Skip to content

Home thoughts, from Abroad: Euro-African or Afro-European?

6 June 2016

Venture to the InteriorVenture to the Interior by Laurens van der Post
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is 50 years since I read this book, so I am reliant on my diary for what I thought. It was quite a thought-provoking book. When I read it, I had been in Britain for four months, I was living in digs in Streatham in South London, and driving buses for London Transport, and feeling homesick for South Africa, and rather alienated in Britain. That was why i bought the book and read it, and that coloured my attitude to the book.

It provoked two thoughts in me: first, that Laurens van der Post, though born in Africa, wrote about Africa like a European. That annoyed me, particularly because of my own circumstances at the time. Secondly, he wrote about forgiveness in a way that may have been reflected in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa thirty years later.

So this is what I wrote in my diary on 6 June 1966:

I read more of Venture to the interior and came to the conclusion that van der Post is above all things a European. He may have been born in Africa, but to him Europe is home. He writes about and sees Africa through European eyes. Alan Paton is one South African writer I know who writes as an African, as a non-European. There may be others, but I haven’t read them. Much of what van der Post says is true, though, particularly about air travel. There is something about an international airport that is unlocated, almost like the in-between land of pools in The magician’s nephew. It is neither here nor there. It is not a part of the world at all. A strange unreality pervades it, and an atmosphere that both attracts and repels. One is no longer located in time and space. One is not anywhere, but everywhere is a possibility. The possibilities are exciting. It is a sort of cocoon transitional stage, only here, you feel, can you make the choice. I am nowhere – where shall I be? London? Nairobi? New York? Karachi? Paris? Entebbe? Johannesburg? Rome? Salisbury? All are possibilities.

It bugs me, this European outlook, the assumption of European superiority. Even he, born in Africa, writes in terms of England as if England is the almighty bloody absolute from which everything
else in the world is to be judged. It is understandable in an Englishman, who must describe new things in terms of what he already knows, but not in someone brought up on a Free State farm.

He writes very well at times, but I can’t help feeling that he is a traitor to the land of his birth. He has become an Englishman. And what is this England, this soft land, where the corners of everything are rubbed off? Where so many things are blurred and ill-defined? The climate and geography are strange to me.

I have just been through an English spring, but it is completely different to spring back home. England in spring is like a great fat lazy cow chewing over the cud. It is not, as in South Africa, a sudden awakening. A fanfare of wattle blossoms to announce its arrival in August. Then silence.

Then spring, when in a few weeks of September everything turns green. The azaleas and bougainvillias flower. The winter brown turns to summer green, and again there is silence for a space, and then a fanfare of jacarandas to announce that the process is completed — summer is here.

Not so in England. There is a blurring of the edges, a shading over from winter to summer. No
grand dramatic displays and flourishes, but a little bit here, a little bit there. First this turns green, then that. One plant flowers, then another. Bushes blossom while the trees are still all dead. It is a much slower process, an unfolding, like a movie lap dissolve done very slowly, the new picture slowly emerging out of the old. In South Africa it is like a changing of lantern slides — one disappears and the other takes its place. Both are beautiful, but I think I still prefer ours.

6 Jun 1966 – Van der Post on forgiveness

One thing that struck me in the first couple of chapters was his father’s forgiving the British after the Boer War.

It has always been one of the more frightening ironies of Afrikaner life that people like my father, who with Smuts and Botha had fought and actually suffered in the war, could forgive and begin anew, whereas others, alive today, who were never in the heart of the conflict, can still find it so hard to forgive an injury that was not even done to them, and how can there be any real beginning without forgiveness?

I noticed something similar in my experience with war crimes officers, who had neither suffered internment under the Japanese, nor even fought against them. They were more revengeful and bitter about our sufferings and our treatment than we were ourselves. I have so often noticed that the suffering which is most difficult, if not impossible to forgive, is unreal, imagined suffering. There is no power on earth like imagination, and the worst, most obstinate grievances are imagined ones.

This seems to touch on the core of a rather big question of human behaviour, One is that we so often find it easier to forgive those who injure us than those who injure others; and this imagination business. Reading about life in Nazi Germany conjures up all sorts of horrors, but they are imaginary horrors, I have never experienced them. In South Africa there are probably the same horrors, but one gets used to them. This is why so many people emphatically deny that South Africa is a police state, because it does not fit their mental image of a police state. But Germans probably felt the same 30 years ago.

I seem to recollect Trevor Huddleston in his book Naught for your comfort saying how much harder it was to forgive things done to other people, because one can only imagine how they feel. And [those who questioned] the value of Liberal Party rural meetings, because you know that you go to encourage them in the face of SB intimidation, but by going you only encourage the SB to step up their campaign of intimidation. But it is a selfish martyrdom attitude — a sort of “I alone can bear the suffering” kick. But they too must bear their share of suffering — we are not the ones to deny it to them. It is their privilege as members of God’s kingdom.

Now my 75=year-old self looks back at my 25-year-old self, and I look at the last paragraph in the light of current debates about racism. In another blog article, How racist are you?,  I suggested that one of the measures of racism was how often one used words like “we” to refer to people of the same skin colour, and “they” to refer to people of different skin colour. And in the last paragraph quoted from my diary the “we” were undoubtedly white, and the “they” were undoubtedly black. Does this mean that liberals are ipso facto racist, as the proponents of “Whiteness Studies” seem to maintain?

Perhaps they are right.

But perhaps we need to realise that race isn’t everything, and wasn’t everything, even in South Africa under apartheid. It was the proponents of apartheid that wanted us to believe that race was the most important characteristic of a person, and the liberals (white and black) who were hammered for saying it wasn’t, and wanting a non-racial democracy. And the “we” and “they” in that paragraph were just as much, if not more, about class than about race. “We” were white urban bourgeois intellectuals from Pietermaritzburg, mostly university students and lecturers, while “they” were black rural peasants, under threat of being removed from their land and deprived of their livelihood because the place where they lived constituted a “blackspot” on some Pretoria apparatchik’s map.

Post-postscript, June 2017

It also strikes me that what van der Post and Huddleston wrote about imagined suffering could help to explain why young British Muslims go to join radical Islamist groups like ISIS. I suspect that many of them may be second- and third-generation, children and grandchildren of the original immigrants, who have heard about the sufferings of people in far-away places, and fild with anger and indignation go to do something about it. And the thing that really radicalises them is the rhetoric of people like Tony Blair, David Cameron and Theresa May, who want to drop bombs and cause the suffering that they can only imagine.

View all my reviews

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Irulan permalink
    8 June 2016 10:01 am

    a friend once told me that LvdP was somewhat economical with the truth. Would you concur?

    • 8 June 2017 7:17 pm

      I’m not in a position to judge. For one thing, it’s too long since I read the book.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: