Karel Schoeman’s “This Life”

Reviewed by Jonathan Morton

Image of Karel Schoeman’s “This Life”

South African author Karel Schoeman has repeatedly acknowledged his debt to British writer L. P. Hartley's famous dictum that "the past is a foreign county: they do things differently there," though Schoeman's concern is less with the behaviors of his country’s inhabitants, and more with the difficulty involved in traveling to its shores. Indeed, he writes early in this novel: "Die verlede is 'n ander land; waar is die pad wat soontoe loop?" ("The past is another country; where is the road leading there?"). Memory provides a fragile path, one being permanently erased and rewritten. For those writer-surveyors who arrive much later, and particularly where no primary sources exist, a form of fictional re-creation offers the only passable route. The landscape to be explored is one shaped by nation and culture almost as much as it is by personal experience. This landscape, in Schoeman's novel, is one that crosses back and forth between the borders of the great semi-desert region known as the Karoo, which began to be settled and developed in the late-nineteenth century.

For a white South African living prior to this settlement, the Karoo remained an inhospitable unknown, an arid gap in the national map, filled with the bones of ancestors. The meaning of its name is unclear, though it is likely to mean simply “Land of Thirst,” and its boundaries are similarly undefined. The Karoo formed a barrier for early settlers, and quickly became part of the South African national imagination. Writers have long been drawn to it; there is a loose group of what is termed "Karoo writers,” which includes both Schoeman and Olive Schriener (about whom Schoeman has written a number of well-respected books), who view this brutal, dusty land as a fecund and vital creative source.

Schoeman’s This Life begins in an almost incantatory fashion. Sussie, an elderly bedridden woman drifting towards death in the house in which she was born, summons up images from her childhood in a final effort to make sense of remembered experiences. In lyrical prose, full of gentle repetition and almost Beckettian self-doubt and self-contradiction, we learn slowly of her mother and father, her two brothers, and of a wife, brought to the farm but who remains an outsider, able to read and write and resist traditional familial demands. Sussie’s past comprises violence, loss, hatred, illness, infidelity and death. She watches from the shadowy corners of the room, choosing invisibility as a defence mechanism. She is too young to understand, but records events and sensations, which may only be fully comprehended many years after the fact. And yet, paradoxically, it is this passing of time that presents her with the greatest problems:

That they fell, stumbled and sank down into the dark water, of course I never saw anything of the sort, but how can I distinguish between memory and imagination when one image is as clear to me as the other? Simple facts are no longer simple; every word, every image is loaded with further memories or deeper insights from which they can no longer be disentangled. If I have to remember then, if I am forced to give this account, where should I begin, and what should I mention, what omit? But I must begin.

Sussie’s brothers, Jakob and Pieter, are expertly sketched and their different temperaments skilfully described. It is, however, Sussie’s mother who receives the most detailed treatment, and she is perhaps the most successful of Schoeman’s creations. Her domination of the family, as well as of their neighbors, her drive for financial security at any cost, and her occasionally brutal temper have a clarity in Sussie’s memory that does much to provide structure to the narrative. Though her mother’s death will bring a kind of freedom to Sussie, she will never be anything but another “maiden-Aunt” relegated to the sidelines. Nevertheless, and despite such freedom coming solely from isolation, her literacy continues to situate her in a privileged position within the community.

Like Schoeman himself, Sussie writes for those who cannot, and thereby gains a unique perspective of her people. She feels her mental journey to be an essential one, but is conscious of her failures. She is old, bedridden, and confused. Early on she tells us:

I am merely guessing now; more than half of what I know is speculation and assumption, and from stepping stone to stepping stone I traverse the past, uncertain of every footstep.

And yet, if she does not attempt to map out, to organize and delineate this illimitable region, she knows all too well that it will be lost forever. Her life, that of her parents, brothers, cousins, servants—a whole way of being will be forgotten and its meaning undiscovered. This fear is also Schoeman’s fear, one he has made it his life’s work to counteract. He has moved from writing only novels to producing more traditional historical works and biographies, though these remain idiosyncratic in style and often refuse to include any footnotes or references one would expect in such scholarly texts. He has stated bluntly, in his 1995 biography of the missionary Ann Hamilton, his desire to pay attention “to the socio-cultural aspects of the past, long regarded as being of little importance, and to previously neglected topics such as the place of women in history."

The origin story of a state, of a people, is often hotly contested. In South Africa the voices of the poor, the “white trash” often considered lower than the “colored” or even the indigenous population, have been particularly neglected. Within these communities, it is the woman as mother, daughter, or wife who often provides the richest and most accurate perspective of that society. When such women are born into poverty, and often remain illiterate throughout their lives, their experiences do not survive the dimming of their memories. As much as one would prefer to grant them the agency to speak themselves, one of the duties of those in positions of power (and it is here that Schoeman’s gender and race become significant) is to research, investigate, uncover, and above all write the words that they cannot. Schoeman’s work forms part of the modern South African movement that seeks to re-write the official records, to dig up the buried and the forgotten, so as to evoke something of an unrecorded world.

The translation by Else Silke is exemplary, in that it never feels as though it is operating once removed from Schoeman’s text. Many Afrikaans words and phrases (particularly names of objects in the natural world) remain untranslated, which at times makes the text feel like something from Finnegans Wake:

I remember the spekbos radiant-white like a snowfall along the rocky ridges, large patches of yellow katstert, blazing like candles, and the fields of kraaitulpe like fire, the gous-blomme and botterblomme and perdeuintjies, and when the scattered clouds swept past the sun, the entire bright veld creased and furrowed like water, and the people moving across it were like swimmers on the surface of a dam, rolling on the waves of shadow and light.

There is a poetics in the word choice, and an elegiac tone which helps to move the narrative forward even while it swirls around in the darkness. It makes This Life a joy to read and, I suspect, reread. Archipelago has, as always, produced a beautiful designed book, one which provides a perfect introduction to the work of one of South Africa's most celebrated writers.