Thursday, March 1, 2012

Herman Charles Bosman

LEOPARDS? - Oom Schalk Lourens said - Oh, yes, there are two varieties on this side of the Limpopo. The chief difference between them is that the one kind of leopard has got a few more spots on it than the other kind. But when you meet a leopard in the veld, unexpectedly, you seldom trouble to count his spots to find out what kind he belongs to. That is unnecessary. Because, whatever kind of leopard it is that you come across in this way, you only do one kind of running. And that is the fastest kind.

South Africa has a number of iconic writers – Nobel prize winners like Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee, to say nothing of mystery writers.  But few South African writers have caught the spirit and feel of the Afrikaaner  life style of the first half of the twentieth century like Herman Charles Bosman.  He is widely regarded as our best writer of short stories, with an ironic twist which is simply delightful and illustrates the contradictions of that period.
Herman Charles Bosman
He was born in 1905 in Kuilsrivier in the Cape.  Afrikaans has a wonderful word: dorp.  Literally it means a small town or village, but it has become an untranslatable description for a town which requires a whole phrase in English: “a one horse town and that horse died yesterday”.  Kuilsrivier was a dorp.
He was always interested in writing, but studied teaching at the Johannesburg College of Education, and subsequently took a job at an Afrikaans medium school in the Groot Marico – an area of large, dry, bush farms on the way from Johannesburg to Botswana.  The characters he met there, his wonderful ironic turn of phrase, and his human insight led to a suite of superb stories exposing the foibles of the era.  His protagonist in these stories was often the inimitable Oom Schalk Lourens.  (Oom being the Afrikaans word for Uncle – a universal honorific for every male over the age of 30.  The women are Tanies.)

Oom Schalk Lourens
I remember the occasion that I came across a leopard unexpectedly,and to this day I couldn't tell you how many spots he had, even though I had all the time I needed for studying him. It happened about mid-day, when I was out on the far end of my farm, behind a koppie, looking for some strayed cattle. I thought the cattle might be there because it is shady under those withaak trees, and there is soft grass that is very pleasant to sit on. After I had looked for the cattle for about an hour in this manner, sitting up against a tree trunk, it occurred to me that I could look for them just as well, or perhaps even better, if I lay down flat. For even a child knows that cattle aren't so small that you have got to get on to stilts and things to see them properly.

He was a man with a checkered life.  In 1926 on a school break, he visited his family in Johannesburg and during a quarrel shot and killed his half-brother.  Initially death, his sentence was commuted to ten years hard labor and he was released after five.  A novel based on this time –Cold Stone Jug – is often regarded as his deepest work.  After that he carved out a literary career complete with Bohemian life style and multiple wives.

So I lay on my back, with my hat tilted over my face, and my legs crossed, and when I closed my eyes slightly the tip of my boot, sticking up into the air, looked just like the peak of Abjaterskop. Overhead a lonely aasvoël wheeled, circling slowly round and round without flapping his wings, and I knew that not even a calf could pass in any part of the sky between the tip of my toe and that aasvoël without my observing it immediately. What was more, I could go on lying there under the withaak and looking for the cattle like that all day, if necessary. As you know, I am not the sort of farmer to loaf about the house when there is a man's work to be done. The more I screwed up my eyes and gazed at the toe of my boot, the more it looked like Abjaterskop. By and by it seemed that it actually was Abjaterskop, and I could see the stones on top of it, and the bush trying to grow up its sides, and in my ears there was a far off humming sound, like bees in an orchard on a still day. As I have said, it was very pleasant.

After a party in 1951, he experienced severe chest pains and was taken to hospital.  Shortly after, he collapsed and died, not yet fifty years old.  His gravestone reads simply “Die Skryfer The Writer” indicating his achievement in the two European-based languages. 
Only three books were published in his lifetime, but since then many of his short stories originally published in obscure places have been rediscovered, collected and published.  All produce insight and a wry smile.

Then a strange thing happened. It was as though a huge cloud, shaped like an animal's head and with spots on it, had settled on top of Abjaterskop. It seemed so funny that I wanted to laugh. But I didn't. Instead, I opened my eyes a little more and felt glad to think that I was only dreaming. Because otherwise I would have to believe that the spotted cloud on Abjaterskop was actually a leopard, and that he was gazing at my boot. Again I wanted to laugh. But then, suddenly, I knew.
You can read the full Bosman story In the Withaak's Shade here

Michael – Thursday.


  1. Thank you for this wonderful piece of writing. I held my breath until the very end. And I will read more of Bosman's stories, thanks to you.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with LOW.

    JM Coetzee is one of my favorite authors. With Bosman, I now have three (or should I say four) from SA. And I loved the pace of the story as you told it, Michael, so much so that I missed your connecting story as I read on to the end of "In the Withaak's Shade" "offsite."

  3. "In the Withaak's Shade" it part of Bosman's "Mafeking Road", you can get the full books from Amazon at