To Hell With Cronjé
By Ingrid Winterbach, Translated by Elsa Silke
Open Letter Press
How much of an individual's self is lost in war? Can what was lost ever be recovered? Ingrid Winterbach gracefully poses these questions as she grapples with the many unseen costs of violence in To Hell With Cronjé. Set during the closing months of the Boer War, the novel follows two war-weary scientists, Reitz Steyn and Ben Maritz, who undertake a mission to return a shell-shocked comrade to his mother. Alternating point of view between Reitz and Ben, Winterbach's introspective prose slowly strips away the insulating rational layers of the mens' psyches.
After crossing, and barely surviving, a desert landscape reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic American West, their party is held up at a camp for those unfit for battle, thanks to the whims of a mysterious general who, despite his complete control over the ragged contingent, remains almost entirely incommunicado. The vagueness of the general's plans leaves them to wonder whether they will be allowed to continue their mission, forced to return to their unit or simply shot for desertion.
As the new arrivals intermingle with the damaged men who inhabit the camp, they begin to take stock of their own losses and try to piece together some vision of their future. In the hopes and fears of this group of war-torn men, Winterbach reveals a collective loss in South African society that is stunning for its permanence and depth, as well as its breadth. A stark rebuttal to the idea that “war is the continuation of politics by other means,” To Hell With Cronjé casts new light on the beginnings of a nation and a people, defined for much of their history by cyclical violence and fear.