A tribute to writer Mark Behr

Behr taught literature and creative writing in the US from the mid-1990s.

Behr taught literature and creative writing in the US from the mid-1990s.

I read Mark Behr’s Die Reuk van Appels as a second year student in Stellenbosch. I found a copy in a friend’s flat and finished it in an afternoon.

Change was in the air – one could smell it. Even in the postcard-pretty provincial town, which always had delusions of grandeur, the excitement of change was tangible. Even in Hendrik Verwoerd’s intellectual home, surrounded by absurd beauty and unimaginable comfort, it was difficult to escape change entirely.

Walking to class along the oak-lined streets, I would see Koos Kombuis sitting on a sidewalk reading poetry. Johannes Kerkorrel was playing on the radio. Die Reuk van Appels was read by a group of us who saw ourselves as alternative Afrikaners and who wanted that change.

We philosophised in coffee shops when the townships were burning. We did nothing truly useful. But we questioned. We started debating groups and wrote in the student newspapers. All in all, it was a decadent revolution.

Even in the heady days before the 1994 elections, Stellenbosch remained as isolated as a grape seed. The political turmoil of the time and the larger currents of geopolitical change seemed of much less importance than the weekend’s rugby match. Afrikaans remained unchallenged as the language of instruction. Student residences were still not racially integrated. Men were not allowed in women’s residences.

For me, the power of Behr’s book was not that it triggered a personal political awakening – that had happened to me long before – but in what it represented. Die Reuk van Appels represented a loss of innocence, a coming out, a crashing of icons. It was a book in the spirit of the Sestigers, but for the new generation on the precipice of change – for those excited by that precipice.

In the intensely privileged confines of Stellenbosch, Behr’s book not only put a further nail in the coffin of apartheid but also showed the grossness of the cadaver.

The book did not seem like fiction but like someone simply telling a story about their childhood. Inevitably and poignantly, it described an apartheid childhood we could closely relate to. In white middle-class Afrikanerdom, there were few more powerful themes than the tension between father and son, a central theme of Die Reuk van Appels.

In it, the father represented the essentials of apartheid: patriarchy, hierarchy, the expectation of submission and unquestioning adherence to authority, militarism, homophobia, physical strength, dominance, and protection (from the other, from the swart gevaar).

The crisis Behr describes is so deep it can never be fully understood or processed. When, in the central moment of crisis in the book, the young boy Marnus discovers his father sodomising Marnus’s friend Frikkie, it shatters all his beliefs and illusions.

In that moment, also, the entire edifice and artifice of apartheid comes crushing down. The father he thought he had is no more.

As I joined the long line of voters at the Stellenbosch City Hall on April??27 1994, I knew I was witnessing the most important political event of my life. But, dramatic as it was, it was less dramatic than the crashing of long-held illusions that Behr’s book prepared one for. The fall of the father is the most devastating fall.

Die Reuk van Appels was the most important statement about the intimate relationship between masculinity and political change before JM Coetzee’s Disgrace introduced us to a new, depressing, defeated form of masculinity.

Challenging writer and teacher

Mark Behr, who died on November 27 of a heart attack, was born in Tanzania in 1963 of a farming family. They emigrated to South Africa when Behr was a year old.

He went to the Drakensberg Boys’ Choir School (an experience he drew on for his second novel, Embrace) and was conscripted into the South African Defence Force during the Angolan war.

From 1985 to 1989 Behr studied at Stellenbosch University, where he became involved in student politics and, he later revealed, was recruited as a spy by the apartheid security forces. He studied further in the United States, earning degrees in peace studies and creative writing.

In 1993 he published Die Reuk van Appels, the story of an Afrikaans military conscript looking back on his childhood. It was a controversial bestseller, unusually for a literary work in South Africa, and won several prizes. In 1996 Behr confessed he had been a spy, and how that, and being gay, had fed into his work’s themes of masculinity, violence and repression.

From the mid-1990s Behr taught literature and creative writing in the US. He was much beloved by his students, who found him both charming and challenging, as did his friends. – Shaun de Waal



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