Nicholas van der Swart always knew he was different, but to avoid the violent punishments that come with being gay in Apartheid South Africa, he has carefully kept his true self a secret. By the standards of his brutal father and the machismo culture of Afrikaners, “moffies” like him deserve nothing but scorn.
Then, at nineteen years old, Nicholas is drafted into the South African army. He soon finds himself caught in a world entirely at odds with his identity, forced to fight for a cause he doesn’t believe in. Here, he will face the hatred and violence of his tormenters, but will also experience his first glimmers of love, and finally find the strength to survive.
A long overdue account of Apartheid South Africa’s criminalization of homosexuality, André Carl van der Merwe’s acclaimed debut novel is the basis for the critically acclaimed film Moffie, directed by Oliver Hermanus.
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As we pull away from the kraal, a woman staggers from her hut through an opening in the primitive fence. Her wailing, the painful suck-gasping when her cry is spent, rasps through me. At this moment, I know that I am witnessing anguish so deep, so allen-compassing that nothing in my nineteen years could have prepared me for it.
It is hot, but I am shivering. Everything about this scene is harsh: the sounds, the smell of exhaust fumes, the metal of the Buffel. It hammers me like a tenderiser. The noise when the driver changes gears, which would normally pass unnoticed, hits the soft places deep inside me. Nothing gentle can survive here.
I see the devastated woman's ragged run. It is as if she is trying to rip the pain from her chest. Her tattered clothes flutter like streamers bursting from inside her.
We round the kraal, and the fence draws a curtain between us. She is looking up when the bullet enters her body. Then she falls, face down, crumbling as if her frame has been whipped out of her. There is a small puff where she falls, the response of the dead dust to this stolen life. Above her broken body hangs her husband — or what is left of him.
I have been thrown into hell; herded into the Defence Force, into the abattoir of its border war like an animal to slaughter, with no say over my own destiny. Forced to kill people I don't know, for a cause I don't believe in.
My best friend Malcolm is sitting next to me. We are the only national servicemen on the back of the vehicle. We are the only ones who haven't killed before, and we are the only ones who didn't volunteer for this life of war. The other soldiers have chosen this existence. Killing has settled in them, and they are different for it.
I want to look at Malcolm but I can't. I want to talk to him. I want to tell him how I feel, but sharing my fear could prove too much, could make me lose control, and all I have left is this thin line of restraint. Nothing else is within my power.
I should be watching out for terrorists, but the radio has told us that we are still a few clicks away from where the other soldiers are waiting — at the last point of contact — where we will resume the chase. But now, before even processing the possibility of a contact, I have to fight my inner battle.
I put my head down, double up in the moulded seat of the landmine-protected vehicle and pull my rifle in to prevent it from snagging on the bushes. For a second I imagine a bullet travelling along this tube, a bullet aimed and triggered by me. I picture the first round waiting in the chamber, right here under my face, and instinctively I check the safety catch.
Then I place my hands on either side of my head, like blinkers on a carthorse hauling scrap in Maitland. 'You must pull yourself together,' I say to myself. 'You have to stay calm. Focus on good things, positive things.'
There have been positive things in this, the most significant year of my life. Large enough to balance the outrage that is the Defence Force. I have experienced three remarkable relationships in this unmitigated hell.
Malcolm, whose friendship I have been waiting for all my life; Ethan, my love; and Dylan, whose image now induces a pain that outstrips the fear. Dylan, dark around those sad eyes that saw so much.
The shriek of the radio tears me away from him. It hisses and talks in pockets of squelch, in short sharp bursts. I look up at the untainted nature around me: cicadas, insects, plants with fragile new growth, small bird's nests. Through all of this we thrash like blunt scissors through silk. My skin crawls when I think of the delicate beauty we are disturbing in our baneful quest.
The sun bites at my already burnt arms and neck. Heat enters the fibres of my brown shirt, changing its smell. The goose bumps on my skin rub against the fabric, and drops of sweat trickle down from my armpits.
To the side of our crude progress, slightly higher than the Buffel, I watch the smooth flight of a yellow-billed hornbill. I study its flight, like Da Vinci would have. But I study it to escape. I think of my childhood, searching for the safe places before the great divide of these past months.
Uncontaminated fragments from years ago rise up in me: my grandmother scraping burn off the breakfast toast so as not to waste; the names my mother had for our favourite food: roly-poly-pudding-and-pie, apple-crackle-daisy-tart; games I played in our back yard. So soft are these memories that I shiver for their protection.
If I die, so will they.
But time has caked grey survival and greasy denial into my memory like layers of grime in an old kitchen. Looking back on such an ordeal, it always seems less terrifying than at the time. So, to be true to my story, I trust the notes I made during that time.
