I write this for high school students studying Herman Charles Bosman’s story – particularly for those whose mother tongue is not English.
In order really to appreciate Bosman’s writings, one has to have a good understanding of irony.
So what is irony?
It is a figure of speech, a writing technique, in which underlying meanings are the opposite of surface meanings. The writer or speaker uses words that are the opposite of what is really meant. You get the real meaning by examining the context (situation, circumstances) in which the words are spoken or written. Through irony, a writer creates situations which make the reader see the difference between what is said and what they see. The word “ironic” is the adjective; it indicates that something is the reverse of what is stated.
For example if you see a very skinny person and you say: “I think it’s time you went on a diet,” you are being ironic. You are saying the opposite of what you mean. On the surface you are saying, “you must lose weight” but you really mean, “you need to put on weight.”
Why does a writer use words that mean the opposite of what they express? Reversing the meanings of words and situations makes them humorous and makes you look for the truth. Bosman uses irony to point out in a humorous way the ridiculous contradictions in situations. If you don’t see that he means the opposite of the words he is using, that he is pointing out the lack of logic in situations, you will not understand his intention and you will miss the meaning as well as the humour in his writing.
You have to look at whole situations to see how words express the opposite of what is happening or being said in order to see the humour.
In the first paragraph of Unto Dust, Bosman describes the death of a young girl as something “beautiful and touching ... sweet wistfulness.” Then he presents the reader with a contradictory version in the words “a couple of plain clothes men”, “crude questions” “cattle dip”. These indicate that the death was the opposite of sweet and beautiful. And the whole situation is ironic because the people at the funeral do not wish to face the reality of a horrible death, probably a gruesome suicide. Instead they wish to pretend that because she was young, she was innocent and her death, though unfortunate, was tender and sweet.
The pretence is ironic and amusing. We, the readers, feel superior because we can see the hypocrisy and we laugh.
Then Bosman moves on to describe how happy Andries Wessels is to die because he knows he is going to heaven as he is having visions of “heavenly hosts” and “choirs of angels.” When he describes the angels as having “cloven hoofs” and carrying “forks”, Bosman is showing us the opposite. It is the devil that has cloven hoofs and carries a fork. So Andries is not seeing angels; he is actually seeing devils. That means he is not going to heaven but to hell. His past life was the opposite of what he says it was; he was not a good man who had trodden “a blameless path.” His visions indicate the opposite of what he believes. The situation is ironic because he does not realise that he has confused devils with angels.
His confusion of angels with devils is funny; even funnier is his pretence that he was a good man; but most amusing of all is that he is unaware of how he has confused good with evil [“angels with cloven hoofs and carrying forks”] and his belief in himself as good when he is really sinful. The fact that he is unaware and we, the readers, are aware, makes this what is known as dramatic irony.
After this ironic introduction of attitudes to death, Bosman turns to the main incident in Unto Dust – the story of the deaths of two men, one white, one black.The title, Unto Dust, comes from the following quotation in the Bible, Genesis 3:19: “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” When God made Adam and Eve he gave them everlasting life but when they disobeyed him, he cursed them with death – they would not live forever, they were subject to death. They were made of dust and would become dust again.
Bosman’s story is based on the idea that if we all return to dust then we are all equal in death. But Oom Stoffel Westhuizen, who tells the story of the deaths of the African, a black man, and the Afrikaner, a white man, believes that Afrikaners are superior to Africans so the dust of Afrikaners is superior to the dust of Africans. This belief is what Bosman is laughing at in this story. How does one tell the difference between one pile of dust and another? And that’s what the story boils down to; the ridiculous attempt to divide dust into one pile that is superior and another that is inferior.
The story has two narrators; Oom Schalk Lourens is the narrator of Unto Dust. He talks to the reader and tells us the whole story. The other narrator is Oom Stoffel Westhuizen who talks to Oom Schalk Lourens and tells him the story of Hans Welman and the African warrior who died in the war between Africans and Boers many years before.
Oom Stoffel tells Oom Schalk that he saw the African warrior kill Hans Welman, then strip the body and put on Welman’s clothing. When he saw the African putting on Hans Welman’s clothes, he shot him and the black man’s body fell next to the white man’s body. When the war was over, some six months later, Oom Stoffel with a party of Boers went out to retrieve Welman’s body. All they found was a heap of bones and couldn’t tell which bones belonged to the white man and which to the black man. They all looked the same. Stoffel says, “the little party of Boers spent almost a whole afternoon with the remains in order to try to get the white man sorted out from the kafir.” Eventually they took home what they hoped were the white man’s bones and buried them in a special grave: “ ... we Boers had properly marked out places on our farms for white people to be laid to rest in, in a civilized Christian way, instead of being buried just anyhow, along with a dead wild cat, maybe, or a Bushman with a claypot, and things.” (Bosman at his Best, 134)
Oom Stoffel and the men “felt very bitter about this whole affair.” (136) And their bitterness is really a cover for the fact that they have no idea whose bones they have brought back to be buried and no one dares to challenge them. “They wanted somebody – just once – to make a remark such as ‘in death they were not divided’. Then you would have seen an outburst all right.” (136) [‘in death they were not divided” is from the Bible and refers to the deaths of King Saul and his sons who died together.]
But one night, Oom Stoffel saw the African warrior’s dog on Welman’s grave. It really startled him; he draws no conclusion from this except to say it was strange. Bosman leaves it to us to draw the conclusion. Clearly the dog knows whose bones are in that grave. So the story ends in a superb irony. In the grave lie the bones of the African man buried in “a civilized Christian way.” And we must conclude that Helman’s bones are lying “just anyhow, along with a dead wild cat, maybe, or a Bushman with a claypot, and things.” Of course, Oom Stoffel and his friends will never admit to that.
Unto Dust clearly demonstrates what both Oom Lourens and Oom Stoffel deny – that all people are made equal in death. Both Oom Lourens and Oom Stoffel are people who believe in the superiority of white people and in this story their racist attitudes are shown to be ridiculous. You may be put off by their use of the word ‘kafir’, but you must remember that this how racists express themselves. And in this story, Bosman is making fun of racists.
Herman Charles Bosman. “Unto Dust.” Lionel Abrahams, ed. 1965. Bosman at his Best. Cape Town: Human and Rousseau. 133-7.