| The poor old fart. He must have been
I stroll along the boardwalk at Coney Island and gaze at the long, winding beach. How many times did he walk here in his worn veldschoene and black serge suit, glaring at the thrill-seekers, the popcorn vendors, the bathers? A hundred years ago this stretch of beach would have been crowded with sun worshippers. The men would have been wearing woollen bathing suits, the women bathing dresses with loose-fitting sleeves and pantaloons cuffed at the knees and held up by suspenders. What did a bent and broken man like Piet Cronjé make of such a madly merry place, one that by the close of the nineteenth century had already gained notoriety as Sodom by the Sea?
When he arrived here in 1905, Coney Island, at the southern tip of the borough of Brooklyn and less than ten miles from Manhattan, was a delirious mecca of grand hotels, dancehalls, concert saloons, theatres, bandstands shaped like scallop shells, racetracks, bathhouses, souvenir kiosks and beer gardens. Hundreds of thousands poured daily into the amusement parks, where rides like the Hoopla and the Whirlpool threw male and female riders together in a manner unheard of in Victorian times.
The crowds came for the roller-coaster and other thrill rides, but also for the side-shows, gambling dens and "cooch" dancers. They came to swim in the sea, to walk miles of boardwalk, to feast on hotdogs and clams, to gape at minarets and spires and domes strung with countless strings of light-bulbs, or to watch the play of light on the waves (for turn-of-the-century visitors electricity was still a novelty).
It was a topsyturvydom where a carnival atmosphere reigned supreme; a garish, glittering world where Victorian mores were shattered by the roguish flavour and risque character of the attractions on offer. And it is to this honky-tonk kingdom with its pickpockets, pimps and prostitutes that the deeply religious general Piet Cronjé came when he was eighty-eight years old, dead broke and heartbroken.
He was once a respected Boer leader, venerated for rounding up Jameson and his men during the Jameson Raid, but during and after the Anglo-Boer War Cronjé was bitterly blamed by his people for the humiliating defeat he suffered at Paardeberg in February 1900. It was said that this was the battle where the Boers effectively lost the war: when Cronjé was forced to surrender with his men, almost a quarter of all Boer soldiers fell into British hands.
That it happened on the anniversary of the great Boer victory at Majuba was degrading. That it might have been prevented if Cronjé had heeded the warnings of his military advisors, maddening. That a photographer was present to capture the curious spectacle of a bedraggled Cronjé in a faded green overcoat standing with bowed head in front of a resplendent Lord Roberts, mortifying.
Cronjé spent the rest of the war in exile on St Helena, where he was subjected to bitter reproaches by his men and much ridicule by his British captors. Punch published a cartoon of him saluting the shadow of Napoleon and declaring, "Same enemy, sir. Same result."
After the war he was shunned by the other generals, not invited to peace talks or asked to participate in post-war policymaking. His subsequent movements did little to still the antagonism. In 1904, circus man Frank Fillis recruited him to travel to America as part of the so-called "Boer War Circus". In a show that was seen by two million people at the 1904 World's Fair in St Louis, Cronjé helped recreate famous Boer War battles. American audiences could see him three times a day in re-enactments of his surrender at Paardeberg. He would stand with bowed head in front of an actor playing the role of his nemesis.
It was an ignoble finale to his career. By the end of the World's Fair he was dubbed "the circus general" by South African newspapers. Under the circumstances he did not want to go home, so he came to Coney Island instead, signing a contract with showman William A Brady. Brady hastily erected an arena with a grandstand seating 20 000 people and started advertising a spectacle featuring "Piet Cronjé with real Kaffirs, mounted lancers and artillery".
The grizzled old soldier would sign autographs before and after shows - and the Coney Island crowds were delighted. Now they could see not only Dahoma the Giant from Jacksonville, Miss Nellie Walker the Albino Lady, an armless boy who wrote with his toes and a conjoined pair of human twins, but also a real Boer.
