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' 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
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 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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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'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.
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.