her heart and abandoned the Dopper community.  Ironically, the Predikant is not averse to stepping out of Dopper propriety into Papist ‘idolatry.'  His willingness to conduct a Papist ceremony, though frowned on, is not regarded as betrayal, merely a minor lapse. Schalk begins to ‘wonder if, in not knowing the difference (between Protestantism and Catholicism), a Bapedi really was so very ignorant.' (34)

Peaches Ripening in the Sun  

Mimi van Blerk

Peaches Ripening in the Sun is set in the time of the Second Boer War. Schalk and his companions have joined a commando that rides off to do battle with the British. But Schalk is nervous, ‘...my horse was such a mettlesome animal ... far more anxious to invade Natal than I was.' (62) Schalk rides along with Ben Myburgh, newly married, who describes his bride Mimi van Blerk, a girl with ‘full red lips and thick yellow hair.'  In her letters Mimi urges him ‘ to drive the English into the blue grass - which was the name we gave to the sea' (62).  When she sent him a box of dried peaches, Ben spoke of his ‘orchard of yellow cling peaches' (62) and he reminisces about standing there with Mimi, taking in the scent of ripening peaches.  Ben is young and optimistic.  He knows that after the war he will go back to his lovely young wife and his flourishing peach orchard.

But when they return from battle, Ben finds his farm in ruins and the shock of it causes him to lose his memory.  Soon afterwards the men in the Commando are captured and are being marched off to imprisonment on St Helena.  As they march through Nylstroom, they pass concentration camp graves of men, women and children.  The men of the commando honour the unknown dead who died faithful to the cause.  As they pass the hotel, they see a young girl ‘with full red lips and yellow hair ...  leaning on an English officer's shoulder.' (65)  ‘It's funny,' I heard Ben say, ‘but I seem to remember, from long ago, a girl with yellow hair, just like that one.  I don't quite remember where.' (66) The pathos in his statement condemns Mimi van Blerk as a shameless traitor, but fortunately, she, like the people in the grave, remains unknown to him. Mimi, a perfidious woman, is safe on the arm of the enemy while her traumatised husband is being marched off to imprisonment. 

The Traitor's Wife 

Serfina Roux

The traitor in this story is Leendert Roux who deserts his Commando and goes over to the British.  When Apie Theron, the veldkornet of the Commando announces that they will camp for the night on Leendert's farm, the men threaten to burn down the farmstead but the clatter of the horses' hooves brings Serfina, Leendert's wife, to the door.  When they see her, the men are beguiled and feel drawn to her.  She reminds them ‘of the Transvaal ...  with the dawn wind of early winter fluttering her dresses about her ankles.'  (88) When they settle down to sleep, Schalk dreams that she comes to him in the dead of night. His dream is broken when the men are suddenly awakened and the commando rides off to the farmhouse to capture Leendert Roux, who has come to visit his wife just as Apie Theron had predicted. When Serfina comes to say goodbye to her husband, she is again seen as a symbol of the Transvaal.  ‘And I remembered that it was the Boer women that kept on when their menfolk recoiled before the steepness of the Drakensberge and spoke of turning back.'  (91) Serfina seems a heroic figure but, ‘I thought how strange it was that Serfina should have come walking over to our camp, in the middle of the night just as she had in my dream.    But where my dream was different was that she had reported not to me but to our veld-kornet.' (91) And we are left with the question: Is she a heroine or just an unfaithful wife?  Is the Traitor's wife also a traitor?  Her action is ambiguous.  Did she act out of a sense of commitment to her people or was she simply following her own inclinations?

The Affair at Ysterspruit  

Ouma Engelbrecht

In The Affair at Ysterspruit, old women are shown to be just as unreliable as young women.  Ouma Englebrecht boasts of her son, Johannes, whom she says died a hero at Ysterspruit.  She refuses to recognise that he was fighting on the wrong side.

