Another Country

Schoeman, Karel

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Galbo, Sebastian
  • Date of entry: Oct-24-2017

Summary

In Karel Schoeman’s novel, Another Country, Versluis, an affluent and educated Dutchman diagnosed with tuberculosis, immigrates to Bloemfontein, South Africa, to convalesce. Bloemfontein in the 1870s, located within the remote interior of the Free State, is little more than a dusty outpost populated by first- and second-generation German, Dutch, and English inhabitants. As the novel quietly unfolds, Versluis’s tenuous recovery, and subsequent regression, are punctuated by his observations of the community’s struggle to both preserve and break from European culture to form a distinct South African identity.   Whereas Versluis cherishes his familiar Dutch customs and courtesies, here, in Bloemfontein, he must adapt to the community’s irregularities and gaucheries. Nevertheless, he is regularly astonished by the town’s culture of insouciance—a lack of punctuality, etiquette, and municipal orderliness; its sometimes frowzy fashions; disregard for conservatism; and ease among poverty, violence, and isolation. His observations, however, are not the mordancies of a snobbish European, but a wrestling with his sense of profound alienation as a precariously ill man living abroad in a strange country.   Informed that his case is terminal, Versluis resigns himself to the inescapable state of his life. With fresh sensibility, he embraces life in Bloemfontein, becoming more receptive to its people and daily life. Particularly, for Versluis, the veld—with its rocks, dust, succulents, and solitude—takes on a potent and portentous symbolism, as an immutable and implacable presence (and emptiness), much akin to the illness that is killing him. Within this ponderous flux of change, of a gradually evolving Africa, Versluis peacefully comes to terms with his imminent death.

Commentary

Read as a kind of travelogue penned by a terminally ill immigrant, Another Country’s dominant themes, which grow increasingly complex throughout the course of the novel, include social class and patient alterity (or ‘otherness’). Interesting context for the novel, of which Schoeman was probably not unaware, is British writer Anthony Trollope’s travelogue, South Africa: The Transvaal. Griqualand West. The Orange Free State. Native Territories (1878), in which Trollope writes: “Bloemfontein is becoming another Madeira, another Algiers, another Egypt, in regards to English sufferers with weak chests and imperfect lungs”—and with a sardonic jab, adds: “It seems to the ignorant as though the doctors were ever seeking an increased distance that relief for their patients which they cannot find in increased skill” (Trollope 260). Indeed, Trollope’s observations of Bloemfontein’s sanitarium life closely mirror its depiction in the novel.   Schoeman’s novel magnifies breakdowns of social class hierarchy through the lens of human illness. Tuberculosis, as it functions in the novel, is not only a disease that isolates and ‘others’ its victims, but an insidious biological force that sometimes bolsters or undermines class distinction. For example, upon arriving to the town, Versluis, relapsed, unconscious, and on the verge of death, is brought to a local hotel. Recovering, he observes that the quality of care he receives, previously cold and perfunctory, improves after unpacking his belongings: “[I]t was […] the ivory brushes and toilet bottles with the silver tops on the chest of drawers that has evoked this increasing friendliness […] he had revealed himself as a traveler with a pigskin toilet case and little flasks with silver tops, as a man who these could give orders and pay for whatever he consumed” (Schoeman 9, 12). Versluis must display these small tokens of wealth to impart that he is not a man without means who has arrived to die at others’ expense in an alien land.   Class hierarchy is destabilized when another tuberculosis-ailing Dutchman, Gelmers, arrives to Bloemfontein. Versluis takes instant antipathy to his fellow countryman, who is of an obviously lower social class: “[Gelmers’s] palm was hot and sweaty and grip slack, his voice high-pitched, nasal and slightly breathless. […] It was more probably the cheap, loud suit that irritated him…” (101, 103). Other subtle passages denote the stark difference in class—Schoeman embroils his Dutch characters in awkward sartorial tension—Gelmers always in “heavy shoes […] his thick-soled boots thud[ing] across the floorboards”, whereas Versluis dons “narrow, shiny evening shoes” (166, 167, 277). Rather than taking hold of their commonality, finding reciprocity in their mutual suffering and memory of their homeland, the men remain entrenched class opponents. No matter their respective social status, however, both men are viewed as alien invalids in the eyes of the Bloemfontein community, subject to the inexorable progress of illness.

Publisher

Sinclair-Stevenson Limited

Place Published

London

Edition

1994

Editor

David Schalkwyk (Translator)

Page Count

320