A hundred years later, in June 2004, I am visiting Coney Island to retrace Cronjé's steps. I am hoping to write a novel about his time in St Louis and Coney Island because I see something of modern Afrikaners in him. Like him, they are grimly trying to deal with bewildering power shifts. Sometimes they are ridiculed and marginalised, and often they choose to ride off into the sunset, trying to make new beginnings elsewhere. My friends abroad scrub toilets, wipe old peoples' bums, work as diving instructors, drive cranes. They would even join the circus if they had to.
So that's why I take the twenty-minute subway trip from New York to the same destination that Van Morrison sings so hauntingly about. In recent years Coney Island's cachet as an amusement centre has declined and high-rises and single family homes stand where racetracks and fairgrounds sprawled a century ago. But the amusement strip hasn't disappeared completely. The roller-coasters, carousels and hotdog stands are still here. During my visit the beach and boardwalk are teeming with Phish fans who have come for a concert in the soccer stadium and there is excitement and expectation in the air. The legend of Coney Island lingers on.
With me is my brother, who emigrated from South Africa to America some time ago, and who I am seeing for the first time in four years. As we stroll down the pier he asks about my reason for being here. I tell the sad story of Piet Cronjé.
"There is this brilliant scene about his surrender at Paardeberg in a Afrikaans novel called Niggie," I say.
"Never heard of it."
"It was awarded the Hertzog Prize earlier this year."
"Never heard of it."
I have to remind him that the Hertzog Prize is the oldest and most prestigious literary prize for Afrikaans writers. I then tell him how deeply I admire the writer of Niggie, how I rate this scene as some of the best writing I have ever read. I recite bits of it from memory. I want to make him see how good it is, how funny, how sad, but I cannot draw him in. I am a writer, journalist and university lecturer in a literature department; he is an investment analyst who has just completed his MBA at an ivy league university. I live in the intertextual realm breathed by the books I read; he lives in America.
"Sussie," he grins, amused by the Afrikaans he hears only when he calls home, "you speak in tongues." Just one tongue, I think, a little hurt. Our mother tongue. But he is starting to forget. Sometimes he calls me up, having waited for it to become morning in South Africa (there is a ten-hour time difference), and asks about a word he has forgotten.
"I can't believe I can't remember it," he mumbles, a bit sheepishly. Those phone calls make both of us uneasy.
But for now we are together and our little stroll has brought us to a booth on the boardwalk decorated with bunting in the colours of the American flag and posters saying "Shoot the Freak". We investigate. The booth opens onto a vacant lot where a man in padded clothing is walking up and down. A side-show barker tells us that for a dollar you get to shoot at him with a paintball gun. We watch as a young Hispanic woman takes aim. The spectators murmur approvingly each time she hits her target. We walk away. We are perturbed. As far as we can tell, the "freak" doesn't have a deformity. He is black, but otherwise he seems perfectly normal.
* * *
From Coney Island we drive for four hours to Cambridge, the university town where my brother has just graduated and where he lives in the top part of a quaint New England house. He likes it here, because it is a cosmopolitan society. People come from all over; it makes him feel less foreign than he would have in Texas or Cleveland.
We talk, tentatively at first, then more relaxed. But not too relaxed. He tells me that I am talking too loudly. In the next two weeks he constantly asks me and my husband to lower our voices in restaurants, on sidewalks and in subway trains. "I can see you are used to a big house in a big yard with high walls."
He seems a bit embarrassed and we are surprised. In South Africa he never minded calling attention to himself. Like me, he has always had a terribly bad temper, one that often flared up in public. For a long time I refused to go to restaurants with him because he was given to loud tantrums if the service happened to be bad.
"I can't do that sort of thing here," he says sullenly when I remind him of it. "I'm a foreigner here. One misstep and I'm fucked. So I don't rock the boat."
I stare at him, thinking I would have liked very much to see him jump up suddenly, charge into the restaurant kitchen, shout at the cook and not care one bit that everyone's staring. I liked him rough around the edges, out of control, wild. It seems weird that this place is keeping him on such a short leash. That he of all people should take so much trouble to blend in. Suddenly I understand one more thing about what it means to live in a country not your own.
