Outlandishly theatrical, well-wrought and witty, Middlepost is Anthony Sher’s first novel. The jacket illustration – Sher’s own work – sets the tone. It presumably depicts some of the novel’s characters, misshapen and naked as eels, rising up into the heat and dust. Inside are five suggestive line drawings by the same hand, the most notable of which is the frontispiece, ‘The Great Fish Vomiting out Jonah upon the Dry Land’, Jonah being one of the names which the central character of Middlepost might easily have contracted, given the number of times he is compared to that desolate hero.
In fact, he changes names as another man might change his shoes, and is eventually dubbed ‘Smous’ (‘rhyming with “dose” ’). This book is an account of his adventures as he travels from his native town of Plunge in Lithuania to Middlepost, South Africa. The year is 1902, just after the Boer War. Smous has set out, ostensibly to link up with relatives and establish a foothold for his immediate family, in the face of anti-semitism back home. When first encountered, he is feeling lost and constipated at the Cape Town docks. He is soon listening with great intensity and sublime incomprehension to an immigration official: indeed, 330 pages and countless months will go by before he has the pleasure of hearing an intelligible Yiddish sentence in South Africa.
His linguistic ignorance combines with an ingrained tendency towards voyeurism, and the world around him is transformed into a continuous, speechless spectacle. In the face of the violence he encounters on a cart ride away from the docks, he feels ‘absented, in visible’. He arrives – not of his own volition, very little that happens to him is of his own volition – at a Cape Town brothel. For the first time in his life he sees a parrot, not altogether unlike himself, eyeing from its perch a sombre, smoke-warped world of assorted humans, and randomly imitating snatches of their language. For the first time in his adult life – and he is about forty years old – he sees (from a distance, it is true) a woman’s breast. One thing isn’t new to him: the impression that he is an outsider. Intermittently, we are given flashbacks to Smous’s life in Plunge: always the hero in Biblical play-acting games with his cousin, witnessing what could well be acts of anti-semitic violence, settling on a milking-stool at the kitchen door and watching the world go by. In those days, however, he managed no more than to fashion a niche for himself as the family fool. Now we follow him, from pitfall to pitfall, on the road to becoming a consummate stranger.
In the company of a Bushman woman named Naoksa, he travels northwards to the semi-desert Karoo, and there takes up, again almost inadvertently, the role from which he derives his name – ‘Smous’ being the Afrikaans word for itinerant peddler. It is not long before his donkey collapses in the heat while merchandise scatters from the cart. He sets off on foot in the direction of Calvinia, where his relatives live. Naoksa will accompany him, fully convinced that he is taking her back to the home from which she was abducted under gory circumstances by a Boer commando. As usual, neither of them understands a word the other is saying, but Smous is made perfectly aware that Naoksa does not want to leave the cart, not yet at any rate. There follows a scene worthy of Herman Charles Bosman. In it, Sher demonstrates not only his wit but also his ability to enter the minds of characters working at complete cross-purposes, with dire consequences for themselves – and for the future of South Africa.
‘Right, come along,’ said Smous and turned to go.
‘Your arrows,’ said Naoksa.
‘Your arrows,’ she repeated, ‘you almost forgot your arrows,’ and pointed to the box of knitting needles on the cart.
‘You want me to take those?’ asked Smous, and when she nodded emphatically, he gathered up a handful, muttering, ‘Right, we’ll take along the knitting needles, fine, we might want to run up a few pairs of mittens along the way, who knows? Anything you want, anything you say ...’ She watched him intently – she had often seen him bartering with these bright, silver arrows, but had never been able to locate the bow. There was still no sign of it now.
‘Right,’ said Smous, ‘let’s go.’ He walked a few yards along the road, aware that she wasn’t following, then stopped and turned. She was staring after him, with a puzzled expression. ‘What now?’ asked Smous through clenched teeth, determined to avoid another bewildering conversation.
‘And all this meat?’ said Naoksa, pointing to the donkey.
‘Yes, that’s a donkey,’ said Smous, ‘a dying donkey. Say goodbye to the dying donkey and let’s go.’
She watched him beckoning her away from the beast, unable to believe her eyes. Who was this person – shaped like an adult, with grey in his hair, yet knowing nothing, like a child?
The pair eventually reach Middlepost, a settlement in the Karoo which makes up for its tiny size and historical insignificance by swelling out with a host of preposterously amplified characters who are also horribly real.
