Wednesday, August 4, 2010

"The scale almost ungraspable by the human mind."

To Hell with Cronjé
By Ingrid Winterbach
Translated from Afrikaans by Elsa Silke
234 pages
Open Letter Press
September 15, 2010

"Any icy northerly wind blew for days on end. . . The sky was dull and overcast. The wind whistled and gusted. It was March - almost exactly a year ago. Winter was on its way. The tent was so low that one could stand up straight only in the middle. The grass was nearly flattened by the wind. In the distance the veld was greyish yellow and a muted blue where it met the heavy clouds on the horizon. If our circumstances had been different, one might have called it a scene of picturesque beauty. But I was too down-hearted, and the rain too unceasing - a fine, misty, mournful rain. Every day I yearned intensely for the end of the day, for at least night brought oblivion." (56)

Ingrid Winterbach
was born in Johannesburg in 1948. She received her Masters' Degree in Afrikaans and Dutch and went on to work as a teacher, journalist, and university lecturer. Her first novel Klaaglied vir Koos (Lament for Koos) was published in 1984 under the pseudonym Lettie Viljoen, which she also used for her next four books. She was awarded the M-Net and Ou Mutual Prize for Karolina Ferreira in 1994 and the 2004 Hertzog Prize for Niggie. Winterbach has been writing and painting full-time since 2002.

For its English translation, Niggie has been retitled To Hell with Cronjé in reference to a minor general in the Second Boer War. To many Boers this was the War of Liberation, or Tweede Vryheidsoorlog, fought from 1899-1902 between the British Empire and the independent Boer nations of the South African Republic and the Orange Free State. Following the discovery of gold and diamonds within their respective borders, the Boers faced a massive influx of uitlanders, their name for migrant workers mostly from England. The subsequent demographic shift led to conflict with British expansionists ostensibly concerned with expatriate rights. When President Paul Kruger of the South African Republic (also known as Transvaal) refused Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain's ultimatum for full equality of the uitlanders, a war was declared whose reverberations are still felt in South Africa today. Not only did the Boers lose their independence but the British "scorched earth" policy devastated their agrarian culture. Human rights abuses against both the Boers and black Africans (mainly Xhosa, Bushmen, and Khoikhoi) were widespread. The infamous phrase "concentration camp" was used for the very first time in Western history to refer to the "refugee camps" set up by the British for the civilians whose farms and homes they destroyed.

Lizzie van Zyl was the daughter of a Boer soldier. She died in one of the concentration camps after being deliberately deprived of proper rations. Her story helped activist Emily Hobhouse galvanize the British public against the abuses of Boer women and children.

To Hell with Cronjé is set in the last months of the Second Boer War. A sense of hopelessness is settling in which may be another, unconscious motivation for Reitz Steyn and Ben Maritz to request leave from Commandant Senekal's wagon laager. They are accompanying Willem, a gentle and deeply religious man, on his journey to return young, shell-shocked Abraham to his mother in Ladybrand. Several weeks into their journey, the small group is detained, on suspicion of desertion and treason, by Gert Smal, the leader of a transit camp for those declared unfit for battle. Other residents include Japie Stilgemoed, who can't stop talking; Kosie Rijpma, found wandering in a daze; Reuben Wessels, who is missing a leg; a slow, hare-lipped teen known only as Seun; and Ezekiel, Smal's black servant. The fate of Reitz, Ben, Willem, and Abraham is left to General Bergh, who is said to be a reasonable man. But the long war has taught them that nothing is certain - only the slow passage of time and endurance of nature.

