Karel Schoeman, discovering the completed journey

The famous last paragraph of Karel Schoeman’s Another Country reads:

Once, when he had just arrived here; once, in another time when he had still been strange here, alienated from the country in which his stay, as he had thought, was to have been merely temporary – once, his walks in the evenings had taken him to the edge of the town and he had hesitated there, wavering before the landscape that had lain open before him, unknown and unknowable, and an inexplicable fear had filled him at the sight of that emptiness. But there was no cause for fear, he thought as he began to walk slowly and without hurrying back towards the landau, leaning on his cane. The emptiness absorbed you and silence embraced you, no longer as alien wastes to be regarded uncomprehendingly from a distance; the unknown land grew familiar and the person passing through could no longer even remember that he had once intended to travel further. Half-way along the route you discovered with some surprise that the journey had been completed, the destination already reached.

The South African novelist Karel Schoeman died on May 1. It appears he committed suicide. Schoeman published 19 novels, ten autobiographical works and about 40 historical works reflecting life in the colonial Cape (most of them tomes), mostly in his first language, Afrikaans.

The reaction to his passing by journalists, literati, historians, philosophers and other readers in various publications during the past week, attest to his indisputable position as one of the most remarkable South African writers. He was remarkable for many reasons, one of them his unrivaled output. Many of these historical works are biographies – sometimes on well-known individuals from history, but more often on the lives of forgotten and seemingly unimportant individuals.

Schoeman’s work has always focused on the past (even in a dystopian novel like Promised Land; Na die geliefde land). He describes the past thus: “The past is another country, unreachable in its distance, and what can be recovered from it, what can be preserved out of it, you carry with you.”

Sometimes the past is also likened to an impenetrable darkness. With his meticulous historical research, Schoeman traveled to that other country, he penetrated the darkness by recovering painstaking detail, often about seemingly insignificant persons or episodes. The patient reader who follows these long, winding renderings finds no clear philosophical arguments or moral judgements, but as if carried away by the rhythm that almost becomes an incantation readers find themselves returning from another country with something preserved from the experience. Perhaps this is most clearly suggested by the end of Verliesfontein, but it surely holds true for all his work, because Schoeman’s novels are the kind of novels that Milan Kundera idealized when he wrote: “The sole raison d’être of a novel is to discover what only the novel can discover. A novel that does not discover a hitherto unknown segment of existence is immoral. Knowledge is the novel’s only morality.”

Schoeman wrote the kind of novels that discovered hitherto unknown segments of existence. These discoveries of new knowledge were usually the result of painstaking renditions of everyday experiences of ordinary people. The apparently insignificant details that form the backbone of his novels slow down the reading process, and it creates an awareness of each passing moment. His later work (the “voices trilogy, Hierdie lewe, Die uur van die engel and Verliesfontein as well as Verkenning), reveals a painful awareness that language can never represent the past, can never succeed in presenting reality. We cannot pin down and preserve any moment in reality. Life is slipping away like sand. We only have the odd traces that remind us of our predecessors and past events. Schoeman doesn’t provide answers. His novels are performances providing experiences of possible ways of thinking, of remembering and of being.

JM Coetzee’s remark about ’n Ander land (Another Country) actually holds true for all Schoeman’s novels: “’n Ander land strikes one as a philosophical novel not because it carries out a philosophical investigation in any depth, but because it performs a mimesis, an imitation, of the movements of the spirit in the process of a philosophical quest.” For this reason Schoeman’s later novels are probably the ultimate in the sense that they cannot be rendered in any other medium. They cannot be summarized or filmed, but provide experiences of thought processes about what it means to live and die. But of course they are not examinations of living and dying on a vague existential level, his novels investigate what it means to live and die in Africa.

Not all Schoeman’s novels are impossible to render in other media. The 1973 novel, Na die geliefde land (the double implications of the title lost in the English translation, Promised Land) has been filmed almost three decades later and this dystopian work remains a careful analysis of the tension between nostalgia and creativity as responses to crisis.

Schoeman refused to be a guide. He did not indicate a route. Rather he forced readers to a stand still,  to reflect and to discover, with some surprise, that the journey has been completed.

Further Reading