There is the Boer Breedt, boulder-thick, bullying and passionate, engaged in mortal compact with his lodger and Boer War foe, the English Major Quinn. This melancholy gold prospector, fuelled up with the local rotgut, tries to smooth-talk Smous into bed with him, while Smous, almost oblivious to Quinn’s intentions, wonders how he can do the same with Naoksa, who falls prey, like almost every other woman in sight, to the lusting Breedt. There is a Shakespeare-spouting polyglot: the Thembu manservant April, whose black features wear a white mask contrived by Quinn and mutilated by Breedt. There is Breedt’s wife, fresh from a Boer War concentration camp and challenged by April’s rebellious son. And as each chases the other round and round, like figures in some moonstruck nursery rhyme or cartoon strip, they set in motion a whirlwind of ungodly violence all too familiar to observers of South Africa.
Where does Smous stand in all this? Breedt enters into holy complicity with him, referring to the ‘Special peoples’ from which they are descended. The other characters absolve Smous of the ills with which they are beset, while he himself feels prised from the realities crowding in on him, still ignorant of what others are saying, very much the Hebrew – he who crosses over but does not settle. He is the Jonah figure, vomited out upon (very) dry land and surveying the wicked ways of his neighbours. He is also trapped in the voyeur’s virtual impotence, and has a driving want for its antithesis: ‘there would be violence – real, bloody violence. He feared it, and longed for it: a violence that would exclude him, a violence that he could witness, recoil from, yet feast off, secretly.’ Stoked by this longing, Smous commits at least one act of betrayal which could well cause even the mildest reader to clench a fist and damn him.
In this way, Sher resolutely keeps the reader clear of any easy identification with Smous, or indeed any other character in the book: up on the stage where he has set them, they are all a black and dazzling puzzle of paradoxes. Sometimes, one wishes he would let them down for a while: in fact, the bombastic verbosity of some of the characters, particularly in the opening Cape Town sequence, is such as to fog up the story. It is as if they had been overcharged with verbal voltage while waiting in the wings. This effect fortunately soon wears off as the show rolls on.
And roll on it does, in act after entertaining act, shot through with dramatic tensions and articulated in a language at once vivid and barbed. There comes a moment, however, when one wants an intermission, a respite from the seductiveness of Sher’s imagery, a moment to sit back during the changing of scenes. This is particularly the case in the third and longest section of the book, when Smous and Naoksa reach Middlepost.
There is too much bizarre angst-ridden activity at this point. As Naoksa sees it:
the people were like birds, always eating. Yet although this was a place of plenty, where the men didn’t need to hunt or the women to forage, for some reason she was made to work constantly on exhausting, meaningless tasks. Here it would be foolish and bad simply to sit in the shade and be. Here time was something to be filled, not experienced.
Consistent with such a picture – and consistent also with much South African fiction – is a distinct lack of sensuality in Middlepost. We get rut and pursuit and cataclysmic coupling, but almost no sense of intimacy.
This suits Smous down to the ground. For him ‘all intimacy was alien ... much better to leave some space between you and other people, to stay back from the plans churning round inside them. And as for marriage, love, desire, that sort of thing, here he simply thanked God for blessing him with quieter instincts than other men.’ There are some ways in which Smous recalls J.M. Coetzee’s Michael K. Both characters function as catalysts, revealing through their helplessness the powerful forces at work around them. Both are outcasts, buffeted about in troubled times, benighted and incommunicado. But unlike the autochthonous Michael K, Smous, despite his newborn South African identity, will always be doing a balancing act of planetary dimensions, ‘treading, hopping, dancing, as oceans and continents swept underneath him’.
Sher might have been inspired by Jewish folklore in conceiving Smous, and by the shlemiels of Chelm in particular: but he had no tradition of Jewish South African literature to refer to – nothing to compare with the groundwork available to writers such as Bellow, Malamud and Philip Roth in the United States. Dan Jacohson’s exploration of Jewish themes is largely done outside the South African context; Rose Zwi’s portrayal of a Johannesburg Jewish community hermetically seals it off from its surroundings, and lacquers it over with nostalgia; while Nadine Gordimer’s energies go towards articulating black – white dilemmas. It is as if she has neither the time nor the space to unwrap the gifts of her own ancestry. With twenty years’ distance from South Africa, this is precisely what Sher has been able to do.