1993. I’m a school uniform-wearing girl. Black oxfords, blue blazer. Hair relaxed, pushed back into white ribbons. Grade 5. Already something of a grown woman. A sharp tongue. A hungry mind. Eleven years old. I don’t pick up The Smell of Apples until ‘96-ish, in high school. Three years after the novel hits most bookshelves. But even then, at fourteen, I do not understand why The Smell of Apples disturbs me so deeply. How it unearths a rot not just at the core of one bad apple, but a wider decay more contagious and deadly than viral disease.
At first blush, The Smell of Apples is another coming of age blah blah blah. Boring! Reader meets boy. Boy meets problem. A fork in the road. Boy picks path. Ok, now he’s onto manhood. Sure, the form can get interesting in the hands of the right writer. In Mark Behr’s case, you have the strange incantation and rhythm of a foreign language bending literary imagery. You also have the back political plot of a pariah state squeezing fresh pus from its sulphurous rot. Even as a kid, both struck me.
Behr’s sentences do something that seems like both breaking and sharpening English in one go. My Afrikaans high school teachers sounded as strained as The Smell of Apples’ eleven-year old Marnus Erasmus when they greeted us in English. Their syntax was just as deliciously strange, and equal parts oddly shaped. As a black teen in still-apartheid South Africa, of course I recognized the musical cadence in The Smell of Apples. A lilt toward African expressionism and word construction – Afrikaans is, after all, a kitchen-sink lingua franca that enslaved Africans, Malaysians and Filipinos cooked up while enduring rape by Cape Town’s Dutch, French and English settlers.
I also recognized Marnus’ mischief and casual misogyny. I knew the black maid running his household. Doreen the Coloured, to boys like Marnus. Mme Doreen or Tannie, Aunt Doreen, to me. I admired his beauty pageant runner-up mother – the kind of woman who chaired my mostly white school PTAs. She was a trophy for Marnus’ jazz-hating, iron-fisted father. Who hates jazz? Well. Apartheid’s Calvinist, neo-Nazi stalwarts, that’s who.
The political background of the novel, a slow crescendo that bursts into the foreground, is what keeps me reading Mark Behr’s seminal, slim little novel, again and again. I know his white supremist landscape as well as bone feels flesh. I know what happens in the end, the fall from grace; how the novel’s revelatory surprise lays bare a network of rotten roots. And yet even still, I’m drawn in. A moth to flame. The whiff of apartheid’s stench always more foul and painfully familiar.
What I now also know is this work of fiction’s bizarre and veracious shadow. Mark Behr was an apartheid spy. He confessed as much in 1996 to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Like Marnus Erasmus, his family migrated to South Africa following Tanzania’s independence from Britain in 1964. The same year apartheid’s bosses tossed Mandela, Sisulu and their Rivonia Treason Trial co-accused to lifetime sentences on Robben Island. The Behr’s East Africa ‘family farm’ was repatriated, like Marnus’ forebears’, by a black African state. So the families – both real and imagined – moved to white-controlled South Africa, where they adopted a wild zeal for Afrikaner fevor. And like his protagonist’s father – a fictitious general cozy with one of Pinochet’s butchers – Mark Behr was a tool of the apartheid state. As it turns out, the apples’ rotten smell was in fact the authors’.
I’ll be reading The Smell of Apples for many more years. Knowing what’s come to light, I pick it up with the most complicated feeling a book can induce. I read it to learn about myself. Mark Behr was also human. He was also a thinker. He had a sharp tongue. And yet . . .
I recommend it because it’s far from simple, despite its childish skin. The Smell of Apples does not look away. And if there’s anything I’ve learned since my slick-ponytail primary school days, it’s how much we prefer to look away, to flinch. People like Mark Behr, servants of crimes against humanity, are always over there, they are nothing like us. Well. The rot of smelly apples does not stand still. It moves gracefully and silently, contaminating everything that should otherwise be sweet.
Image detail from Paul Cézanne, ‘Apples’