Telling stories not to die of life : myth, responsibility and reinvention in The smell of apples and Country of my skull

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

It is part of the human condition to continually develop and redevelop narrative structures through which identities are portrayed. As Daniel Schwarz explains: "we make sense of our lives by ordering [them] and giving [them] shape. [ ... J Each of us is continually writing and rewriting the text of our life [ ... ] To the degree that we are self-conscious, we live in our narratives – our discourse - about our actions, thoughts and feelings"(Schwarz, 1991, 108). Narrative and the identity created and maintained through it does not exist exclusively in the space of the individual, but is influenced by the cultural and socio-political context in which the individual operates as part of a group, be it a community, society or nation. There is therefore a complex relation between individual and collective identities, where each should ideally shape and reshape the other. Myths are defined as collective narratives of identity that give a group a sense of coherence and unity of origin. It is easy for myths to become fixed and oppressive, so that the reciprocal relation between the formation of individual and collective identity is broken down and individual senses of identity become, to a large extent, determined by the collective narrative. An example of a such an oppressive narrative is the myth of the Afrikaner group in South Africa. This paper aims to examine the contrasts between entrapment within this Afrikaner myth and escape from it, between the dictatorial nature of the old Afrikaner myth and possibilities for new and more dynamic myths to appear, as explored in contemporary South African literature. Specifically it looks at two Afrikaans writers whose texts explore the nature of Afrikaans myths of identity in post-apartheid South Africa. Mark Behr's The Smell of Apples evokes the silence and shame of those inextricably tied to the Afrikaner myth. Behr indicates, through his novel and through a personal confession, that he is unable, or perhaps even unwilling, to break free of the Afrikaner myth. In contrast, Antjie Krog's Country of My Skull indicates a desire to reconstruct the Afrikaner myth. While Behr exhibits a sense of shame, Krog experiences a sense of guilt and responsibility as an Afrikaner that ties her to the actions committed by others in her group. This sense of guilt is known as metaphysical guilt, which "is not based on a narrow construal of what one does, but rather on the wider concept of who one chooses to be" (May, 1991, 241, my emphasis). Krog chooses to be integrated into post-apartheid South Africa, but this does not mean that she leaves her sense of being Afrikaans behind. Instead, she individually reinvents herself as an Afrikaner in the 'new' South Africa. Her individual reinvention also has implications for the collectivity: "[by individuals reshaping themselves], they might be reshaping what it means for others to consider themselves as members of that group" (May, 1991,252).

Bibliography: leaves 63-70.