4. WANTON WOMEN

My First Love 

Lettie de Bruyn  

Lettie de Bruyn is the object of Schalk Lourens' love.  Being a rather reticent lover, however, he cannot make much headway.  He finds it difficult to express his feelings ‘my tongue wouldn't come loose,'  (39) and in My First Love, he is very awkward, spilling his coffee and making a fool of himself.  Though he travels with Herklaas Huysmans to Drogedal to visit the De Bruyns, he is so occupied with his own desire to impress Lettie that he fails to notice what is going on.  Even when Huysmans moves out every weekend to stay with the De Bruyns, all that concerns Schalk is his desire to find a pretext to visit the De Bruyns to see Lettie.  He cannot go simply to see Lettie.  When Huysmans goes back to Pretoria for the school holidays, Schalk is still looking for a pretext to see Lettie.  He finds it in the Nagmaal Fees where he and Lettie meet.  But he finds her changed, ‘Lettie de Bruyn had learnt too much.' (41) He understands then the significance of Huysmans weekends at the De Bruyn farm.  He is disappointed, ‘I walked under the stars, overwhelmed by the age-old sorrow of first love.' (41)  Schalk sees the changed Lettie de Bruyn as forward; she is the one who initiates their meetings at the Nagmaal and flirts with him. He is disappointed because she no longer seems a virtuous woman.

The Clay Pit 

Johanna Greyling

Johanna's hair, that was of a wanton colour, yellow, not unlike the colour of a hangman's rope if you were to tease out the ends. (113)  This is a line that condemns Johanna right at the beginning of the story.  An elderly couple, Bertus Pienaar and his wife, adopt Johanna from an orphanage in Kimberley.  After his wife dies, Bertus becomes an abusive parent, beating Johanna mercilessly.  She runs away to Diederik Uys but Bertus brings her back. When Bertus begins to build a clay-pit, he makes Johanna tread the clay, ‘the skirts of her print dress raised high, Johanna Greyling tramped in the red clay.' (116)  Soon after, Bertus is found murdered ‘with his face pressed deep in the hardening mud'. (116)  But that ‘caused less stir than the fact of his having made his adopted daughter tread clay.'  Everyone blames Bertus and sympathises with Johanna, who runs away to Kimberley after the murder. When Diederik is arrested for the murder six months later, everyone believes he was justified and hopes that he will get off with a light sentence.

But when Johanna is called as a witness, attitudes change completely.  Johanna comes back from Kimberley, ‘a painted strumpet', not ‘a girl who had only two print dresses which she washed until they were threadbare.' (119) The community forgets the abuse, condemns Diederik and he is sentenced to be hanged. If the reader is still left with sympathy for Johanna, it is dissipated when Schalk makes us aware that Bertus's abuse of Johanna was mad frustration.  ‘Of course, Johanna Greyling knew at first hand that it was not she who had crossed Bertus Pienaar in his desire for her.  She knew that it was his advancing age and not her virtue that stood between Bertus and his passion.   ... her adopted father (had) wielded the sjambok ... in the rage of impuissance.'  (120)

The murder and the abuse are in the end both excused; it is the woman's ‘wantonness' that is considered the greatest crime.

5. FICKLE WOMEN

Old Transvaal Story

Alie du Plessis

The story of a husband who murders his wife is an old Transvaal Story, a legend.  Gideon Welman marries Alie du Plessis, a woman whose ‘feelings for him were not on a plane of ecstasy - were not in the nature of a romantic passion.' (112)  It is déjà vu as Welman re-enacts the murder as though under the spell of the ghosts of the past. He it seems had no choice; his fickle wife had rekindled the old Transvaal story.

The Stile 

Wanda Rossouw

Wanda commits her heart to one man, but dallies with another.  She meets Piet Human regularly at the stile in the fence between his farm and her father's farm.  When he tries to carry her over to his side, she tells him of her love for Gerhard Oelofse and Piet leaves the Marico.  He returns twenty years later, finds Wanda, who has not married, waiting at the stile. He speaks to her again, again takes her in his arms, and is again pushed off.  Wanda has been waiting, but not for him. 

6.  PRETENTIOUS WOMEN

Romaunt of the Smuggler's Daughter: 

Jemima Oosthuizen  

Jemima is the daughter of Gerrit Oosthuizen who successfully smuggles cattle over the Bechuanaland (Botswana) border and becomes rich in the process.  So he buys a piano for his daughter and then sends her to a finishing school in Zeerust.  He wants her to rise above her circumstances presumably so that she can make a good marriage. ‘He had sent her to the young ladies' seminary at Zeerust in order that she should gain refinement and culture; instead she had come back talking poetry.'  (58/9) When she returns from Zeerust her mind filled with poetry and romantic literature, somewhat like Don Quixote, she is no longer satisfied with the lads in her community who cannot appreciate poetry or do not behave like knights in shining armour.  She becomes quite alienated from her circumstances and when the constable comes riding up to the farm to issue a warrant for her father's arrest, she sees in him her knight errant.  Some believed that her father's lawlessness had nurtured in her nature the desire for heroic romance. But her flight into fantasy, like Don Quixote's, represents her desire to escape the mundane circumstances of her life and reveals her as yet another woman, trapped by soical norms. 

