My colleagues and I often care for patients suffering from hallucinations, prophesying, and claiming to speak with God, among other symptoms—in mental health care, it’s sometimes very difficult to tell apart religious belief from mental illness…. Our conclusions frequently stem from the behaviors we see before us. Take an example of a man who walks into an emergency department, mumbling incoherently. He says he’s hearing voices in his head, but insists there’s nothing wrong with him. He hasn’t used any drugs or alcohol. If he were to be evaluated by mental health professionals, there’s a good chance he might be diagnosed with a psychotic disorder like schizophrenia. But what if that same man were deeply religious? What if his incomprehensible language was speaking in tongues?
Ever since I read the claim by the publishers of the bestselling book Spud that it “has changed the landscape of fiction publishing in South Africa” and has drawn “over half a million” young South Africans to books and reading, I have been toying with the idea of writing my own novel. (Yes, I have already written a minor novel — in Afrikaans, about a Vlakplaas hit squad commander — but that was many years ago, it was not very good, and it only sold a few thousand copies.)
Imagine all the money that is to be made from a bestseller like Spud. A book that many white people (nostalgic for a world that never was but which they firmly believe did exist) would want to buy. If I play my cards right, I might even be able to afford a Breitling watch after the profits start rolling in — without ever having obtained a government tender or without personally knowing anyone whose surname is Zuma. Sure would beat working for a University Professor’s salary.
The problem is that I did not go to a posh private school called Michaelhouse, so I do not have the same raw material that Van de Ruit had to draw on. I am also told that I do not have the same unthreatening and soothing middle class “wit” which has made Spud so loved and much revered amongst people who do not normally read books. (Those people who usually only read bank statements and the instruction manuals of their new cell phones.)
I went to Pietersburg Hoerskool, an apartheid-era bastion of Christian Nationalist education where we were taught to believe in ourselves, believe in our Volk and — above everything else — believe in God (as Doktor DF Malan once said). God was a big thing at Pietersburg Hoerskool, but obviously not as big a thing as The Headmaster, who was to be loved and feared and obeyed at all times. Even when The Headmaster warned us about the dangers of listening to Rolling Stones records backwards (he said one would start smoking dope and before one knew it one would turn into a Communist or a moffie or — one never knew — a Black!) and we could not figure out how to play those damn records backwards, we still feared — if not loved — The Bloody Headmaster.
We were also taught to fear that God that we had to believe in, but not to the same degree and with the intensity with which we were told to fear Catholics, Communists and black people, who — we were told — wanted to undermine our Christian way of life by forcing us to read novels called Black Beauty or White Mischief and by forcing ungodly concepts like human rights down our throats. (Later I discovered that having a human right forced down your throat was rather exciting, but that is a story for another day.)
I am not sure I will be able to pull this off, though. Writing an unthreatening and loveable book about white, middle class life during apartheid South Africa, a book in which no one gets harmed, only moffies and lesbians are made fun of and all the people in authority — even teachers — are more or less decent, would probably be beyond my powers of invention. It would have to be a tour de force of inventive fiction – Lord of the Rings meets One Hundred Years of Solitude, with a dash of Dead Poets Society.
In any case, to make money from a South African novel is not that easy. One can make money writing a book containing uplifting spiritual messages to guide todays Christian through the minefield of temptation and sin, or perhaps by writing a best selling cook book featuring the boerewors recipes of Steve Hofmeyer and Nataniel, but Spud is a phenomenon that will be difficult to emulate.
I would have to write a fantasy about how life at Pietersburg Hoerskool might have been if apartheid had never happened, a fantasy that would have to pretend that many of the teachers there were actually not psychotic bigots with disturbingly perverse and violent tendencies with a very nasty streak of racism, sexism and homophobia mixed in. (Either that or my book would have to pretend that in those days we had lived in Australia or that most white people were not disgusting racists who were getting rich as fast as they could while exploiting black labour.)
But how could one possibly write a funny novel about life at Pietersburg Hoerskool, a book that was filled with nostalgia for a world that never existed but that most of us white South Africans wished existed and even remember existing? How would I be able to write a book which — like Spud – would make people who lived an upper middle class existence at the end of apartheid feel comfortable, that would soothe them and would tell them: “We whites were not really all that bad back in the day”? It would have to be a nice, undemanding and unthreatening middlebrow book that functioned as mass therapy for white guilt.
