South Africa has been a headline in a lot of contemporary newsmaking for a number of years while it was entrenched under apartheid rule and as it emerged into a new democracy. But always, the picture of a nascent and burgeoning culture is painted broadly, and in the news, almost always negatively. A Place Called Vatmaar, however, presents an in-road into a South Africa which circumvents intellectual platitudes or generalisations. Cast as a novel, it is the debut work of A.H.M. Scholtz, who wrote it at the age of 72, armed with a primary-school education, the taint of poverty, the experience of having weathered a difficult life of much hard manual labour and having fought in the Second World War “so my family could eat,” and went on to garner three local literary awards: The M-Net Prize, the Eugène Marais Prize, and the CNA Literary Award in South Africa.
A Place Called Vatmaar is partly autobiographical, but rather than framing the text itself quasi-historically, it represents a personal insight, a social overview, a warm and honest account of the mindset that make the ‘coloured’ people of South Africa distinctive. The term ‘coloured’ was an apartheid-induced pejorative expression, but one which the people came to be proud of. These were people born of mixed parentage. People who didn’t directly belong in any pre-established community and who, not being directly white or black, bore the brunt of the ugliness and the contradictions of apartheid. At no point, however, does the book deteriorate into an exercise in self-pity or rose-tinted illusionism. The characters are three-dimensional and they love and hate with passions, and make foolish and eloquent gestures as is the universal wont of human beings.
Vatmaar is divided into over sixty short vignettes. They all interrelate, as do the characters themselves. The stories told are stories within stories and the writing does leaps and turns upon itself in bringing out a broader tale as rich in idiosyncrasies and pathos as it is in documenting a South Africa from within.
Set just prior to the turn of the twentieth century, Vatmaar began as a settlement, and something that presented the option of home for the book’s first narrator, Ta Vuurmaak, a person of Griqua heritage, coerced to help in the Anglo-Boer War, and given a disused water tank after the War’s end. This water tank becomes his house, and the setting for many of the stories told in the first third of the book. The stories are placed in the mouth of Oom Chai, another elder of the community. They are structured historically and are presented as tales told to the young boys of Vatmaar. But as the novel unfolds and the reader is introduced, by way of incident, story and anecdote, to many of these boys and their families and how they came to live at Vatmaar, we look beyond what Ta Vuurmaak had to offer, because Vatmaar is an organism, something that began to grow and multiply as soon as Ta Vuurmaak called it ‘home’. Indeed, towards the middle of the book, both elders die, but the stories continue in different voices.
This book is unputdownable, not because it has an exciting plot, but because of how it is told. The reader becomes a part of the dynamic of the community and its concerns and foibles, lusts and tears. The consummate skill with which it has been translated from the original Afrikaans is such that the local accent of the people is present in its English reading. Indeed Vatmaar is like a soap opera, but a gritty unpolished one, devoid of the niceties that make narrative conform to expectations, but full of the kind of beauty that warms an outsider to them: “Ugly faces there were none, and they always treated a stranger with respect”. And so we read of the problematic but happy marriage between Lance-Corporal George Lewis and his black wife Ruth; of Tant Vonnie, originally of German stock whose life turns the full circle; of gentle but wily Sis Bet who established herself and Oom Flip in Vatmaar through a certain amount of ducking and diving around white-imposed law and white folly and bigotry; of Chan Lee, who cashed in on the illegal lottery game of fahfee and became a rich and prosperous well-respected man; and Kaaitjie, who dies in childhood and of a broken heart at the age of 22, because her white madam was recalcitrant in the passing on of a message. The many characters that populate the pages of this book are extremely colourful and splendidly articulated. They proliferate and develop in the nooks and crannies of a South African landscape, but this book is a great rollicking feast of their circumnavigations, their plots, their realities, more than the backdrop of Africa behind them.
This is not an exercise in propaganda on any level. No holds are barred and the reader is exposed to many different kinds of social pain and injustice inflicted sometimes with retribution, and sometimes without; sometimes from within the community, and sometimes from without. Indeed the deepest pathos of Vatmaar is the reality from which it draws. South Africa may be freshly emergent as a new democracy, but still it remains with much of the stigma of racial prejudice, social injustice, unemployment and crime. A Place Called Vatmaar is a Dickensian foray into an undocumented terrain. It is a positive, moving, real account of the complex and streetwise creature that constitutes the mavericks in South African society: the people who are given untenable circumstances but who use them wisely and creatively in constructing a life.
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