Notes from underground

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Fata Morgana: book review

Fata MorganaFata Morgana by Elizabeth Vermeulen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first part of the Diepfontein trilogy, Towergoud is a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age novel about the struggles of the young orphan Neels Lindeman to make his way in the world.

This, the second part, is more of a family saga. Neels settles down to the life of a married farmer. To begin with, I found the book a little bit disappointing after Towergoud. One of the things I liked about Towergoud was its unpredictability. There were many unexpected plot turns.

In Fata Morgana, however, life on a Karroo farm seems a little bit too routine. The seasons follow one another with predictable regularity. In a dry region, naturally, there are worries about drought, and when the drought finally does break, there are worries about floods. The characters seem to be more introspective about their thoughts and feelings. The only variation is the occasional appearance of a stranger, a mysterious Mr de Klerk, who seems vaguely threatening.

As with the first book, even though it is out of print, someone might want to read it, and it is worth reading, so I don’t want to give too much of the plot away. But one can say something about some of the background happenings that affect the story.

There is very little about political events in the first book, but the Anglo-Boer War could not fail to affect even a remote farming community like that at Diepfontein. In spite of this, there is a feeling that wars may come and wars may go, but farms continue, because people must eat. The predictability of the first few chapters seems to sharpen the contrast with the disruptive events that follow.

In this it much like real life, with its sadness and its illusion. It is about love and hate, resentment and revenge, reconciliation and forgiveness. In this it is a deeply moral book, yet, I think, it manages to be moral without being moralistic.

It also made me aware of other things. Thinking again about the Anglo-Boer War, and the things that caused bitterness and resentment. I remembered Carel de Wet, the National Party politician, speaking at Wits University in 1960. Someone asked him about his attitude and activities during the Second World War, and his reply was, “It was Britain’s war”. And a heckler responded, “No, it was Poland’s war.”

Reading this book made me aware that at the time of the Second World War the Anglo-Boer War was only 40 years in the past. Now, as I recall things of 40 years ago, I realise how people must have recalled them then. Forty years ago I was banned, and I saw how the Nats were ruining the country, and I can still remember it now. And so, back in 1940, people could still remember what Britain had done to them forty years before. Those who fought in that war would have remembered, just as I can remember the early 1970s.

But there were also things that they did not see. They thought it was Britain’s war, but they did not see that it was Poland’s War, and that the German invasion of Poland was as great an injustice as Britain’s invasion of the Transvaal and Free State. In Fata Morgana they complained bitterly that the countries that condemned Britain’s invasion did nothing to stand up to it. They would send food parcels for the relief of those in the concentration camps, but military help there was none, just a wishy-washy neutrality. Yet forty years later the Afrikaner nationalists had nothing more to offer Poland than a wishy-washy neutrality.

And then a hundred years later, when the centenary of the Anglo-Boer War brought it all back to mind, the British and Americans were at it again, bombing Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq. And in the last two the bittereinders fought on and on, as they had done in the Anglo-Boer War, and as we knew they would in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet the Americans were apparently surprised at the resisitance, or at least they pretended to be surprised. As someone once said, those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. And Fata Morgana is a reminder of some of those lessons.

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