* * *
Back in South Africa I start reading Jhumpa Lahiri. She writes about Indian emigrés who settle in Boston and Cambridge, trying to blend in, slowly becoming Americans. I send my brother the following excerpt from The Interpreter of Maladies. The words are spoken by a character who, like him, moved to America at the age of twenty-something:
While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.
* * *
It is also beyond my imagination to seek my fortune far from home. Thinking of Piet Cronjé and my brother, it seems to me that being a foreigner means always remaining a curiosity to others. I find a shadow of the same idea in a poem by Danie Marais, a friend of mine. Danie recently resettled in South Africa after many unhappy years in Germany. His poem, translated freely from the original Afrikaans, goes something like this.
Hawad, der einzige dichtende Tuareg
"Paris, hier bin ich
meinem Kopf vorauseilend,
Meinem Kopf eines ewigen Taureg-Piraten
Sinnbild des Schmerzes,
ich komme, hier bin ich
den Tabak der Ironie kauend."
- Hawad, Horizontenentführung
Dear Hawad, * * *
When you took the stage
in front of a sophisticated audience
wearing designer spectacles
I didn't know what to expect.
On the International Poetry on the Road festival programme
you were advertised as
"der einzige dichtende Tuareg" -
the only living Tuareg poet.
I can only snort indignantly
at this sort of condescending political correctness.
They could just a well have called you
"fire eater" or "elephant man".
when you started growling and moaning
with your wild James Brown afro and denim jacket
I was only too happy that you were invited.
In a cold and impersonal Northern German lecture hall
you made me hear
how one speaks harsh words
in the mother tongue of the desert
to ancestral spirits and the NATO;
how one may humour
the wild sand storms of the Sahara
in a dying language.
if you were to make such a scene
on a street corner
you will be locked up.
If you were to cry and pray
on an anonymous death bed in Paris
people might think
you're speaking in tongues
and double the dosage.
I wish I could tell you
that I know about talking
with a cold, wet November night
in a language
my wife doesn't understand;
I know about rowing a lifeboat
with a shipwrecked tongue
in a disappearing idiom.
Hawad, I see you know how it feels
to hurl forgotten words
at the silence
when the deep desert night
bends down over your tent
to blow the campfire out.
- Danie Marais
But here's the thing. One can be made to feel like a side-show exhibit in your own country too. A very mundane little exchange brings this home to me for the first time. I am listening to the radio and South African-born CNN journalist Tumi Makgabo is being interviewed by her former colleague John Perlman on AM Live. She tells listeners about her background: good Catholic schooling, a black father, a coloured mother who spoke Afrikaans. Then it is time to take calls from the public. One of the callers has this to say: "Tumi, your mother might have been Afrikaans, but you've made us proud nevertheless."
I am upset. This woman is making it sound as if speaking Afrikaans is similar to having a scaly skin, a humpback or some other strange deformity. I wait for Tumi to protest, but she doesn't. John Perlman just laughs. I decide I'll give him a piece of my mind when next I see him. I don't know him personally, but I often see him in this pub I go to.
I never get round to it, though. On my next visit to Xai-Xai in Melville, Johannesburg, I have other things to worry about.
I am meeting a group of old friends at the end of a long, horrible day. I am the last to arrive and flop down next to them, dishevelled, tired and glad to be in friendly company. But I am dismayed to see that with them is someone called Fiona, a woman I dislike intensely. The feeling is mutual.
When I was seven or eight years old, visiting my grandparents in a dusty little Eastern Cape town called Despatch, the local kids would often have stone-throwing contests after school. The Afrikaners would crouch behind a low garden fence on one side of the untarred road, and the English kids behind another garden fence on the other side of Susanna Fouriestraat, and the two sides would pelt each other with clods and stones. Whenever I see Fiona, I know she would have been behind the other fence, and that I would have aimed for her specifically. She is a rooinek and I am rockspider. This is not why we dislike each other, but because we dislike each other, these things come into play. It is like an old sports injury that never goes away completely.
