If two books can be said to constitute a trend (or even the whiff of a trend) then we might just be in the midst of something of an Afrikaans literary boom. First came Agaat, the new novel by Triomf author Marlene Van Niekerk, published by Tin House Books in May and hailed as a modern masterpiece by, among others, the American Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison. “I was immediately mesmerized,” Morrison announced on the book’s cover. “Van Niekerk’s achievement is as brilliant as it is haunting.” And Agaat is, indeed, startling—a rich, polyphonic South African As I Lay Dying, in which the second half of the twentieth century is teased out in the fraught relationship between an ailing Afrikaner and her house-servant, Agaat.
This month To Hell with Cronje, by Ingrid Winterbach, takes us a step further back in South African history to the final, dying days of the Anglo-Boer War in April 1902. Perhaps less formally inventive than Agaat,To Hell with Cronje nevertheless strikes a live nerve, capturing a defining moment that forever affected the Boer view of the world. “Those times, those things, everything we’ve lost,” one character laments about the days before the war. “The sound of the wind. The exact sound. When it comes over the hills at the back and passes around the corner of the house. The sound that surrounds you day and night, like a blessing. That I miss, and that we’ve lost.”
Well, it’s more than just the wind that is gone in the war-ravaged landscape that Ben Maritz and Reitz Steyn, two soldier-scientists, set off across to deliver a young shell-shocked comrade named Abraham back to his family farm. Nothing is as they remember it—homes have been torched, loved ones have been shunted off to British war camps, and Afrikaner men have melted back into the land in small, last-gasp commando units. It is an apocalyptic vision made all the more harrowing by the stark beauty of the Karoo, observed in its every detail by Ben and Reitz, who spend their days annotating the rock formations, insect and wildlife they encounter. Their surroundings practically sing to them: “From lower down the river the fizzing zt-zt-zt of the yellow weaver, the cry of the red bishop bird on the wing and loud whistles of the sparrow weaver are clearly audible. In the distance they hear baboons barking.”
No less stirring are the names of the battlefields that ring out in the nightly stories told around the campfire by Gert Smal and his band of war casualties with whom Ben and Reitz are waylaid: bloody reminders of trauma and defeat such as Dwarslêersbos and Magersfontein and Droogleegte (where young Abraham witnessed his own brother’s death). These place names echo throughout the book and penetrate the dreams of both Ben and Reitz, as their desire to reconnect with the dead grows ever more feverish. To Hell with Cronje is a grim, dark, unrelenting book—an exhaustive survey of the sensations of war, from headlice and crippling thirst to grief, suffering, and madness. While it may seem curious that Winterbach has chosen to revisit such an old historical wound at a time when many South African writers are just beginning to come to terms with the recent past, it is clear that the memory of the Boer War continues to wield a powerful, outsized hold on the Afrikaner imagination.