Wednesday, September 07, 2011

101. Soulmates by Alex Smith

Alex Smith's Soulmates was shortlisted for the 11th Caine Prize for African Writing in 2010. The story appeared in New Writing from Africa (2009) published by Johnson & King James Book, Cape Town.
Mary of the bees and thorns, Mary of the porcupines and nubbly roots, namelijk Maria, genaamd Magdalena, van welke zeven duivelen uitgegaan waren, Maria minus seven devils, Maria after whom I have been named, help me, please! Outside spiders were spinning webs, bees were waiting, motionless, for day, and porcupines were chewing through the frost and rutty bulbs of the renosterveld. Inside Maria was tearing. The door to the room was closed, but windy wind, tumultous as Maria's loss, violated the locks and cracks and came in with grit and insects, to witness the splitting of the elliptical entrance to Maria's physical soul, and, regardless of the fragile circumstances, boorish wind rampaged about the room with all the rattle of seven devils. Maria was laid out on a bed of coarse sheets.
Soulmates is the retelling of a historical event that occurred in Cape of Good Hope in the 18th Century. It is a story of love and murder, of a woman who, in finding love, found death for in finding love she stepped over an abominable line: killing her husband, in a patriarchal era, and falling in love with a black slave in an era where all that blacks were good for were dienaars en slawe: servants and slaves.

Maria was married to 'Rough' Franz Jooste, 'a knurled farmer, who has spent his blessed savings on negotiating for a bride price' at a young age her family was in need of the money. From the story we observe that Maria is depressed. There is no joy in the marriage, no love, no affection exhibited by Franz. There was two main activity that Franz demanded, one was asked, the other was taken: food and sex, respectively. Sex with Franz was one of a punishment through asphyxiation, physically and emotionally, than it was of love, for Franz, as portrayed in the story, was a straightforward person who goes in directly for what he wants. It was one-sided without the kisses, without the conversation, without the sharing of emotions: it was always rough and dry. 
Franz, who had stripped her of clothes to fondle, squeeze, prod, suck, suffocate, vandalise and admire her, and now now slept fully dressed with his pants still unbuttoned and his mouth hanging open, ...
Consequently, Maria experienced no joy in the household. Not even in her language, as Franz had 'disallowed her mother tongue, French' thus taking away her willingness to read the 'humourless Bible in Dutch'.

Suddenly, Maria, who had always thought of herself as better than their slave, Titus, realised that she was no different from him; they were both slaves to Franz, beaten by him at his will for the least offence and sometimes for nothing at all. However, 
Impish Titus with tapering fingers, ..., in spite of everything that was in his life possessed the playfulness of youth. He was a jester, not especially gifted at comedy, but irrepressibly inclined to joke.
This meeting, this realisation forbade doom. From then on Maria 'grew fond of the Biblical book of Titus, regardless of its Dutch, and from it drew comfort.' Titus would dress her wounds with lotion and herbs after the master had beaten her; Titus would get her a flower, a leaf, a speckled egg, a feather, even as the master refused to buy her clothes. Then one day Maria 'leaned upwards and held her lips near to Titus's lips.' And the abomination was complete.

Death by impalement and decapitation to Titus and by strangulation to Maria was the judge's sentence, when Maria shot and killed her husband after Titus's shot failed to kill him for beating Maria. The sentencing of Maria and Titus took place on September 1, 1714 and Titus lived for two more days after his impalement, giving up life on September 3, after which
His right hand and head were sawed off and fixed on the gates of Jooste farm as a warning to other slaves who might dare to love beyond their quarters.
This story, full of biblical allusions (for it seemed that Franz Jooste was one who kept the Lord's words in some sense), shows how far the people of South Africa, and humanity in general, have come. For 'today, they would be allowed to kiss, allowed to love and would surely have been acquitted from the charges of murder, for they were acting in self-defence'. From the latter statement, one can deduce that this story is meant to be a rallying call for their 'names to be cleared'. Yet, they were
'a contemptible slave guilty of carnal intercourse' and 'a woman who gratified her foul and godless lust'
I am extremely impressed by this story; not only for the quality and beauty of its prose (reason why I quoted part of the opening paragraph to the story at the beginning of this review), but also for the unlikely source from which the story was taken. With this story, Alex Smith has shown the wideness and deepness of the river how varied the fishes that swim in it. Read the true account of this story here.
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Brief Bio: Alex Smith was born in Cape Town but has lived in China, Taiwan and the UK. She is a teacher, textile merchant, a bookseller and an author. She has been shortlisted for and won several awards. In 2009 she was shortlisted for the PEN/Studinsky Award judged by J.M. Coetzee for Soulmates, which was also shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing and is currently part of the Caine Prize anthology for 2011 To see the Mountain, after appearing in the New Writing from Africa anthology. She won the 2011 Nielsen Book Data Booksellers Choice Award for Four Drunk Beauties (Random House publication). She was also the prize winner in the Tafelberg-Sanlam Youth Literature Competition 2010 for her youth novel Agency Blue. In 2009 her story Change was included in the prestigious Touch anthology of stories by 25 top South Africa authors.

ImageNations' Rating: 5.5/6.0

Other Caine Prize Shortlist: Waiting by E.C. Osondu (2009)

4 comments:

  1. This sounds incredibly emotional and painful, but also great to see true stories like this retold to show the suffering that people lived with. And still live with in some places.

    ReplyDelete
  2. @Amy, yes it is. One feels the sadness, frustration and helplessness of a woman trapped in a stale and completely useless marriage and laws which prevent people from marrying over the colour borderline.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I would love to read the story. I wish they had not been caught!

    ReplyDelete

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