When Herman Charles Bosman died of a heart attack in 1951, he had only published three volumes of work: Jacaranda in the Night, a gritty account of urban life in post-war Johannesburg; Cold Stone Jug, a memoir of the author’s time in Pretoria Central Prison, where he was sent to death row after he shot and killed his stepbrother (his sentence was later commuted to 10 years in prison); and Mafeking Road and Other Stories, a volume that put Bosman on the map as a South African literary heavyweight.
Unlike South African authors who are widely read in other English-speaking countries (Coetzee, Gordimer, Courtenay), Bosman’s work hasn’t traveled as well, and in reading Archipelago’s new edition of Mafeking Road, one can see why. An Afrikaner who was raised speaking both English and Afrikaans, it’s perhaps not surprising that Bosman writes in a sort of hybrid of English and Afrikaans slang that, at least for the first few tales, can be distracting. This is, of course, only a problem for a reader who is unwilling to learn what a veldskoen is (a type of shoe, made from animal hide). The further along one gets in the book, though, the more one realizes that Bosman’s combination of English and Afrikaans isn’t merely a naturalistic replication of his own patterns of speech and thought, but also a vital stylistic element that brings an incredible rhythm and energy to the text. (And, to be fair, there’s just no way to get around proper nouns or specific Afrikaans descriptions that are particular to the time and place that Bosman is writing about.)
Knowledge of Afrikaans or of the geography of South Africa’s Marico district isn’t necessary to be impressed and even moved by Bosman’s stories. They have at their heart a concern for human connection and communication that almost inevitably brings Hemingway to mind. Setting aside the most obvious thematic parallels (concerns and questions about masculinity and relationships between men and women; human interactions with the wild and with the land; and the depiction of a post-war, post-colonial society), Bosman’s prose is terse and direct, his dialogue clipped and his characters cagey. Men frequently babble their way into non sequiturs rather than address the truer concerns that seem dangerously close to falling from their mouths.
Take the first story in the collection, ‘Starlight on the Veld’, in which the protagonist, Oom Schalk Lourens, and a friend get lost in the countryside between Derdepoort (near the modern border with Botswana) and the greater Pretoria area. When it becomes clear that the men must make camp rather than press on through the night, they refuse to explicitly address their fear of camping in the open, though it’s evident they’re both uneasy with the idea. The solution, of course, is to mask a concern for the self with a concern for their livestock.
“Suddenly a deep growl came to us from out of the dark bush,” writes Bosman. “‘Perhaps it will be even better if we make two fires, and lie down between them,’ Jan Ockerse said, ‘our donkeys will feel less frightened if they see that you and I are safe. You know how a donkey’s mind works.’”
Lourens, who narrates each piece in the book, is one of Bosman’s best-known creations, and he’s utterly charismatic, if a bit pig-headed. And while he can’t always be trusted to tell the reader the whole truth, he’s a great proxy for Bosman, though the character (a Boer herdsman) and the author seem different in many important ways. Where they converge, though, is at the very heart of this book: both Bosman and Lourens are great storytellers.
In the title story, Lourens gives us a passage that reveals as much about Bosman as it does about his protagonist: “When people ask me… how it is that I can tell the best stories of anybody in the Transvaal… then I explain to them that I just learn through observing the way that the world has with men and women. …But the thing I say to them is a lie, of course. For it is not the story that counts. What matters is the way you tell it.”
For Lourens, the character, and for Bosman, the writer, there’s a lot of truth in that. Stories of the Boer wars, depictions of life on the Transvaal, social and political tensions between Afrikaners and Englishmen, tightly written and beautiful narrative passages describing the plains and the heavens; these are interesting and beautiful things. But it’s Bosman’s humor, his invention and his restraint that make these stories such a revelation.