The Selons-Rose 

Marie Dupreez

Marie Dupreez is sent off to Europe to cultivate her voice after her father discovers diamonds on his farm.  When Theunis Dupreez realises that the diamonds are not a deep vein, Marie is brought back after six months.  She is then invited to give a concert to show what she has learned overseas.  She sings opera arias that the local people find boring so they take over the concert and sing boere liedjies.  She criticises the locals for their parochialism, the men for their endless talk about cattle diseases and drought, the women for their constant complaints about sand in the goods from the Indian store and the habit of a young woman to wear a selons-rose in her hair to indicate her interest in a young man.  She seems frustrated and unhappy until Joachem comes to work at the farm.  Joachem has no interest in opera and elevated conversation; but he understands the significance of a selons-rose.  Then she puts a selons-rose in her hair and happily speaks of the sand that the Indian puts in the sugar.  Like the diamonds, her immersion in European culture, was only on the surface. With the arrival of Joachem, she returns to the old ways.

7.  WEAK WOMEN

The Home-Coming

Malie Moolman

The Home-Coming is a story of abuse beautifully told through a consideration of different kinds of laughter.  Malie as a young bride whose, laughter was free and clear and ringing   ...  that was in strange contrast to her eyes ... which were dark (76).  Her laughter diminishes over the years and then stops altogether when her husband leaves her to live with ‘the Woman of Zeerust.'  But she continues to be a faithful wife, runs the farm and sends him all the cash that he demands of her.  Eventually he suffers a stroke and returns to Malie and when she sees that he is paralysed, her laughter rings out again, gay and silvery ... its infectious echoes ringing through the farmyard. (78) Through the progress of her laughter we are made to infer how she suffers and then is victorious in the end.

Sold down the River 

Hannetjie Roodt

Andre Maritz's acting company takes a dramatic adaptation of the novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, on tour and find they have constantly to readapt it to suit the understanding of race relations in Afrikaner communities. Hannetjie Roodt who plays the woman, who is sold down the river, eventually leaves the show when Andre Maritz becomes interested in Deborah van Zyl who takes over Hannetjie's role.

The Brothers  

Tant Alie  

Tant Alie Lategan is the mother of Doors and Lodewyk Lategan, the brothers who hate each other.  Tant Alie is described as ‘an aging woman with no force of character,' ‘simpel' (44) and taciturn.  She comes from a family of sheep farmers in the Cape and that makes her an outsider in the cattle farming community of the Marico.  Her son Lodewyk apparently inherited ‘a full share of his mother's weakness of mind.' (46).  Tant Alie is thus associated with the callousness of Lodewyk, a drunk and laggard, who plots to kill his brother Doors.  When, at the end of the story, one brother kills the other and no one knows who is in the coffin, she does not want the coffin opened; she does not wish to know which of her sons is dead.  She has in effect lost both sons and does not want the living one pursued.   She is presented as a weak, ineffectual woman trapped between two violent sons but no one really knows her. 

CONCLUSION: MYSTERIOUS WOMAN

The women in Unto Dust, are shown to be devious, controlling, deceiving, wanton, fickle, pretentious and weak.  Driven by their libidos, they either break or attempt to break with customs and traditions. They desert the men to whom they have been promised; they desert their religion, their community and even go so far as to embrace the enemy.  Schalk Lourens, the narrator of the stories, is filled with dismay at their behaviour.  He is a conventional Boer and unlike the women he describes, he does not challenge tradition. As a matter of fact, he is shown to be shy, reserved and unable to express or show his feelings. He is bound by custom and does not take liberties of any kind.  In his great respect for parents, he seems to be wooing them rather than their daughters. It is not surprising, therefore, that he disapproves of forward women, the ones on whom most of his stories focus. There are a few tales of women who conform to society's expectation that they honour and obey: Malie Moolman, Hannetjie Roodt and Tant Alie who do not challenge, are trapped and suffer as victims. 

