Thursday, December 27, 2018

Paperback: "Moffie" by Andre Carl van Der Merwe

Paperback: Moffie by Andre Carl van Der Merwe, c2006 but a 2011 US edition, 9781609450502.

I am not sure how I came across this novel and bought it for work. I've been slowly but steadily reading South African fiction over the past few years but have been limited to crime novels. One of those novelists I read may have pointed to this book, and I then viewed an online author talk by van Der Merwe on YouTube. A author  presentation which I now cannot find. Damn it.

Wait a second... maybe that was a different guy talking on video and he was speaking about the bush wars. Damn it, now I'm not certain. Screw it.  I thought this was a fictionalized war memoir with a subplot of main character Nicholas hiding his gayness.  Nope, it's a fictionalized memoir of growing up gay when everyone else would rather you be dead than gay.  It's a tough way to grow up and things get even worse when Nicholas does his required national service with the Defense Forces and joins the infantry. The infantry is run by nut jobs who think all the black people of Africa are subhuman and out to kill them and that the blacks have joined the communists to enslave everyone that does not get murdered. Jeez, that's some real psychological projection there, fellas.

The novel bip-bops back and forth from the army to Nicholas's childhood under an angry father and repressive culture. Nicholas's beloved older brother dies when Nicholas is 5-years-old and Nicholas never gets over the death. Nicholas is an introvert, arty, and not sporty. Three things that mark him as a sissy. Being called sissy is bad enough but the true slur and reputation destroying word is moffie. Moffie means fag. Moffie means outcast. Nicholas's father explicitly says that if Nicholas turned gay he'd disown the boy and let him starve in the street.

Nicholas gets through a rough adolescence in his small, white farming community. He escapes a riot in a nearby black town. He tries to pray away the gay. He joins the Army for national service and his father hopes it will toughen him and make him stop embarrassing his father.  Nicholas goes to the initial training camp which is purposefully brutal and demeaning. He then gets sent to the infantry school where conditions are even worse and one soldier dies of heat stroke and Nicholas's best pal kills himself.

van Der Merwe is half Afrikaans and half English. The novel is set in the late 1970s and only 70 years before this the English and Dutch Afrikaans were working hard to kill one another. During the Boer War thousands of Dutch civilians died from disease after internment in concentration camps. (I often see the phrase "forced internment" and that's just silly. Internment means forced.)  Hard feelings by the Boers remain as the Afrikaans now control S.A. government and the army. That means the Afrikaaners in charge of Nicholas's unit have him and his pals marked for extra harassment.

At one point a couple soldiers are found swapping spit in a darkened building. The sergeants and corporals in charge fill cloth sacks with metal pieces and beat both men. The two soldiers are there for a short time before being sent to the S.A. Army's Ward 22. Ward 22's patients receive the latest treatment in heavy drug doses, aversion therapy, shock treatments, forced boxing smokers, and are locked inside the morgue for 48 hours. Ward 22 is just institutional torture.

With colonial rule slowly receding after across the continent after WWII the S.A. government is dedicated to keeping power. Keeping power means keeping every black or coloured person in control. (Coloured meaning mulatto meaning there-must-be-a-decent-non-racist-one-word-meaning-for-mixed-race.) The Afrikaaners get violent when the colonial powers to the north of S.A. retire from their game of Fuck The Locals, Let's Get Rich and the black Africans start running governments.

Part of that violence involves sending troops north into a twenty year Border War in Angola. The bush war involves killing plenty of Cuban trained SWAPO fighters and any civilians who get in the way. (There seem to be plenty of different views on the Border War. Arguments of "they fought for apartheid" v. "they fought to stop communists".) Nicholas and a good gay pal are sent North and see a small amount of action before both men are wounded when their truck hits a land mine.

Anyhoo. The novel itself was not that compelling to me. The writing style and plotting are not my style. I thought the story dragged at times. I kept waiting for the battle scenes to speed things up. I suppose van Der Merwe kept to reality where most of army life is bullshit and boredom interspersed with terror and war crimes.

I kept with the novel because of van Der Merwe's somewhat unique view on what happened in the late '70s. I've seen a couple documentaries and read articles on the events but none of those were personal experiences or experiences by a gay dude.

Nicholas was in an incredibly repressed culture. Hard core Dutch Reformed ministers. No kissy, no huggy until marriage. Wear black suits to church. Blacks are only valid as servants. Don't leave your husband no matter how much he beats you. Never talk back to your parents.

It is kinda amazing that van Der Merwe survived all this.

1. I was recently looking up the Border War and Bush War. I cannot keep all the wars and conflicts in Southern Africa straight. The end of colonialism brought plenty of death and turmoil.
2. Apartheid ended over 20 years ago so it's easy for me to forget how fucking awful it was.
3. Modern crime novelists I've read - Roger Smith, Deon Meyer - show a great deal of integration of black and white. It's amazing the country did not completely fall apart. I know the economy and crime are rough but there were no mass riots, massacres, and vendettas like other countries. I presume the Truth and Reconciliation Committee was a big part of that success. There was more of a restorative justice aspect to the process.
4. Regarding memoirs about brutal Army training: There sure are a lot of them.
5. There are a few YouTube channels I follow that focus on firearms hobbies. One video was discussing a FN-FAL rifle that was used in the border wars. The rifle was notable because it is a rare import to the U.S. and is absent a lot of manufacturing marks to show it's origin. During the video one former U.S. Army guy says something about the fight against communism in Africa. I cringed at that. I understand what he was saying but I see that fighting being as much about colonialism, proxy wars, and resource wealth fighting for democracy.

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