Reitz and Ben, a geologist and a biologist, have bonded over their shared love of the natural world and lifelong preoccupation with documenting its infinite variety. The mute immensity of the South African landscape is as much a character as any of the humans whose bloody skirmishes mean nothing to the ancient rock formations and the perpetual evolution of plants and animals. From Reitz's perspective:
He thinks of the earth and her ages. The scale almost ungraspable by the human mind. The Cambrian and Ordovician periods. The Silurian and Devonian - the age of the fishes. The temperate, humid Carboniferous period, with gigantic tropical jungles and endless marshes. The cooler earth during the Permian period. The conifers and ferns of the Triassic, when the first dinosaurs appeared. The warm Jurassic period, when gigantic herbivorous dinosaurs dominated all life on earth. The soft, calcareous seas of the Cretaceous period. He thinks of lakes and seas forming, mountains and volcanoes. The hot core of the earth - hotter than molten steel. He thins of the formation of rocks. The gradual sentimentation of organic remains that had sunk to the bottom of the sea. He thinks of the earth and her slow processes, occurring over millions of years. He thinks of an earth the size of a grain of sand n the universe. In this way he tries to comfort and protect himself against the invasion of malevolent thoughts. (194-195)
The clash between Reitz and Ben's scientific backgrounds and the obstinate Christianity of their comrades is emblematic of the modernist outlook that was coming into being throughout the Western world at this time. As American writer and naturalist Joseph Krutch later articulated in the essays that make up The Modern Temper (1929), science was unlocking an amoral universe where humankind and its struggles no longer have the cosmic significance that characterizes, say, Hamlet or Inferno. "If, then, the world of poetry, mythology, and religion represents the world as a man would like to have it, while science represents the world as he gradually comes to discover it, we need only to compare the two to realize how irreconcilable they appear," Krutch explains. "For the cozy bowl of the sky arched in a protecting curve above him he must exchange the cold immensities of space and, for the spiritual order which he had designed, the chaos of nature" (6). Reitz, however, is not immune to the pull of the old spiritual order, as seen in his use of a witch doctor's potion to contact his dead wife and interest in omens revealed through dreams. The primary theme of To Hell with Cronjé is not so much war as it is humanity's changing perception of itself in an era of rapid advances in secular knowledge.

To some readers, To Hell with Cronjé may also be reminiscent of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (published as the Second Boer War was ending). I bring this up because the publisher's copy actually compares the the two. But this is more for marketing than anything else: there are other surface similarities in their bleak tone and secondary concern with the exploitation of black natives, but that's pretty much the extent of it. There is further divergence in how both authors portray African itself. Winterbach's veld is still and indifferent and represents the immeasurable eons in which human existence is but a flicker. Conrad's jungle is an active agent, a "thing monstrous and free" (62) that is said to have literally "consumed" Kurtz, "its spoiled and pampered favorite" (81). It should be further noted that the influence of the African wilderness in Heart of Darkness derives from its threatening alienness, whereas To Hell with Cronjé was written by an African about Africans in their homeland.

Moreover, To Hell with Cronjé has no singular Kurtz-like figure (you can maybe make a case for Gert Smal but it's a long shot) and the difference in prose styles is considerable. Ingrid Winterbach is stark but evocative with a vaguely dreamlike ambiance: "While at first he peered eagerly into their eyes, he now stares steadfastly over their shoulders and seems to be directing his words at a spot somewhere behind them - so that neither Reitz or Ben can resist the temptation to steal a backward glance once or twice at what Oompie observes in the distance when he is talking" (37). Conrad, by contrast, has sentences like, "It survived his strength to hid in the magnificent folds of eloquence the barren darkness of his heart" (110). Generally speaking, the two books are really quite distinct from one another.

Both novels do reintroduce women into their all-male cast towards the end, and it is here in its final 1/4 that I think To Hell with Cronjé starts to drag a bit as Reitz and Ben spend too long with a Boer family. Still, I found To Hell with Cronjé to be a haunting, lyrical, and ultimately heart-breaking meditation on war, friendship, and faith. It also includes a great deal of historical information that many readers will find educational, especially since the Second Boer War is so little-known in North America. Strongly recommended.

Review Copy


Amy said...

I know very little about the Boer war so this would be really interesting. It is going on my wish list.

All I know is that at my local government building in Canada there is a statue commemorating those that went to fight. I am of Dutch descent (grandparents are from the Netherlands) and my ex was of British descent. When we walked by he always used to say something stupid and gloating about having won :P

E. L. Fay said...

When we walked by he always used to say something stupid and gloating about having won

Ugh, that's horrible. I'm mostly Irish and apparently the Irish were sympathetic to the Boers as fellow victims of British imperialism.

Between the Boer Wars and the Mau Mau rebellion, Britain sure has a bad track record in Africa. Although the Belgians had Congo and all kinds of awful stuff happened there too that inspired HOD.

JoAnn said...

This sounds so interesting. I'll bet my husband would love it, too. He did a paper on the Boer War in college, has visited SA a couple of times, and has a collection of Boer War artifacts in his office. On to the wish list it goes...

E. L. Fay said...

Hmmm, it looks like more people know about this war than I thought.

Anyone with an interest in the Boer War, or just SA in general, would definitely enjoy this book. It's full of great information and it's very well-written.

Related Posts with Thumbnails