These reviews cannot be gentle, either.

A review of […], that was abandoned mid-way, by Wemar Strydom

 

In 2000, I was in grade 11. It was getting late, and a bunch of us were waiting for our parents to pick us up after a sokkie. No alcohol had been served, but we were still bouncy from the moments-ago presence of garish lights, enjoying the last residual heat from subjecting our bodies to two, three hours of those somewhat peculiar langarm moves so beloved by my people.

Still, it was only late August, and chilly. My sister – nearing the end of grade 9 – and I, and some of our friends, huddled in gentle playfulness around the single working street lamp outside the main gates of the school.

Sometime after 22:00, a white farmbakkie screeched past us. A meter or so behind it, in peculiar fashion, an object bounded along, leaving a dark ribbon on the tar; a deer carcass, perhaps, that must’ve slipped off the back, we thought. (As most of us had grown up on farms, we had little naivety about what a carcass looked like.) Maybe a dog got stuck in some rope trailing behind the bakkie, someone wisecracked. We laughed, uneasily.

The next day, we were again in town, this time for a ceremony or march of some sort. (Small town white SA was awash in ceremony, and much pomp, in the late 90s and early 2000s.) The two or three times I saw my sister that day, she was crying. (I didn’t ask her why.)

You are letting the side down, I remember thinking at one point. At seventeen, I was already a dick; ‘being gentle’ was not part of how I went about in the world.

**

These are not gentle people, by Andrew Harding, is set around the peri-urban areas around Parys, of […] In effect, Harding’s volatile narrative could’ve been set anywhere in the Free State.

**

My people are not gentle.

I grew up in the highly farmable areas around Kestell, and my family has tilled the Oos-Vrystaat soil for just over half a century. “Till” is an intentional misnomer; white Afrikaner farmer-ness is a carefully curated and mediated simulacrum that meant to obscure Black labour (mostly on starvation wages), the homestead (gendered, stocked with ammunition), and the billowing, screeching machinery of exploitation – the gigantic harvesters and unlubricated milking-machines (bought on debt).

After a stint in HF Verwoerd primary school in Parys, I attended Afrikaanse Hoërskool Sasolburg. (Do look up the geography activated here; the movement in time – 1983 to 1997 to 2001 – and geography across the Vrystaat.

Even when whiteness bestows privilege in monolithic blocks and flows, in so many ways, whiteness isn’t singular. A somewhat collaborative whiteness in the Eastern Free State, hardens, as you move closer to Gauteng, into something more rigid. By the time you reach the Vaal Triangle, and the industrial wasteland of Sasolburg, Vanderbijlpark, and Vereeniging, whiteness has moved just far away enough from farming territory, and from the agrarian lifestyle, to have remembered, willed for themselves, a new, reductive identity – erroneously nostalgic about farm life – distinctly without Blackness or guns or machines.

**

Harding […], asserts that the novel isn’t fiction, as such. Still there’s much to be made of how reviews of the text read like that of a novel.

I teach a second-year module on the plaasroman at NWU’s Potchefstroom campus (53,6 km from Parys). What strikes me is how many conventional plaasroman tropes I read into Harding’s non-fiction novel. (He’s clearly read Krog’s non-fictional accounts, which feature family farms around Kroonstad, and perhaps Galgut’s revisionist takes on the genre, but his novel also resonates with other instances in, for example, late 90s Eben Venter. Do read These are not gentle people next to Foxtrot van die vleiseters, I dare you.)

Many reviews of the novel also tend to focus on elements we’d normally find foregrounded in a review of a plaasroman: a collapse of metonymy and metaphor in the references to seasonality; an acute awareness of the eco-relational and of nature as both space and place; overly-baroque landscape descriptions. (Ed Stoddard’s review , as one example, start off by lauding Harding’s eye for “stunning natural beauty”, discusses the prose, which “is as evocative as the natural settings that serve as the backdrop […]”, then ends the review on a quote from the novel: “By late April, the rains had moved on. The sky would be a flawless blue dome for months now.”)