At night I escape and uncoil the binding threads of memory. I implode into a hypnotic state, where I float over fields in the Northeastern Free State and live the recurring dream of my youth: I am weightless, floating, but held securely, and I know that divinity flows through me. I know I am connected, but free.CHAPTER 2
At the age of three, woven into me are the love of my elder brother, the love of the rolling hills that surround our small town, and the love of the Zulu woman who cares for me during my mother's long illness. Within this trinity I am totally secure. Frankie and I are one; the physics of this synthesis is not questioned. We move as a unit — only sometimes he moves separately. When I lie on the large softness of Sophie's breasts, I have no connection with fear. This security stays with me for the rest of my life — people around a fire, their huts, the land, and I, swaddled in different kinds of warmth. My parents, our house, food and shelter simply form the lining behind the true fabric.
Frank and I, little-people march, break away from Sophie and run ahead. She calls us back and takes our hands. Then, when the path levels out again, she lets go and we run ahead. Frank will be going to school next year, but the implications don't concern me. I have never been exposed to the ripples of such events.
Like an abundant woman's body, the hills are gentle and soft. Ahead of us, drawing us, are three huts and a fire. Above them the setting sun splits the indigo sky. Smoke swirls in pockets around the people in the yellow light of the fire.
I smell the early night scent of the soil that the valley releases only at this time of day. It is fertile, like sex, an exhalation of virility, and seeping and drifting through it is the fragrance of burning wood. These smells are in me, an unseverable link to that part of my life. It is often the most delicate that remains resistant to the erosion of time.
Sophie, Frank and I are drawn into a universe of concentric circles: the fire, then the people, then the thatch-roofed clay huts lit by the flames and final light in this ether. I can't see inside the huts, but they invite me. They want to receive me and hold me. A large blanket is wrapped around me and I snuggle into it, pushing away a frayed edge to open my face.
On my lap is a yellow enamel plate. The chipped black line around the edge hugs the contents of putu porridge, milk and sugar. The smell of the blankets, the people, the fire and the happiness wrap around me; a softness so deep that no evil exists here.
Black faces shine as the light of the fire licks the smooth contours of their features. Gleaming white teeth break through large-lipped laughter. Sparks climb up above the fire like glittering nebulae and spiral beyond the oval window of my blankethouse.
The deep, hollow voices of the men, like old trees, contrast with the high-pitched yell-singing of the women. Babies in blankets tied above full hips sink in and out of this hypnosis.
A glimpse of paradise.
I know that this is how we are meant to feel. But this right, taken for granted, will be stripped by the immense contrast waiting on the periphery. Waiting, perhaps, for me to feel the loss in order to completely grasp what happiness is.
At this time my parents are the roof and walls of my existence; my backup. My true home is made up of Frankie and Sophie's devotion. My sister, Bronwyn, is only a mild chafing, mostly disregarded by the two of us.
Although Frankie is two years older than I am, we are like twins, like two parts of the same being. I live one half of what we see, feel and think, and he the other half, making each experience whole.
The year of the Cat ends and the year of the Dragon begins; my last year at the foot of the Drakensberg (Dragon mountain), in the warmth of its fire. Three years earlier, in 1961, when I was born, South Africa gained its independence from England and became a republic — an event that would impact on my life more than any other world event. The new government is run by a small minority of whites, mostly Afrikaners, my father's people, who set us on a tragic course — all in the name of God.
This is it. The time has come ... Waiting for my mother to call me, I am aware of a depression that has settled in the sad morning light of the curtained room. My knees are pulled up into the hollow under my chest. I am lying still, hardly making an imprint on the mattress. So terrified am I that I have not moved from this position all night.
The light reflects off the wood-panelled walls onto my blue tog bag. In it is the kit we've been instructed to take. A narrow shaft of light through a slit in the curtain becomes distorted over the objects in the room. It is like a door opening into the room; instead of me passing through it, it passes over me. If I close my left eye I can make the light jump forward, then back again when I open it and close my right eye. I am too afraid to look at my watch.
Outside the sounds that find their way into the room are as familiar as ever: the almost human murder-screams of the pigs being fed, the birds chattering before immersing their wings in the first morning light, the murmur of the farm labourers on their way to work.
When there is such drastic change, surely everything else should also adjust to the altered state? When one steps into misery, all else should follow suit, for it could mean the destruction of a soul.
The familiar sound of my mother's footsteps on the wooden staircase, the first three steps of wood on brick, and then the hollow sound of suspended wood as she turns the corner. On the wall above this corner is a drawing of a blue beach buggy with impossibly wide tires, the wheels turned in boyish expectation. In the right-hand bottom corner my name is signed.
People have a rhythm, born from an internal tempo; or perhaps it is the ratio of their skeletons to their weight. It is as unique as the markings on a finger. I know my mother's sound like a calf knows the blazes on its mother. With her comes the scratching sound of my dog's nails as she jumps from tread to tread. My mother will say, 'Rise and shine!' and then Dot will jump on the bed and my mother will say, 'No-no, off-off!'
Two years. Two years! Today the knock on the door is different, my voice is different, unwilling, but the door opens with the same ride on its hinges. The Defence Force hasn't got to my dog yet. That will only happen tomorrow when she rushes up the stairs and doesn't find me in this bed.
