Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other unnamed, usually voiceless, person—recollecting their life, stitching together what is remembered with the forgotten, as much as they can, from beginning to end, though not necessarily in order. Archipelago is a fitting publisher for This Life, given that two of their other books, Stone upon Stone and Treatise on Shelling Beans are masterpieces of the genre. This Life doesn’t reach the heights that those works do, but contributes its own perspective to the genre.
Sussie relates not just her life, but the history of her family, from well before the Boer Wars, then through them, and into the uncertain dates of her apparent deathbed. Her family lives out their lives on a farm in the Karoo, a “[b]itter land where I was born, meager shaly soil where they will dig my grave.” For Sussie, the world outside her family’s farm, and the small village that grows around it in her later years, simply does not exist, is not glimpsed or imagined. The family members, a brother and a nephew, who do leave are burdened with the destiny of returning, silent about their time away. More than anything else, this is a novel about insular, isolated people, in an unrelenting way.
On their farm, far from neighbors, the mother resistant to visitors, the family—father, mother, two brothers, and Sussie—is not just secluded from outsiders, but from each other. They are, as she tells it, “inextricably connected in our isolation, and nonetheless irrevocably divided, with no hope that the rift would ever be healed.” No matter what changes, nothing changes. When Sofie, little older than a child, marries Sussie’s oldest brother, Jakob, she briefly brings relief, even pleasure, to Sussie, but before long the “monotony and isolation of her life with us” overwhelms her.
Any moment like that is soon lost in the drudgery. By the time Sussie writes, “What had been my life thus far? Grim, austere, sparse, even, without much tenderness, not to mention love,” the novel is too much like her life: repetitive, meaningless. The greater novelistic sin than repetition that This Life commits is occasionally sliding into blunt explanation of meaning. By page twenty-seven, I was already frustrated with Schoeman’s authorial insertions, having Sussie tell us again that she has “only the fragments of [her] memories from which I now have to try and recover the form and pattern of the past.” The lapses into telling are unnecessary and bog the book down.
These flaws are disappointing, taking away from what Schoeman and translator Silke do well. This Life is a landscape novel, beautifully written in fine sentences that are aesthetic pleasures in the midst of despairing lives. The land of the Karoo may be a harsh one, creating harsh people, but it is Sussie’s homeland, and so a comfort, too, a mental and emotional part of her that she must evoke in order to be understood at all:
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 kraiitulpe 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.
Leaving words, nearly all words of place, in Afrikaans is a successful gamble by Silke. It’s simple, unobtrusive, and ensures that the novel feels South African without imposing stiffness onto English sentences.
Though years pass on this South-African landscape, This Life scarcely touches on the history of South Africa. Sussie tells us all that happens to her mother and father, their slow declines, and confesses all she knows of her oldest brother’s mysterious death, the younger brother’s, Pieter’s, relationship with his sister-in-law, her own efforts in raising her nephew and then onto his own marriage. Multiple decades pass, with Sussie rarely pinpointing any recollection in time, moving from year to year as she needs to in order to tell her tale, and time becomes strange, so much so that personalities can shift without much reason and, when a specific age is given for a character, it’s often jarring. During all of this, South Africa undergoes changes, but it hardly touches on her or her family, even as the war comes and the English establish camps on their land. When a herdsman is executed by the English, Sussie says “there was nothing I could do for them, and Maans was equally helpless,” but by now we know that if they could have done anything, they would not have.
This lack of reflection is part of Sussie’s isolation. She is oblivious to outside society, blind to the existence of cultural complexities. Take Dulsie, a woman who is a former slave who helped raise Sussie’s father and stays with him when freed. Dulsie outlives him, nearly outlives them all, an unfailing presence, a keeper of secrets who Sussie never tried to open, even as dementia overtakes Dulsie. Other former slaves do the same: stay in the lonely expanse of the Karoo with the people who previously owned them. Sussie doesn’t even imagine considering if this is attachment out of loyalty, or desperation. By making such things an absence in Sussie’s consciousness, Schoeman not only depicts the character’s solitary existence, but subtly brings them to attention.
Sussie is not the only figure of silence; her family is too, and not only in regard to the world outside, but also their own affairs. This Life is as much about actions taken, what is spoken, and what is remembered, as it is about what does not happen, what is passed over in silence, and what is forgotten. To say this balance is equal would be inaccurate. If anything is at the center of the book, it is two dramatic acts, wholly enveloped in silence, that create the most significant absence in the work: the mysterious death of Jacob, and Pieter’s flight from their land with Sofie . . .
Jakob falls and dies out on the veld while separated from Pieter and one of the men working the farm. After the body is found, it’s determined an accident, but suspicions abound and half-remembered accusations are made. Some time after, in the middle of the night, Pieter and Sofie run away, and disappear for years. When Pieter returns alone, he is a nearly silent man, broken. No one in the family speaks of the years he was gone, where he went, what happened to Sofie. It’s a gaping hole in their familial timeline, papered over, easily torn by a word from a neighbor, a worker, or Dulsie. As Sussie puts it, “I did not understand, or perhaps I simply chose not to understand, just as I always did when a choice was possible for me; but in the end understanding was inevitable as the stories did the rounds.”
This part of her life is not the only thing that Sussie doesn’t understand. Not understanding, not trying to, is her protection. It ensures the deepest insulation in a place safe from knowledge or clarity. She shuts down curiosity, involvement, becomes a non-being, so much so that people accidentally talk about her in her presence, not noticing her. When she does act on the lives around her—raising her nephew, writing letters for those who can’t—people don’t recognize that this work comes from an active person, rather treating it as manifesting from nowhere, with no source to show gratitude to. She is scarcely a being in her own life: “I would just sit there, not moving or having the least desire to speak, silently occupied with thoughts I was unable to express.” Sussie is the ignored, passed over woman, but that invisibility begins with her, rather than as a cultural force. Though the latter seals her state, the origins don’t leave much room for empathizing with her.
Even as narrator, Sussie is absent, a tool to be put to work. If This Life is meant to give voice to the unacknowledged woman of the veld, then Schoeman fails her by overpowering her agency, dominating with his authorial ambitions. This Life recovers lost memories, and encloses the absences that cannot be recovered, but the drive for this does not come from her. Sussie claims that she “must get up and journey back into the past, through the dark, alone across the years,” but the unavoidable necessity is never explained, and again and again she wishes she didn’t have to remember these things. This, that she has no choice but to revisit the memories, and that she does not want to, is repeatedly stated, and it reveals the entire book as authorial device. The recollection is forced by Schoeman himself and Sussie is rendered a vessel: non-existent as a person in her life, and as a narrator nothing more than a ventriloquist’s dummy. It’s a disappointing result when a book that rides on the strength of its prose much of the time, and that crafts a landscape, falls short because, more than dwelling on absence, it becomes one itself.