It does not seem possible to write such a book about my school days. I would have to write an altogether different book. I would have called my book Moffie, but there is already a novel with that name, so I would have to settle for Nuts!
In my book one of the characters I would have to include would be the “flawed but funny” math teacher called Koorspen (named thus because of his trademark red ties and the red marks left on one’s buttocks after one of his sadistic caning sprees). We would all laugh at Koorspen because on Monday mornings he would come to class to regale us with stories about how he and some of the selected matric boys from the boarding school had gone out on Saturday night to do some “Kaffir-bashing”. This would have to be handled carefully so that everyone would know that I am not endorsing the racism of good old Koorspen. After all, not everybody knows that an author never shares or endorses the prejudices of his or her characters. It could be hilarious, don’t you think?
(The fact that this really happened at Pietersburg Hoerskool, would be a bonus because if some mother grundy — taking politically correctness too far — would then complain about me endorsing Koorspen’s racism, I would be able to argue that I was merely depicting events and the fact that I made Koorspen into a loveable rogue does not mean that I endorse his “Kaffir-bashing” at all.)
In my book, Koorspen would teach me many life lessons — including the lesson that violence trumps reason. In fact, he would teach me that violence trumps everything else in life — including compassion, intelligence, wit and critical thinking. This he would do by calling me to the black board and demanding that I complete the math problems written down there. If I made a mistake, he would take out his mini-cricket bat and start assaulting me. I am sure that this scene could be played for laughs — especially if I am made to flap about enough so that it could be made clear that I am a bit of a poofter. I would be screaming and shouting with my arms effeminately flapping while the blood oozes from my trousers.
This could become even more hilarious if I included that scene where Koorspen assaulted the whole class one day because we were making a racket while he was out training the first rugby team when he was supposed to teach us math. Asking the girls to lift up their dresses so that he could hit them with that cricket bat on their school issue green panties would really be hilarious. A few old men in raincoats would also love that scene, I am sure.
Of course, I would have to include black people in the book. I know, there would be a domestic worker who would make an appearance as the servant who make my bed, clean my shoes and cook dinner for the family. Her name would never be mentioned but she would be funny too because she would tell stories in a heavy accent about the Tokkelosh and will explain why her bed was on all those bricks. Ha ha. Black people are funny, hey? When my father fires her for entertaining her husband in her room and she weeps and begs for her job back, that could be played for laughs too. You know, black people can be so funny when they are distressed and when they plead with the white baas and wail and say a few words in Xhosa or Sotho or whatever language they speak — just ask Leon Schuster.
Oh, and there would have to be another hilarious character called Andre. Quite an effeminate guy who does art and takes music lessons, talks with a lisp and does not play rugby. He walks funny too, ha ha! Obviously I am scared of Andre because I would not want other people to think he is my friend. But after school, Andre would come to my house and lend me his Barbara Streisand records so that I can tape them on my TDK tape deck. Very heartwarming, these scenes would be. One of the funniest scenes would be the one where I find Andre hanging in the storeroom after Koorspen had told him that he should stop behaving like a moffie and did he really wanted to be a girl, or why else was he behaving like one. I am not sure yet how I can make that scene funny, but I am working on it.
On second thoughts, I am not sure Nuts! is going to sell as many copies as Spud. I fear it might be too much like the real world (too much like life really was during apartheid) and not enough like a fantasy. A bit of a downer, as the kids say these days. These days white South Africans do not want to be reminded of how they lived during apartheid and what kind of people they had been and, to some extent, some of them continue to be.
I am not sure that the hanging scene is going to be funny either, but here is an idea. Maybe if I take some liberties with the truth and dress Andre up in a dress and fishnet stockings, it might play for laughs. Hanging there from the rafters with his school tie around his neck wearing a dress, now THAT could get middle class South Africans laughing — just like they laughed about Spud and the Guv’s antics.
What do you think: will I be able to pull it off? And if I do, will I not run the risk of being lambasted by someone like Ronald Suresh Roberts for glorifying apartheid, for endorsing racism, and being, well — the worst insult of all — a liberal?BACK TO TOP