I read Ingrid Winterbach’s To Hell With Cronjé (Open Letter Books, 2010) at some point over the end-of-year holidays, staying up late to finish it despite the ongoing problems I am having with my eyes (a frustrating kind of eye fatigue). I bring this up only because the book is printed in a lovely but very small typeface called Bembo that, while pretty, made me want to throw the book across the room on several occasions as I squinted in the light of my reading lamp and rubbed at my smarting eyelids.
Eyes are very important to this book, or rather, “seeing” is important. There is a lot of scanning the landscape, watching other people to guess at their decisions and motives, studying the natural world, examining faces, being a witness to both words and acts, and even—in one special instance—the experience of a ghostly vision, a visitation.
Even the narrative perspective that Winterbach uses becomes a kind of “seeing.” The story is told through a close focus on one character, Reitz—he is the only man whose thoughts we are given. But he is watching the others so closely it often feels like an omniscient perspective. What Reitz notices and evaluates and worries at, so the reader does too.
To Hell With Cronjé is a historical novel set during the Boer War in South Africa. While the book is very much about this moment in history, I found myself much more drawn to the elements of the novel that spoke far beyond this particular setting and time. Not that I wasn’t curious to learn about it, but I think the success of the book is particularly related to how much the story operates outside its historical anchor. It is a book of wandering and of friendship forged in war, a book of longing, of fragile and fleeting connections. It is about the dangerous tension between belief and knowledge, and how people navigate that tension when they stand at opposite ends of that spectrum.
While reading To Hell With Cronjé, I found myself thinking often of Cormac McCarthy. The journey that Winterbach lays out for her two main characters—Reitz and Ben—felt very similar to the one experienced by McCarthy’s young hero in All the Pretty Horses. This comes, I think, from the juxtaposition of human-centered violence with a deep study of natural beauty and solitary thought. In many ways the book felt very masculine (perhaps I only noticed this because Winterbach is a woman?), and I know this comes from its focus on war, and on these men living out in the camps and in nature. So I am curious to read her other novels—only one other is translated into English, The Book of Happenstance—to see if she repeats this aesthetic or does something else entirely.
I haven’t said much about the story itself: the basic premise is that Reitz and Ben (and two other soldiers) leave their commando unit in order to return a traumatized young soldier to his mother. These men, some more consciously than others, are flirting with desertion. They end up getting picked up/captured by another commando unit, a band of wounded men and misfits left to survey a small area, and are in danger of being killed for having left their unit. They must prove (to the others and themselves) that they were not deserting.
Behind all of this are the little stories that make the book into such a quietly intense read: the war tales the men share around the campfire at night, Reitz’s attempts to commune with the ghost of his dead wife, Ben and Reitz’s scientific studies of the natural world, the power relationships between the men, the lack/loss of women because of the war, the variations and struggles with racism… the list goes on – with everything interconnected and related. It is neatly done.
Perhaps what I loved best about the book (and how it differed the most from, say, a Cormac McCarthy novel) was how it resisted any grand heroics and how quietly it resolved itself. Its resolution is not neat, nor was it without very serious complications. But it is very human. It asks the reader to be satisfied with something rather messy and a situation that feels both fitting but also quite sad. On top of all of this, the last line is pure genius.