Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Mark Behr's "The Smell of Apples" (spoiler alert!)

Behr's debut novel is less about South African society than it is about an Afrikaner family. Sure, it records, through the eyes and ears of eleven-year-old Marnus Erasmus, such horrific events as the burning of a colored child for a petty theft, the virulent patriotism of the whites who believe themselves beleaguered and bereft by blacks, the manuevers of the political elite against international isolation, the unremarkable day-to-day prejudices of a master class towards its servants (one of the most telling incidents occurs when Marnus' mother could not give the last name of her long-serving housekeeper while attempting to visit the latter's burnt son in the hospital).

Still, rather than a dissection of a society, the novel is a portrait of a family, and its most remarkable figure is that of the patriarch, square-jawed, strong-shouldered General Johan Erasmus. Lover of culture and country, big-game hunter, marlin-fisher, ocean swimmer, the General also loves little boys, a secret revealed with devastating effect when Marnus discovers his father forcing sex on his best friend, Frikkie. Devastating, not to the country, but only to Marnus who idolizes his superman-father. The closeted pedophilia may symbolize the hypocritical oppression of society at large, but, within the compass of the novel, has no social repercussions. It falls, however, on the son, like a bomb.

But what kind of a bomb is it? My-dad-is-a-faggot? My-pop-is-a-pedophile? Not either, but crucially both: my dad loves little boys but does not love me.

Marnus loves his dad. He appreciates his mum's beauty and pities her for giving up her operatic career for husband and family. He even begins to like the prettiness of little Zelda, the poor white girl. But Marnus loves his dad with all his heart. A crushing episode: after struggling with a sand-shark on his fishing line for what seems like an eternity, and then losing the fish, Marnus hears his father say, the shark beat you. But his love is more than the desire of boys to live up to paternal standards; it is suffused with longing, as when he watches dad and mum dress for an important dinner. He sees his mum dressing:

She stood in the front of the mirror, slipping her long golden earrings through the holes in her earlobes. She tossed her blonde hair to one side, and pushed the tiny hooks through, first left, then right. She was wearing the long purple evening dress she'd had designed specially for the occasion by Elsbieta Rosenworth. It was Mum's first real designer dress since she and Dad were married.

but he undresses his dad with his eyes:

Dad was using Oupa's [grandfather's] old shaving brush to lather his chin in quick little circles. The handle of Dad's shaving brush is inlaid with ivory from the bottom ends of tusks of an elephant that Oupa shot next to the Ruvu in Tanganyika. The tusks are mounted on either side of the fireplace in our lounge. Dad's hair was combed back with tonic. Even though my hair is still fair, I know it will go dark like his when I get older, because on Uncle Samuel's photographs and slides of Tanganyika, where Dad is still a boy, you can see his hair also used to be light.

I watched Dad in the mirror, and I wished I was old enough to shave. The shaving cream always smells so fresh and strong. Because Dad is six feet tall, he has to bend forward to see into the mirror. The razor crossd his chin and slid down close to his white collar. I watched it closely, and every time it went down I wondered if a drop of bright red blood might appear on the stretch of cleared skin. Dad's chin is almost completely square and Mum says you can know by just looking at it, that a man with a chin like that should be in uniform.

Unlike in the mum passage, the narrator inserts the desiring subject "I" into the dad passage: I watched. . . I wished. . . I watched it closely. . . I wondered. And in desiring the love-object, the narrator identifies himself with "Mum." To say "a man with a chin like that should be in uniform" is a form of erotic fantasy.

In the novel, Marnus does not recognize his sexual attraction to his father, not even in the flash forwards depicting the lieutenant's desperation to live up to a father's standards, and dying for them, in a sense. I don't know how to read this non-recognition. Is it repression? Is it transmutation? Open wound in the struggle to achieve selfhood? The novel escapes easy abstractions, as do the ambiguities of the words "to be loved" in the epitaph quoting the Afrikaner poet Antjie Krog: Only one life we have in which we wanted merely to be loved forever.

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