Moffie-André Carl van der Merwe
nationality: South Africa
Nicholas van der Swart has always known he is different. Unable to live up to the expectations his family, his heritage and his culture have of him, he grows increasingly diffident and introverted. When, at the age of 19, he is conscripted into the South African army, he enters a world that is utterly at odds with his every sensibility. Here, he will face the scorn and violence of his tormenters, but will also find the strength to survive.
So, just from the description you know this is going to be a difficult book to read. Did that prevent it from ripping me apart emotionally? Nope. Did van der Merwe put me back together again? Sort of, but I lost some pieces along the way.
Another semi-autobiography of brutal war, the emotion behind van der Merwe's writing is palpable. The strength of the novel is not in the words or prose but what's behind it all. There's a certain tenderness to the writing that makes it all the more harrowing when that tenderness turns to the brutal sights of war. When we hear about South Africa's apartheid, we understandably hear the most about the black oppressed but every society has the oppressed. This is a book about a silent and oppressed minority forced to be the tool of the majority. It's a brutal and brutally honest portrait of being gay in a deeply conservative, intolerant culture and its army. While the bulk of the book takes place in the army, those sections are interspersed by flashbacks to civilian life. Those flashbacks paint a picture of not being much better than the army. That's saying a lot.
Throughout all the tragedy, the bodies, the threat of Ward 22 (a gay rehabilitation ward), and the army making every effort to make them into a homogenous mass of browns, there's a thread of strength. van der Merwe shows how true strength can only be gained from adversity. He demonstrates that despite every effort to beat out difference under the brown shirts were still individuals. There's a sense of grit that makes the latter part of the novel a story of strength as Nicholas grows into a pride in himself. There's just enough uplift at the end not to make this novel unremittingly bleak. A true monument to his fellow sufferers.