restricted access The Smell of Apples, Moby-Dick, and Apartheid Ideology
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Modern Fiction Studies 46.1 (2000) 207-226

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The Smell of Apples, Moby-dick, and Apartheid Ideology

Rita Barnard

II. Authorial Projects

Ideology and the Complicity Novel

Mark Behr's novel The Smell of Apples, first published in Afrikaans in 1993, has been described as an autopsy, a meticulous dissection of apartheid's moldy corpse (Morphet 226-27). But for a reader like me, who grew up as a child of the Afrikaner elite in exactly the same period as the children in the novel, it is more like a haunting, an uncanny encounter with nearly forgotten, yet instantly recognizable shades and echoes. The stale notions and phraseology recited by the novel's young narrator--for example, "the Communists will use pop music to take over the Republic" (67), "a Volk that forgets its history is like a man without a memory" (38)--are as intimate to me as the names in the parade of faded celebrities that the novel resurrects: Pierre Fourie, Glenda Kemp, Eddie Barlow, Mitzi Stander. They greet me as familiars--Mitzi's tragic car crash, Louwtjie Barnard's broken heart, John Vorster's détente, the Rapportryers! It all comes back, across an ocean and across the even wider gap of the English translation. 1

Behr's novel offers a veritable compendium of the sayings, stereotypes, and justifications that made up the everyday banality of apartheid. It analyzes the system's ideological workings in a knowing and remarkably claustrophobic fashion. The narrative traces a closed circle. It starts [End Page 207] with a list of the names and nicknames the young protagonist's parents have given him ("Marnus," "my son" or "my little Bull," "my little piccanin" [1]); it ends with the narrator's acceptance of these identities and of his position in the racist, hyper-masculinist society that these names simultaneously construct and express. This fatalistic effect is augmented by the novel's dual temporality. The main narrative, set around Cape Town in 1973, is interrupted by a series of fragmentary scenes narrated by an older Marnus and set in 1988, during South Africa's secret war in Angola. These scenes inform the reader early on that the narrator will end up a professional soldier, like his father before him. Any hope that he might come to reject the lessons he ventriloquizes so cleverly is thus foreclosed. Moreover, the novel's crucial revelation of an Afrikaner father's pederasty--and, by extension, of a generational violence perpetrated against apartheid's ostensible beneficiaries--does not bring about any enabling knowledge or resistance. Even though the narrator confesses a few pages before the novel's end that "nothing is the same any more" (193), that perception is repressed in his final and infinitely sad insistence that "[i]t's a perfect day, just like yesterday. One of those days when Mum says: the Lord's hand is resting over False Bay" (200). Closed off, as it were, by that weighty patriarchal hand, the novel conveys a kind of moral airlessness that may be new in South African writing.

The point is readily illustrated when The Smell of Apples is set against what Lars Engle has called the "complicity plot" ("Outrageous" 5ff; "Political" 107), an important, if not predominant genre in South African fiction of the last decade of Nationalist Party rule. Like The Smell of Apples, novels of this genre offer an account of the ideological and repressive workings of the apartheid system (or the "Empire," in the case of J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians), but they tend to do so in the course of a narrative of conversion. An excellent case in point is André Brink's A Dry White Season (1979), perhaps the first important example of the genre to be written in Afrikaans. While Brink's novel might be criticized for its melodramatic engagement with the secrets of the torture chamber (its cliff-hanger chapter endings sustain a prurient narrative drive), it is undeniably sharp in its satirical moments. Brink effectively exposes the mechanisms by which various typical Afrikaners--the headmaster...