Comfort is hard to find
FALSE RIVER by Dominique Botha (Umuzi)
It's one thing to be a lefty, Afrikaner or any other kind, in the city, but to do so in a conservative farming community takes a special kind of courage, intelligence, bloody-mindedness and integrity.
Be prepared to laugh and to weep when you read this novel, a work of considerable beauty and power. It's the story of the Bothas of Rietpan and Wolwefontein, who according to Pa were "pure Griquas", and it covers the childhood of Dominique and her brother, Paul, veering into their early adult years in the 1970s and 1980s.
It's no spoiler to say, as the dust jacket gives this information too, that Paul dies very young. But by then the reader has come to love him, as well as the whole family.
At the outset Botha situates the narration between death and darkness and the innocent vitality of childhood. Paul and Dominique are walking on the muddy edge of the pan, and he warns her not to wake up the barbels under the mud, saying: "They aren't like normal fish ... When it's dark they crawl up to the house on their shoulders to graze on the lawn."
Then they are in the family cemetery – a good place for a quick historical sketch – but in death there is also life because not only do they have to think of the ancestors beneath them, a century's worth, but also the mad hermit, "Hongersnood", who survives, fed by Ma, in the disused reservoir nearby. But actually what they are there for is to pick mulberry leaves for silkworms.
Botha typically compacts (often disconcerting) facts, poetry and humour into a few paragraphs.
Another such instance is a trip to the nearest dorp. Here we see how the Bothas stand in relation to their community, because the children are instructed by their mother to use only the black side of the bottle store (for born-frees: there were separate entrances and counters for blacks and whites), and they were friends with the (Catholic, therefore shunned) Lebanese shopkeepers, whose garden is full of Persian roses.
We are also shown the linguistic development and consciousness of the Botha children, in the ability of eight-year-old Dominique to quote her Pa on "Phoenician trading blood" and use phrases like "in perpetuity" and "provisioned the whole district".
In False River we are shown a family of old Vrijstaters of the northern Free State whose not so very remote ancestor's chair, from the pre-Boer War Volksraad, is still in the dining room. From there to Pa watching rugby with an ANC Cabinet minister newly released from Robben Island is an interesting story.
Botha's evocation of the characters of Pa and Ma, Andries and Sandra, is tender, sharp and, though Ma is pure sterling, in the case of Pa, it's often hilarious. It's a wonderful portrait: this man who listens to the news, though he says it is "all lies", and turns it off before the sport comes on, is a hardworking grain farmer, known behind his back to his workers as "Oorlog".
On a Saturday he likes to have an afternoon nap, which he achieves by saying to the children: "For Christ's sake, all I demand is the deference accorded the dead."
This made me laugh out loud, but sadly "the deference accorded the dead" permeates this novel.
This reader was surprised at the deference Pa accorded the value of military training, when Paul dutifully accepts his call-up to the South African Defence Force.
Paul's adolescence, in which he is brilliantly successful in several fields, as well being an affectionate and supportive brother, gives way to a series of difficulties, the last of which is a long struggle with hard drugs.
Botha's depiction is honest and heartbreaking, sometimes exasperated and helpless. The scene in which Paul, with his arms bandaged after a suicide attempt, returns to Rietpan and is put to bed in Oupa's pyjamas, after being tenderly bathed by his father and two siblings, is a moving tribute to family love.
The final chapter deals with events following his death when his body has been brought back from London.
Everyone who matters to the Bothas is there, including the Dhlaminis, the Lekghetas who have been on the farm for generations, and Paul's girlfriend, Dudu.
The book's centre is Paul, but it is also about Dominique and their life in the country. Images of fruit trees (the peach at the cattle-grid gate) the mulberry in the cemetery and the making of such boere necessities or boeretrooste (country comforts) as waatlemoen konfyt (watermelon preserves) offset her incessant worrying and her anorexia, and Paul's discomforting and keen intelligence.
Of course it is Dominique, as a character and also author of this lovely book, who appreciates both sides of life and presents them skilfully to the reader. A debut full of haunting poignancy.