BOOKS: Herman Charles Bosman’s Marico Moon
Herman Charles Bosman, one of SA’s most loved and evocative writers, has been given an update. Archie Henderson discovered how
For the past four years or so, publisher Trevor Emslie has included Herman Charles Bosman stories in his weekly podcast and e-mail, the Cape Rebel.
"It has been nothing short of a delight to rediscover the genius of this SA writer," says Emslie in the introduction to Marico Moon and the Afrikaans version, Volmaan oor die Marico. They are collections of Bosman extracts, published by the House of Emslie.
But Bosman country is difficult terrain, much like the Marico bushveld, where the stories are set, or the character himself, who died at age 46 in 1951 from what was suspected to have been either a heart attack or a hangover.
Can Bosman still be enjoyed in our racially polarised society?
Some of his language is offensive, but scholars have usually come to his defence. The renowned late foreign correspondent Richard West said that in modern SA, more than in Britain or the US, there is a "prudery about race relations comparable to the prudery over sexual matters in the Victorian age".
Rhinas Ntshavheni Malinda of the University of Johannesburg says the use of the K-word in Bosman’s Mafeking Road stories was to drive home the point that blacks were being denied the right to exist as fellow human beings. Those stories, it needs to be kept in mind, were written in the 1930s.
"Bosman is the first major SA writer in English to grapple with the thorny issue of racism in a sustained way. He regarded it as his moral duty as a writer to make the reader aware of the race relations issue," wrote Malinda in a dissertation published in 2000.
Emslie believes that Bosman’s use of offensive terms is "invariably an instrument for subtle irony that may well, in these politically correct times, be lost on some who are unacquainted with his work".
He says that "with minor adjustments and omissions, Bosman can be preserved in ways that still faithfully render his literary art without giving unnecessary offence".
Emslie has made those adjustments and omissions, he says, "out of love for Bosman’s writing, not from any sense of ‘improving’ the text" or violating the integrity of the work.
Emslie is unapologetic about the "adjustments and omissions". "I think that by leaving out the K-word we may just have given Bosman a new lease on life," he says in an interview. "Otherwise he would be sidelined for sure." Hence the dedication in Marico Moon to Oom Schalk Lourens, one of Bosman’s great characters from the Marico, "who is alive and well and living in the pages that follow".
The extracts in Marico Moon are taken from Mafeking Road. In that novel the stories are based on Bosman’s six-month "exile" in the bushveld, where the Transvaal education department had sent him and where its officials believed he could do the least damage.
But, according to fellow troublemaker Bernard Sachs, who was a school friend at Jeppe Boys’ High and a fellow student in education at Wits University, "those who can see in Herman’s stories only the Boers of the Marico have missed their essential quality. Technique and imagination are perfectly blended in these stories."
A love letter
Bosman stories have attracted the largest number of hits on the Cape Rebel site and e-mails. The most popular was The Love Potion, which had more than 1,200. Its popularity, however, may be more than mere Bosman, admits Emslie. "One can but wonder why, though it is a lovely story, well told by our voice."
The concept of Cape Rebel began when Emslie, together with two of his children, David and Clare, identified stories that might help them to sell the books they had published.
"A lot of the stories, which we hoped might grip readers’ imaginations, could be gleaned from the books we had already published. This has not been a great success as a book-selling technique (though we do sell some), but we have found the exercise to be such fun that we have continued regardless. Thus it is done as its own reward, not for money," says Emslie.
The stories, in English and Afrikaans, which were first e-mailed to subscribers, became a podcast when a friend suggested that life could be made easier for readers. At the beginning of the year, it dawned on Emslie that the site had produced more than 50 Bosman stories "and that it might be an idea to publish these in a more catholic collection than anything [by him] published hitherto".
He says: "Also, dealing with the Bosman stories for Cape Rebel brought home to me afresh just how brilliant he truly was. Marico Moon contains 60 stories and we have used 65 for Cape Rebel. I still hold out the hope of doing a collection of other stories, when time permits."
Bosman, it has long been said, wrote Afrikaans in English. Now he has Afrikaans in Afrikaans, thanks to Emslie’s former Afrikaans teacher at St Stithians College, Hendrik Jansen, who the publisher believes has brought the "spirit and inspiration" of the writer to the translations and contributed to SA literature.
An extract from Marico Revisited in A Cask of Jerepigo
It was to this part of the country, the northern section of the Marico bushveld, where the Transvaal ends and the Bechuanaland Protectorate begins, that I returned for a brief visit after an absence of many years. And I found, what I should have known all along, of course, that it was the present that was haunted, and that the past was not full of ghosts. The phantoms are what you carry around with you, in your head, like you carry dreams under your arm.
And when you revisit old scenes it is yourself, as you were in the past, that you encounter, and if you are in love with yourself — as everyone should be in love with himself, since it is only in that way, as Christ pointed out, that a man can love his neighbour — then there is a sweet sadness in a meeting of this description. There is the gentle melancholy of the twilight, dark eyes in faces upturned in a trancelike pallor. And fragrances. And thoughts like soft rain falling on old tombstones.
When I first went to the Marico it was in that season when the moepels were nearly ripening [a reference to red milkwood fruit]. And when I returned, years later, it was to find that the moepels in the Marico were beginning to ripen again.