Old soldiers' friend

Kitchen Boy by Jenny Hobbs (Umuzi)

In choosing the wryly un-PC title Kitchen Boy for her latest novel, Jenny Hobbs is clearly aware of the resonances of colonial terminology and the shades of war in a name so similar to Kitchener (of Khartoum and a British general in the Anglo Boer War), and though it has its ironic side it is also a neat encapsulation of the themes of her story.

Her protagonist is JJ Kitching, whose name has been affectionately mangled by adoring rugby fans shouting him on as a Springbok wing; so, far from being a male house servant, he was one of the previously (extremely) privileged for whom the highlights of life were war and rugby.

Hobbs explores all this at JJ’s funeral through the many eulogies delivered and the memories of his friends and family all attending a very long Anglican service, which last is lovingly quoted as if to give the beautiful cadences of the Book of Common Prayer a more public airing than they usually enjoy. It takes place in the cathedral in central Durban, and because JJ has been a person of consequence all his life, the funeral is attended by the local mayor (a black woman), the press, other dignitaries, including the current Sharks team, his old World War II air force comrades, employees and his extended family.
It’s a rich South African tapestry that will ring true with readers.

Most South African families have been touched by war, often having to grapple not only with its intrinsic horrors but also the tough differences of opinion that arise within and between generations regarding such notions as duty, service to the nation and “a just war”.

Many old soldiers of World Wars I and II were confronted by sons and grandsons who did not consider South African Defence Force (SADF) excursions into Angola and the townships to be just, who evaded conscription and often did not acknowledge the worth of those who volunteered for the early wars. And then those who did military service in Zimbabwe (in that war) and in Angola and the townships, members of both the SADF and Umkhonto weSizwe were often neither adequately compensated nor honoured. These war-related matters have not gone away and are alive still in many families.

Emotionally debilitating guilt

Hobbs touches on these issues, but presents a largely sympathetic portrait of a man who did all the expected things—he joined up in World War II, flew bombers, survived as a prisoner of war and came home to play rugby for his country. But at heart a bitter sense of guilt left over from an incident in a prisoner-of-war camp made him irascible and difficult. Treated for shell shock, haunted by nightmares, he may today have been diagnosed as having post-traumatic stress disorder. The source of this emotionally debilitating guilt is revealed only towards the end of the book, and the reader gradually pieces the traumatic event together.

Hobbs prefaces each chapter with well-chosen quotes on war from sources such as ex-servicemen interviews, Pat Barker (the author of the acclaimed WWI novels, the Regeneration Trilogy), and Doris Lessing, who commented: “Every generation has been talked into war by the nostalgic voices of the generation before.”

And in the main text, rendered realistically, the oldest of the veterans, now on their last legs, reminisce quietly to themselves about the action they saw, the marches, the camps and the friendships and animosities that have persisted long after their war has been supplanted in modern minds.

A disruption occurs when SADF veterans of the 1980s Angola campaign try to take advantage of the presence of the press to voice their problems. The shockingly neglected black soldiers of WWII are represented by an old veteran whom JJ finds living in a culvert near his beachfront house. (The plight of these soldiers has also been explored in the 2008 film A Pair of Boots and a Bicycle, made by Edwin Wes and Vincent Moloi.)

Moral authority

The strength of this book lies in its varied and rich characterisation. Some light relief is provided in characters not directly associated with war, such as the wholly obnoxious assistant undertaker. Another is the bishop whose moral authority is outweighed by his ambitious manoeuvring of the service and himself to the cameras. And Hobbs creates three black women characters with great insight and warmth, nicely counterbalancing the soldiers and reflecting how previously invisible people are now so often the stable pillars of our society.

In the dedication (to her grand­child­ren?) Hobbs states, “may they live in peace and never experience war”, but she is sympathetic to soldiers of all kinds. Even the moral dilemma that underlies JJ’s war guilt is less important in the overall picture than the sense that old soldiers are not appreciated or understood, and very often ungratefully treated and neglected by those who benefit from the peace created by war.

In this unpretentious and warm-hearted book full of rugby, war and family secrets, it is entirely appropriate that the hymn sung at JJ’s funeral should be “He who would valiant be—” and one wonders whether Hobbs may also be one of those whose sense of fairness may be mistaken for nostalgia. Many readers will be pleased to see a new Jenny Hobbs novel and they will not be disappointed by this one.

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