We would have ignored each other in Xai-Xai if it weren't for our many mutual friends. "You two remember each other, right?" one of them is saying.
"Yes," Fiona answers with a pained little smile. "How are you?"
"Kak, dankie," I joke, trying to hid my immediate irritation. My friends laugh, but Fiona looks at me quizzically, tilting her head to one side.
"What was that? I don't understand Afrikaans."
I glare at her. Like me, she is in her thirties. She was born here, went to school here, grew up in a time when Afrikaans and English were obligatory subjects at school. It is impossible for her not to know what kak means. It is an affectation. A statement. I am being put in my place. Me, my nasty little language and everything that goes with it. I am immediately, irrevocably angry. This is bullshit. The Soweto uprisings I can understand, but this, no, this is bullshit.
"Sorry," I say with a clenched jaw. "I forgot. You're one of the few people in this country who speak only one language. Your own."
"Catfight! Catfight!" chortles a friend who is too drunk to take it seriously. I am surprised to see that the only black person in the group is also laughing. Hard. He has to wipe tears from his cheeks before he speaks.
"I agree," he says peacably. "Dit was 'n kak dag." I could have kissed him.
"I keep meaning to learn Zulu," Fiona offers.
"You'd better start soon then," I say. "Seeing that after thirty-something years of learning Afrikaans you still don't know the word kak."
We end up in opposite corners of the room, our friends having to choose sides. A few think it is funny. They say next time I should tell her to "gaan kak". Others don't remark on the little outburst. Some huddle around her, ignoring me. I have been found out. Afrikaans, an Afrikaner and defensive about it.
Eventually the evening spills over onto the sidewalks outside the bar. I am talking to someone I haven't met before.
"This soap you script-write for," he says. "Does anybody watch it?"
"A few million people every night. It's the second most popular one on air at the moment."
"But mostly Afrikaners, I suppose."
I am startled by this comment, but decide to let it slide.
"Mostly. Not exclusively."
"What would you be doing if you weren't doing that?"
"Maybe writing a novel?" I venture.
"This Boer War general called Piet Cronjé …"
I don't get to say anything more on that topic. His eyes glaze over, so I hurriedly change tack. "Or I might finally do my damned PhD."
"A PhD in Afrikaans literature?" He seems dismayed, disbelieving, incredulous. "What could you possibly do with a qualification like that?" I briefly consider an answer along the lines of "gaan kak", but decide against it.
"Dunno," I say. "I've been thinking of joining the circus."
* * *
When I was ten years old I met the Afrikaans folksinger David Kramer. It was a Sunday afternoon and I was having ice-cream with my parents on the Sea Point promenade in Cape Town when he walked past. I made him sign my Wimpy serviette and couldn't wait to show it to my friends the next day. But I didn't go to school the next day. My mother received bad news later that Sunday night and we had to travel to Despatch on the Monday morning because my oupa had had a stroke and died.
On the day after the funeral I was sulking on my grandparents' stoep in Susanna Fouriestraat, kicking angrily at the pot-plants in rusted Ricoffy tins, wondering when we would be going home (I still wanted to show my friends the David Kramer autograph). An old black man came walking past in the dusty road in front of the house (it still had not been tarred). He lifted his hand in a stately greeting.
"Middag, dominee," he said and walked on. I froze in fright and glanced nervously around before it dawned on me that my oupa wasn't really there. The man had probably not heard the news of his death and he was so used to the dominee sitting on his stoep that he assumed he would be there still.
At the time it was an unsettling experience. When I think about it now, I am a little envious of my oupa. It seems reassuring to me to have a space so intimately, so obviously, yours. That stoep, that house, that street in that town was where Albertus Johannes Nortjé belonged. Perhaps that was all general Piet Cronjé ever wanted. Perhaps all of us would have liked a stoep like that.
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