Women, in general, are regarded as Eves in the Garden of Eden; they are not to be trusted, are lascivious, follow their instincts and, therefore, have to be subjected to strong social controls. Their aberrant behaviour justifies strict restraint and when they do not honour the norms and values of their communities, they are repudiated, in subtle and not so subtle ways. These women are intriguing and despicable at the same time.  Like criminals, they break rules.  Men do not break rules; they merely bend them. Their deviations from the norm are not made obvious because they are hidden and disguised (cf. the incident with the horses in Dopper and Papist). Their use of subterfuge denotes guilt and contrition for breaking rules and actually demonstrates unquestioning acceptance of community values.  Men, therefore, are redeemable; they may deviate from norms but they never abrogate them. Their actions are simply pranks that can be laughed over and forgiven. But women's actions, flagrant challenges that show disdain for accepted customs, are associated with underhandedness and betrayal.  In Funeral Earth, Schalk says of a group of approaching Mtosa women: ‘We took our guns in our hands and stood waiting.  Since it was women, we were naturally prepared for the lowest form of treachery.' (178)

Why are men simply naughty boys while women are traitors?  Or perhaps one should ask why men, in general, conform more readily than women?  Is it that things are black or white for women, but in many shades of grey for men?  The differences between men and women, as feminists have indicated, stem from the fact that women live in patriarchal societies. The rules by which they are expected to conduct their lives are based on the perception of them primarily as procreators upon whom depend the survival of the species and the purity of the line. So they have to be protected and treated as dependants. But women are not children and in Unto Dust, they want their independence and they cling to their right to follow their inclinations.  They do, however, pay for it: one is murdered, some are treated with contempt, and others ostracised. 

Oom Schalk represents the voice of the community, but does he represent Bosman's view of women.  Is his ambivalence, Bosman's ambivalence?  Oom Schalk takes for granted the patriarchal society and women's traditional roles. He is not capable of understanding that women can feel trapped or need the freedom to express themselves as individuals. So he is confused by them and regards them as capricious and a complete mystery.  By presenting rebellious women through the conservative eyes of Oom Schalk, Bosman makes clear the ambivalence of society towards women and deepens the irony in his stories.  Though the women's liberation movement has changed many of the notions that persisted in Bosman's time, ambivalence towards women remains.  It has taken new forms but it is still there.  Men still regard women as enigmas, still regard them as instinctual beings, as changeable and unreliable - as though these characteristics are not common to men as well.

In the stories that are not narrated by Oom Schalk, the narrator is a teacher and writer as Bosman was.  The view presented of women is not different from that presented in the other stories. Should we accept that this is the view of Bosman himself.

In a TV programme, Purim: The Joyous Mystery of the Hidden and the Revealed, the story of Esther, who saved the Jewish people from extermination, the narrator refers to Esther as a woman of mystery.  She had gone into her dark side and hidden her true identity until her people were in peril. At Purim, Jewish people wear masks and costumes to hide their identities or to proclaim what they wish to be.  The narrator speaks of each individual as composed of both dark and light, or animal and divine - an acknowledgment of the mystery of all human beings, male and female. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about the enigma of being human in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Freud's theories are based on an understanding of human behaviour that reflects the conflict between id and ego that arises from the sex drive.  The unique combination of reason and instinct  in a human being makes  each human being a riddle.

B.  AFRICAN PEOPLE IN THE STORIES

The K-Word

The characters in Bosman's stories are in the habit of using the k-word when referring to African people.  The use of the word is a faithful reflection of the times in which the stories are set.  It was in common use and reflects the taken-for-granted attitude of superiority.  It was a time when being human meant being white. Bosman subtly turns Boer perceptions of Black inferiority and ignorance against the Boers themselves.  The characteristics that they ridicule in African people, are shown to be their own characteristics (of which they are not aware), projections of their own ignorance on Black people.  When you read Graven Image you read about a highly talented Black artist who makes superb woodcarvings that Boers recognise for their marvellous accuracy, unaware that they admire them for their artistic merit.  In The Kafir Drum, you read of a highly successful and effective system of communication with a code of sounds that most white people found too difficult to comprehend.  Bosman, paradoxically, makes us appreciate the tremendous skills of Africans through the Boer attempts to denigrate them.

Unto Dust

In Unto Dust, Bosman shows that despite all prejudice and discrimination, a human being is a human being whether Black or White.

Graven Image

In Graven Image, Schalk laughs at a Bechuana woodcarver and is in turn laughed at by the reader.  Schalk's description of the woodcarver's work is a masterpiece of paradox.  He believes he is denigrating the work of the woodcarver but in actual fact is praising it for its superlative quality.  The images are such accurate portraits, that the people whom they depict are immediately recognisable not only for their features but also the body language that individualises them.  Though Schalk laughs at Black people's use of images as voodoo dolls, he nevertheless shows us that Afrikaners believe in voodoo as well.  Though the attitude to Africans is that they are inferior, there is real, though unconscious, appreciation of their skills.

