My mission to become better read in short fiction continues with the recommendation of a friend: Bosman at his Best is a collection of the works of Herman Charles Bosman. I hadn’t heard of him until my friend mentioned him, though it didn’t take me long to wish I had. Bosman’s gently satirical writing took me to the Transvaal of the early 20th century, mainly through the fictional reminiscences of the venerable Oom Schalk Lourens; raconteur supreme of South Africa’s equivalent of America’s Wild West. Other stories take a detour from the wide open spaces of the veldt to the confines of Pretoria prison, following Bosman’s own reprieve from the death sentence and subsequent ten years of hard labour.
Like Hemingway’s early stories, Bosman’s stories present slices of the lives of his characters with little or no explanation. He leaves it to us to judge their foibles and idiosyncrasies, and to decide whether or not we’d like them – or whether they would like us.
For Bosman doesn’t romanticise his characters. In his stories, there is very little love lost between the ‘Boer’, the ‘Kaffir’ and the ‘Rooinek’, although they often learn respect for one another. My own favourite is Funeral Earth, which brings in all three of the enemies determined to lay claim to the red earth by staining it redder with one another’s’ blood.
Like the best of his stories, Funeral Earth combines humour and tragedy in a very few pages. It’s simultaneously a very intimate story showing the outlook of a farmer, and the story of the making of the country of South Africa.
He died in 1951, at the age of only 46, at the beginning of the Apartheid era. This collection left me wondering what he would have written about that time, or indeed today’s South Africa, had he lived longer.