By Lin Sampson for The Sunday Times
Dominique Botha (Umuzi)
The book arrived and I thought, God not another plaas novel. I could not have been more wrong. False River is the story of a golden boy, mad as a loosed balloon, told by his sister in a manner so acute it burnt me.
I meet Dominique Botha at the Mount Nelson Hotel. Her face has the beauty of a Vermeer painting and her hand hovers over her mouth. She has a complex about her perfect white teeth because at school she was called perdebek.
Her book is based on a family, hers, who have lived on Free State farm for six generations. There is heritage everywhere, portraits of Huguenots, bibles, goose filled eiderdowns. “Our ancestors are very ugly,” says the irreverent brother, Paul. “The Voortrekkers were just wankers.”
From the start Paul is off the chains. What do you want for your birthday? “The school to burn down.” He is feral, sexually predatory, writes to Stephen Hawking about fractals and takes five bergies to the Mount Nelson for dinner, demanding a wine steward. He lacks survival armory and is naked in the world, the boy with the highest IQ ever recorded at Hilton College. He has scratched his name on the flap of his satchel: Paul Michiel Botha the 6th. He gets the poetry prize at school and then breaks into the Old Boys’ Club and drinks everything in the clubhouse.
“Paul is in trouble” are words that echo throughout.
The father, nicknamed “Oorlog”, is a gentleman farmer with verligte ideas; the family always use the “non-white” entrances in the local shops. An aristocrat whose life is measured out by seasonal rites, he is half blind but pilots his plane and says “Ag jirr, any landing you can walk away from is a good landing.” When the sister, Dominique, sees the vision of an angel at the window and goes into a swoon, pa says, “Stop that crap”. Mother is a beauty with long brown limbs. “Masai,” says Pa.
Because they don’t back the government the family are thought of as communists. “I grew up in an idyll but there was all this stuff going on underneath,” Dominique tells me. She would pray that her parents would vote Nat and join the Dutch Reformed Church.
“People say writing is cathartic,” she says. “I found it harrowing. I had to excavate the pain of Paul’s death. It’s such a large thing to build and then if it is not worth it…”
In those days the fight was between the Afrikaans and the English. When Paul went to Grey College, Pa said, “This is an important day for Paul. Don’t speak Afrikaans until we leave.” A passing boy said, “Check the rock spiders.”
The Boer War hovers. “The English burnt the house down during the Boer war, but ma says it was probably a pot left on the stove that caused the fire.”
Paul drives the book as he descends into hell and comes to dust. The writing speeds us along, flawlessly nuanced. “Ma said to the dominee, If you believe in apartheid you are either criminally ignorant or just plain criminal.”
“’What do you mean mevroutjie?’ he says.”
It is the word “mevroutjie” that cracks you up.
The book pulls many threads together but the profundity always lies between the lines. Terror Lekota is a friend who frequently visits. “After the rugby Pa and Terror went to the swimming pool.” Pa is teaching Terror to swim using Boetie’s water wings.
Says it all.