In a sense Harding moves away from plaasroman conventionality by attempting to paint Parys as a microcosm of raciality in contemporary SA; [quote from novel]. When pressed on this in an interview , he appears candid: “I may have exaggerated! But I think that in a small town like Parys, you can see South Africa’s history, and its divisions, carved like geological strata into the landscape. And Parys has perhaps more strata than many rural towns – tourism, prosperity, small industry, poverty and all the rest of it – in a very small area.”

(I invariably think of the last few times I had visited Parys: I spent New Year’s eve, 2016, in ‘Legends’, the only night club in Parys’ small, but weekend-busy CBD. Despite being ugly-drunk for large parts of the evening, I remember thinking how jarring it was that the only Black people there were two cleaning staff. Also, in early 2019, my then-primary partner and I stopped at Koepel bakery, one of the local ‘touristy’ spots, on our way from Potchefstroom to Sasolburg. There were two patrons in the queue, both white farmers, openly carrying handguns, holstered but visible. They were there to buy toasted sandwiches, and it was just after midday.)

**

Lest we forget, Harding (here) makes it clear that this is a non-fiction novel, and not reportage: “I visited all the key scenes, relied on the recollections of those involved, transcribed about a million words of interviews and testimony, relied on my journalistic experience and chose a style of writing (not using quotation marks, for instance) that, I hope, made it clear to readers that this is a nonfiction novel rather than the purest, strictest reportage.”  […] resonated with how Harding, in fascinatingly adept circular-recursive fashion, keep returning different narrative strands to the central incident.

I can agree. Reportage of court cases is a bit like a review of a novel (selection, framing, argument, examples), and the proliferation of news sources allows the reader to construct a version of events akin to a narrative:

A white South African employer charged with dragging his black employee to death behind his pickup truck on 25 August 2000 has pleaded not guilty to murder. […]

The 45-year-old […] says he cannot remember what happened on the night that Mosoko “John” Rampuru was physically attached by a length of wire to the back of […]’s pickup truck, and dragged to his death through the streets of Sasolburg.

[…], a 34-year-old tyre-fitter, said he knew Mr Rampuru as a “gentle man who was quiet and always ‘took’ […]’s verbal abuse without hitting back”

[…] said […] acted normally when they found him. He smelt of alcohol. […] Photographs taken of his office showed an empty glass and a bottle of brandy on the desk. A fire extinguisher was lying on the floor. […] Asked by […], for the state, whether the fire extinguisher may have been used in the attack, […]said he doubted it, as it was too light. […] pleaded not guilty to murder, saying he could not remember the incident. […] He contends that mixing alcohol and sedatives, […], had caused his memory loss.

[…] described […] as a gentle, non-violent man, adding they had known each other for 30 years. “He’s a people’s person, honest, and helps where he can. He gets along well with his workers. But he can also get very excited and swear when he gets angry. He has never used violent (sic).

[…] said that in all the years of apartheid he had never heard of any crime as vicious as this. “John understood whites. He communicated with them well. He’d spent time with them since he was young. He was a big guy because he used to be a boxer but he was the gentlest man you could imagine. He spoke Afrikaans. I cannot imagine that he somehow put a foot wrong on Friday night.”

Arguing in mitigation of sentence, […] told the court his client had acted in a “moment of madness”. Evidence showed that he was not a violent person. He had lost everything as a result of the event.

[…] had to leave Sasolburg because the crime was perceived by the community as racially inspired […]

**

Observe the ease with which we can pull quotes together, creating a narrative swirl around the words gentle, gentle, gentle, gentlest. Then observe the gentle ease with which the opening frame of this response makes Mosoko Rampuru’s death into the story of my sister and I. Black victims stay, as they so often do in texts of Afrikaner-whiteness’ performative atonement, simply that: victims.