The Kafir Drum

The lead into the story, The Kafir Drum, is the significance of the drum in Africa and there is genuine regret that this form of communication will give way to the telegraph and other modern forms of communication.

Funeral Earth

In Funeral Earth, the Boers have razed the village of the Mtosas and are lying in wait to destroy the villagers but they have no idea where to find them.  Eventually, the Boers come out of hiding into the veld thinking that the Mtosas are hiding in the open.  While two Commando leaders are conferring, they suddenly see a line of Mtosa women moving towards them. Their leader Ndambe compliments the Boers in terms that the Boers find ambiguous. Then Ndambe offers the gifts that the women are carrying, animal skins, elephant tusks, beads, slaughtered animals and beer.  The final gift is a pot of earth and the Boers are confused.  The title of the story indicates that the gift is as ambiguous as the compliments.  The Mtosas are shown to be a people of subtle intelligence.

C. STORIES OF MEN CONFRONTING THEMSELVES

The Picture of Gysbert Jonker

Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray is the inspiration for The Picture of Gysbert Jonker.  In Bosman's story, however, it is not the portrait that takes on the character of the man but the man who attempts to liken himself to the portrait.  Gysbert Jonker's uncanny resemblance to a farmer portrayed on a tobacco bag makes him want to become that farmer. He dresses like him and adopts his stance.  When he sends a picture of himself in the pose of the farmer to the tobacco company, he receives ‘a life-sized enamelled picture (of the farmer) ... painted on a sheet of iron.... I nailed it to the wall of my voorkamer.' (145) As he grew older he tried to keep up with the image in the picture.  When the tobacco company unexpectedly changed the picture on the tobacco bag to a springbok,  he took down the picture and used it to ‘repair a hole in the pigsty.'  (146)  And after some time the picture became a battered representation of a farmer and that is when Gysbert began to resemble the picture again and this story to resemble Oscar Wilde's story of a portrait that took on the ugly image of a sinful man.

Gysbert, an ingenuous man, flattered by the portrayal of a look-alike farmer in an advertisement, evokes a sympathetic and understanding response. Despite the cajolery that accompanies his attempts to be the farmer of the advertisement, his great disappointment and his decline as a result, reveal him to be vulnerable, human and subject to the vicissitudes of life.

A Boer Rip van Winkel

Bosman's lead into this story is a consideration of what makes a good story.  A Boer Rip van Winkel is one of the stories that do not have Oom Schalk Lourens as narrator.  A writer tells it.  Bosman?  The narrator ruminates on the art of storytelling. The story of Herklaas van Wyk, the Boer Rip van Winkel, has a huge hiatus of twelve years, the time during which it is claimed that Van Wyk fell asleep in a hut. The story, therefore, consists of his participation in the Boer War in 1902 and then his riding out again in 1914, believing that he is fighting the British, that this is still the Boer War and not a rebellion against the Union.  But his appearance, with his long white beard, his Mauser and his warhorse, is an inspiration to the rebels.  Despite his confusion, or perhaps because of it, he seems a hero; he represents the fighting spirit of the Boers and is a symbol of the robust courage, commitment, dedication and perseverance of Boers.

Bosman's representation of men is, in general, sympathetic.  They are presented as ingenuous, good-hearted, well-meaning individuals with a great capacity for humour, for tolerance towards each other and a genuine spirit of camaraderie.



[1]William Plomer, Foreword Unto Dust, p. x

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0 #4 Contesa 2011-09-13 08:20
I am going to write an assignment discussing the role played by an unreliable narrator and Character analysis in two stories by Herman Charles Bosman "Unto Dust" and "Funeral Earth". Plz help, give me a clue. I dont know how to start.
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0 #3 melissa 2011-04-20 14:01
Ihave to do a speech for my final exam oral mark on how bosman uses humour in "Willem Prinsloo'S Peach Brandy" and "Unto Dust".
i was wondering if you could help? personally i dont really find any humour in "Unto Dust" but in order to get a mark, I have to.
please please help asap
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0 #2 Muthal Naidoo 2011-04-05 11:08
Leon, I am very sorry but I cannot help you. I suggest that you try one of the Afrikaans filmmakers, maybe even Leon Schuster. Filmmakers are generally aware of what is happening in their field.
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0 #1 Leon de Lange 2011-04-04 16:56
I am looking for a copy of the movie: The picture of Gysbert Jonker - Where would it be possible to obtain this movie? My contact nr: 0731154792
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