BOOK REVIEW: Majestic novel uncovers the hidden history of a forgotten war
Oppressive with heartbreak, Damian Barr’s book ‘You Will Be Safe Here’ bears witness to the horrors of war
This is the story of how the value of a single life is weighed, and what that says about a nation’s collective morality.
You Will Be Safe Here has its genesis in the relatively recent heinous killing of 15-year old Raymond Buys at the Echo Wild Game Rangers paramilitary camp near Vereeniging. It’s straightforward to retrieve, online, the shocking photograph of the comatose boy in hospital days before he succumbed to 60 injuries sustained from repeated beatings over 10 weeks in 2011.
It takes a fraction longer to search web archives for photographs of British concentration camps during the Anglo-Boer War at the turn of the 20th century. The images are dull, grainy but starkly clear in their awfulness: emaciated women and dying children, riven by disease and starvation. The older boys, at death’s door, often appear like Buys.
In unravelling 120-year-old connections, Barr has written a harrowing, uniquely SA story with universal resonance and relevance.
The plot starts with the fictional diary of Sarah van der Watt, an Afrikaner woman whose husband is on commando in 1901. She is left to tend the farm and look after her young son, Fred. Soon, the British come. They destroy everything as part of their scorched-earth military tactics and imprison Sarah and Fred in a concentration camp near Bloemfontein.
Hunger and humiliation ensue. Sarah is driven to desperate acts when Fred falls seriously ill, writing in her diary to her husband, “Samuel, I begin to think you might never read this, which is perhaps for the best. I couldn’t bear for you to witness my shame.”
About 48,000 civilians died in these camps, significantly more than battlefield deaths. This history is documented, but Barr imagines it in a way that hammers home the empire’s evil side: the ruin of lives and livelihoods, the degradation and brutality.
The second plotline starts in 1976, through the perspective of a different generation of Afrikaner women. Rayna Brandt fears revolutionary danger in a changing nation, but, as was Sarah, she is a courageous and practical single mother and forges a modestly rewarding life in the “new SA”.
Thirty-five years later her ragged edges have softened into a deep love for her grandson, Willem, which he reflects back in his gentleness, sensitivity and openness to millennial attitudinal shifts.
On a school trip to the Boer War museum, Willem suffers the humiliation of losing bladder control. “Piss-moffie”, taunts the class bully, echoes from younger years when his father caught him dancing to Britney Spears, catalysing abandonment.
So his crass stepfather decides Willem needs toughening up, and he is sent to the New Dawn paramilitary camp where a “general” will make him a man. But even the brutes are scared: as the gates close on Willem, the General is on the walkie-talkie. “Veilig?”, he demands to know.
Barr propels readers to the inexorable conclusion and then astounds with a “did I read that right?” denouement. The two tragic family stories, a century apart, are bridged with fragments of physical history — earth, bone and bloodlines — and filaments of memories, encapsulated when Willem sees remnants of Sarah’s diary during his school’s visit to the Boer War museum.
But the novel’s profundity lies in its more oblique connections. Less transparent than the trail leading from concentration camps and scorched farmland to apartheid, to Afrikaner ultra-nationalism and to the attitudes that caused Buys’s death, the book drip-feeds a gnawing, nauseating nuance through its peripheral black characters.
There are trickles of humanity in Sarah’s musings about her servants, Lettie and Jacob, but she largely ignores them. Later, she stresses fleetingly about their fate in the separate concentration camps for black internees. In reality, the conditions were even harsher: 20,000 black prisoners died, uninvolved but entrapped in a war which worsened their suppression.
“I wanted to show the centrality of characters like Lettie and Jacob. They had to work extremely hard on the farms, and they raised the white children. They were essential to white people’s lives, yet their stories are of no interest to them. It’s crushing,” says Barr.
Exquisitely, then, the most powerful character is ultimately the black female judge presiding at the trial of the New Dawn murder accused, the General. Her backstory, too, has intricate subtleties reverberating from the first part of the novel.
You Will Be Safe Here is almost oppressive with heartbreak in conveying the consequence of aggrandising geopolitics intertwined with unthinking or cruel personal actions. It’s a provocative novel — from the separate perspectives of two countries. Of SA, Barr says, “I understand why the history of the Struggle must be taught, but not why stories of other suffering has been erased.”
As a Briton, he was dismayed by his research discoveries: “We glory in the two world wars, when the British were the good guys. So when I uncovered this hidden history, I was shocked.”
The Anglo-Boer War is largely forgotten, overtaken by more seismic wars, more significant events and changes in SA. It’s a footnote in history, long since lost to living memory and no longer taught in academic curriculums.
Raymond Buys, too, has faded from the news. “We choose what history we think is important, and what stories we think deserve to be told — and which people are important,” says Barr.
He utters a heart-rending comment towards the end of our discussion: “I would have done anything to save Raymond Buys, but of course I couldn’t.” But by choosing Buys’s story, threaded with colonialism’s contemporary reverberations, he has written a majestic novel that bears witness to the horrors of any war and the ongoing traumas of a peace without reckoning and remembrance.
“In today’s world, making a choice to be a testifier, a witness, is confronting for the reader — but morally, we have to do that,” Barr enjoins.