To Hell with Cronje
by Ingrid Winterbach
"To Hell with Cronje" by Ingrid Winterbach, Translated by Elsa Silke
A review by Jeanne-Marie Jackson
Two thousand ten might be called a banner year for Afrikaans women in English, if a few fat books can be said to make a banner. Marlene van Niekerk's Agaat won a blurb from Toni Morrison and a review from the New York Times, while a reprint of Begging to be Black by Antjie Krog flew disappointingly under the radar. Somewhere in the middle was Ingrid Winterbach's To Hell With Cronje, published by Open Letter Books back in September in an adroit translation by Elsa Silke. Not to be outdone by the extravagant praise heaped on Agaat, Open Letter brought out the big guns: Winterbach has produced no less than "a South African Heart of Darkness," we're told, "an eerie reflection of the futility of war."
Heart of Darkness, of course, was published in 1902, the same year in which To Hell With Cronje takes place. And to be sure, there are other similarities as well: Winterbach's novel explores the familiar "dark side" of English colonial expansion, and it does it in a chilly, not-quite-accessible way that recalls Marlow's uncanny journey upriver. But there is a pointed irony to the fact that a book about the Anglo-Boer war should be compared to this most famous "Khaki" exploration narrative. Winterbach's is a tale told from the other side, of a people formatively stuck between colonizer and colonized. (She is not alone in this effort: Andre Brink, for example, has made numerous recent forays into white South African vigilantism at the turn of the twentieth century.) While Conrad anticipated the glorious twilight of an empire, Winterbach rests on the tip of an iceberg that's only begun to form.
More to the point, To Hell With Cronje is not an inward-looking novel. Conrad's symbolic descent to inner barbarism is worlds away from this disorienting back-and-forth across an arid, rocky landscape, and Winterbach throws us nothing so merciful as a frame narrative to keep the levels of meaning straight. From the outset (if wandering into a farm can be so named), our focus is more on surroundings than on people. We are introduced to the main character, Reitz, by observing him observing: first a farmer who works in "small, tidy, controlled movements," then "thick sedimentary layers of mudstone and sandstone... with dolerite sills." This English-trained geologist and his traveling companion Ben -- a natural historian -- hardly have time to register their findings before they leave them behind. But in Winterbach's lucid descriptions of evolving terrain, we get a sense of what the Boers were fighting for.
The characters, too, are drawn with impenetrable precision. Once Reitz and Ben find themselves in a makeshift camp erected by a crew of war-scarred misfits (including a black man, Ezekiel, who has been trained to recite Afrikaner history in meticulous detail), there is more opportunity for dialogue. Even when it's just the two of them, though, Winterbach's men of science keep each other and the reader at bay. Their names are often used where pronouns or direct address would dig in deeper: "it's important, Reitz, not to start imagining things at a time like this" or "heavens, Ben, what have we got here?" This is not clumsy writing or stilted historical diction, but a way into the frustrating distance that the novel is about. It is distance from each other, from civilization, from pride and from the things these men are supposed to be fighting for. But most wrenchingly, because this is a book about an event so foundational for Afrikaans culture, it is about distance from the event itself.
Many of the novel's most luminous lines describe an urge to close the gap: in the night Reitz is awakened by "a dark thing that strains, with mothlike furriness and light flutterings." But nostalgia only widens the space between the soldiers and those they yearn for, casting layers of remove between their past lives and present narration (we have access only to loss, and never to the stories that make it sting). When Reitz visits Oompie, an unwashed mystic who lives deep in the mountains and keeps a human head for company, he falls prey to this same sleight of memory. The drugs Oompie gives him to make contact with his dead wife raise only her specter: "Now it is she -- but it is also not she, for one side of her face is flattened, and her eyes are devoid of expression." Though the scenes with Reitz and his widow are magical realism of a sort, this description does not cut quite to the quick. There is nothing magical about a "glance without recognition, without imputation, without longing, without claim," and it might better be called realism as and about mirage.
Eventually Reitz and Ben set forth for home accompanied by the camp's menacing leader, but their journey is cut short by a few bullets out of nowhere. It might be a trap and it might be a "battle" in a war that's petering out; perhaps friendly fire, or maybe English thugs. Whatever the source, it's beyond the purview of either the reader or the men who are struck down. Reitz is left to bury the dead and minister to Ben, who survives only thanks to two women from a nearby farm. This is where Niggie enters the picture, and it's worth noting that Niggie is also the Afrikaans title of the novel. It means cousin, sometimes girlfriend, and Niggie's renouncement of the Boer struggle and the suffering wrought by the war introduce a feminine alternative to its violent reprisal down the line of history. But just as soon as we get to know her -- just as soon as we get into life with Niggie and Anna, with whom Reitz falls in love -- defeat is declared and it's time to move on. This too is reduced to nostalgia, this too consigns meaning to loss.
At the end of To Hell With Cronje, plenty has happened but not much lingers. The slate has been wiped clean, and the dream of avenging its destruction hovers somewhere on the periphery of this provocative and forcefully ungratifying novel. "There is no event," Ingrid Winterbach seems to be pleading, "it is hollow; let it go." So she keeps us from getting inside things, gives us only the beauty of "stars... nearly audible in their teeming presence," and that may not be such a bad thing, after all.
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