At least Harding, who doesn’t identify as Afrikaner, attempts to break this ease, this comfort, by initiating a set of narrative parallels that […]

It is interesting, then, that reviews of his novel flatten this successful recursive modality into mere questions about ‘neutrality’ (perhaps not helped by, when, at the end of the narrative, the author’s note describes a “brief, deliberate piece of choreography – my attempt to demonstrate to all those involved in this case that I am not taking sides, that I’m talking to everyone, publicly.” 247).

While I’m more interested in Harding’s framing of ambiguity, not neutrality, as at the heart of reportage on South African trauma (“I could embrace, rather than shy away from, the ambiguities at the heart of the story I was trying to tell.” ), I do wonder how authors manage to stay convinced of the tempting factuality of ‘not taking sides’, even when whiteness and authorial perspective and focaliser bundle together?

The novel is framed as about corrosive whiteness, but is also instantiated in – and through – whiteness. How many more novels about farm violence need to be written, and published, and read, and reviewed, with the white perpetrator(s) as focaliser?

The author’s note ends on an final observation – on face value perhaps jarring in its reduction of South African lived experience – about the “book’s heart, its unspoken chorus – a small reminder that in this inspiring, frustrating, fractured country, it is possible for two or more realities to co-exist, to orbit each other, and that wounds – old and new – can only heal properly when we make the effort to recognise, and to acknowledge, someone else’s truth.” (250) If this suggests that white trauma and Black trauma is in some way equal, or can be made to signify equally, in a country ravaged first by white injustice and then by white apathy, we must be ungentle and say that this is patently and observably and viscerally not so.

But, still, to his credit, Harding, with a clarity and an articulation that belies no misgivings, declares himself both neutral and not: “I don’t pretend to be an entirely neutral observer. I’ve tried to give everyone their say and not to pass judgement on – for example – the verdicts. But I’ve shaped and edited the material to draw out certain points and themes, and, perhaps, to hint at things that shocked or angered me. Objectivity is a bit of a myth anyway, isn’t it?”

**

Yes, here I’d agree: objectivity is, indeed, a bit of a myth.

Harding’s novel is, of course, not about the brutality that made a man tie Mosoko Rampuru to the back of his bakkie with a piece of wire, nor is about what my sister and I, and our friends, had seen. These are two different events, two parallel stories, if you will. But this cannot obscure the un-ambiguity, the un-neutrality at the ‘heart’ here: there are too many stories like this, like mine and my sister’s and Mosoko Rampuru’s.

These are not stories. These are the events – visceral, concrete, as lasting as a dark ribbon on tar – that actually happen. And through which Afrikaner-whiteness fuels its billowing machines.

For this reason, I am so tired of attempting to write an objective review. Because these many stories overlap so much, and so often, I have no intention left, anymore, to even try. And more, still: It is not possible anymore, dear editor, not when it becomes a review of my ungentle people, when my life itself comes to resemble not a novel but rather – the sudden realisation of it arrives during my morning run, and it makes me retch, bent over double with mask in hand next to the side of the road – a review.

Whoever at Picador Africa decided it a sound idea to add “a true story” to the cover of Harding’s novel? Because, if you knew. If you only knew, dear reader, how true these stories are.

And if I allow myself to remember, or – fully, un-self-medicated or un-drugged or sober – to experience, in the light of day, how much aversion each successive family Christmas (or birthday or funeral or graduation) on the family farm accrues in my mind, like layers and layers of loam, or silt, I’d take my father’s 3006 or his Winchester 270 and walk out into the veld outside Sasolburg and look up into the dawn and with genuine regret but so, so much relief open my skull to the light of the polluted, early-morning Free State sky.

 

But it must be said: I won’t. Even with this year, and this book, and this review. And I, also, will not end this review on such a thought. For reviews, it seems, must be gentle, even when everything else has ceased to be.