Where will I be tomorrow when she comes looking for me? Where will the train be when she starts whimpering for my mother to open the door? In the bent reflection of my chrome lampshade my mother stands.
'It's time, my boy.'
As I am pulled into myself, I swing my legs over the side of the bed, bring my body up and sit on the edge, bent over.
While I'm getting dressed I look through the window at the valley. Above the house the strong mountains hug my separation. On the one side the morning light layers colours across the cliffs. On the other side the mountains are dark, heavy against the bright blue sky. Smoke from the labourer's cottages has drifted over the narrow road and lies amongst the peach trees like a phantom horizon below which the other world can still be seen. Outside my room is the large molehill-pimpled lawn that I've so hated mowing on Saturdays.
I walk down the wooden stairs to the smell of egg and a noise from the portable radio that no one seems to be listening to.
Bronwyn is not-having-to-go smug, and my father is happy that I am going to be taught some lessons — lessons he could never teach me, lessons I refused to learn: his doctrine, blast-frozen in Calvinistic self-convincing, a safety belt of dogma and fear.
What is certain is that I will suffer, mainly because of my views, my unwillingness, my desires. Only my mother feels sympathy. Her love is larger than politics and the threat of communism taught by my school and my father. Now she only sees her son being sent to war, and nothing is more important.
'You must eat, Nicholas. It will make you feel better and you don't know when you will get food again. How long is the train journey to Middelburg?'
'I think three days.'
'Nonsense, two days at the most,' says my father, who always repudiates whatever I say.
'The train stops at every station to pick up conscripts.'
'Still, it won't take three days.'
I don't argue.
'Come, eat just a little. Can I get you something else?'
'No, he will eat what you've given him or nothing. Too bloody spoilt, that's his problem.'
'No thanks, Mom, I'm really not hungry.'
'Leave him, Suzie, if he doesn't eat he'll faint, like the sissy he is.'
At this my sister giggles and she and my father grin at each other. Yellow egg yolk drips from his bottom lip and runs down his chin.
'I'm just glad it's not my job to get you into shape. I feel sorry for those instructors.' He chuckles, looking at my sister for support.
'For heaven's sake, Peet, Nicholas is leaving today! Why make it unpleasant?'
'The sooner they whip some discipline into him the better.' The egg has coagulated on his chin, settling in his goatee, stopping its movement just below his smirk.
'You are going to see how the real world works, my boy,' he says to me, and then to all of us, 'It's going to be good for him. Best thing to get boys away from their mothers' apron strings. Little babies. At your age I was a man.'
How dare he talk like this? What does he know? He never went to the army. It is his government, it is what he stands for, that I have to go and defend. I am going to fight for him! The thought churns my empty, knotted stomach.
'I don't believe in what I'm being forced to do.'
'Please, let's not get into that now.' But our anger is larger than my mother's pleading.
'It's your bloody government that you voted for that I now have to fight to protect!' My sister, two years my junior but in her third-parent capacity, says, 'Don't say bloody.' She knows this will irritate me.
Again my mother tries to keep the peace while my father with the egg on his face lectures me on politics in between insults. So I retaliate. Then he calls me a moffie and I say, 'If I am one, I am what you have made me.'
When he lashes out, it is a split-second lapse of restraint rather than a calculated attack. It is a strike-and-grab blow, the corner of the table preventing his full weight from following his fist and allowing just enough time for my mother's pleas to stop the attack. But the blow is strong enough to knock me off my chair.
I sit on the mottled, dusty carpet supporting myself with one arm, the other hand stopping the blood dripping from my nose. There is a measure of freedom in my anger, for it is stronger than my fear. In the kitchen doorway my dog cowers, ears flat and eyes darting between my father and me. I get up and go to the bathroom.
Behind me my mother is crying. This is what brings regret; she hardly ever cries. They are arguing — I hear her anger through her tears. They are arguing about him hitting me just before my leaving for the army. What if I don't come back? How will he feel then? The part I hate to hear is, 'And how can you call your own son that? You should be ashamed of yourself!'
'You know what I mean, Peet.'
'You mean a moffie?'
'Yes, it's the most despicable thing you can call anybody, never mind your own son!'
'You know what I meant.'
'What did you mean?'
'I meant he is a sissy, not a homo.'
'Well, you should know better. I never want to hear that word in this house again. Sissy is bad enough.'
'Well, he is one, and I hope they flog it out of him in the army. I sure as hell have had no luck with him.'
Between my arms supporting me on the edge of the basin, blood drips into the running water. A dark red drop sucks from my nose. As it hits the water, it expands into a stringy, paler red and then spirals down into the drain. In it I detect frail, slimy mucus.
I see myself framed in the mirror. A red streak flows from my right nostril. Some blood makes its way over my lip and I suck it into my mouth, tasting the metal and salt. Behind the rage in the mirror is my mother.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Moffie"
Copyright © 2006 André Carl van der Merwe.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
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