Honesty is the feature of all good literature. This quality has been called many other names – unprejudiced, disinterested, a negative capability – but essentially it is a writer’s ability to outstare something emotionally uncomfortable and to truthfully report his or her findings. Of course there is some slight irony in this in that its honesty, on most occasions, takes the form of a ‘dishonest’ fiction. But literature’s honesty is not that of empirical fact but rather psychological sincerity.
Although Dana Snyman’s The Long Way Home is a non-fictional account of his travels through South Africa, Snyman concedes, in his author’s note, its fictional ‘dishonesty’. Supposedly an account of one journey from the Cape to KZN to see his ailing father, Snyman admits that it is in fact a montage of three separate trips. However, it is the literary honesty of Snyman’s book that is its most valuable and interesting quality. For The Long Way Home – originally published in Afrikaans now translated into English – must be one of the best recent attempts to understand a cultural inheritance in the ever-shifting South African social and political landscape.
The book starts with a visit to what Snyman has discovered is his true ancestral home – a farm owned by the first Snyman, who was the progeny of van Riebeeck’s bodyguard and an Indian woman. This is the first hard truth he readily accepts as part of his identity – a fact that he keeps from his ‘pa’, a pastor, who once counted the AWB amongst his flock. The book ends with a visit to a museum where his ‘great-great-great grandpa’s’ oversized Voortrekker trousers are on display. From forefather’s farm to paternal pants Snyman drifts from dorp to town and town to dorp relating the stories of his encounters with ordinary men and women.
He visits Pofadder, the scene of a recent armed robbery, and Lindley, the place of a brutal farm murder. He goes to the Masakeng township to visit Julius Malema’s childhood neighbours, to Blood River to consider his childhood education and finally to Nkandla, the place of Jacob Zuma’s birth. All the while he reflects on not only his attachment to these places and people but also, through phone calls to his father, the history of the Afrikaners and their complicated relationship with South Africa. Along the way Snyman meets and chats to various people; from Smittie Smit, a water diviner in the Karoo, to Kitte, an Afrikaans drifter, to of Zuma’s relations in rural KZN. All the while Snyman, with his laudable and unblinking honesty, evaluates just how he fits into the contemporary South Africa that has arisen from the burnt and festering remains of apartheid’s cauldron.
The book is essentially a mea culpa of sorts – an attempt if not to apologise for his own actions, then to concede the wrong doings of those who went before him. However, it is here where Snyman’s attempt at ‘literary honesty’ becomes confused with an honesty of another kind. For Snyman’s tale is, at least at times, a sentimental journey and by its own admission displays a clear nostalgia for a world largely created by an apartheid fiction. The ‘noble and decent Boer’ whose simple honesty and attachment to the earth – an archetype he encounters on several occasions – is never far from Snyman’s understanding of his own identity and is one that mirrors the honesty of the book itself.
However, although one can’t help but feel some sympathy for this myth in Snyman’s rendering, there is an all too obvious fictionalised fallacy. For in his conclusion Snyman says that although people like his father voted for laws that ravaged people’s lives, they were also ‘proud and hard working’ and ‘paid their tithes’. But this explication of ‘psychological honesty’ is perhaps a smokescreen for an empirical fact, because these decent men did not merely vote for the laws, they in fact enforced them. And in so doing tipped over what was an already boiling crucible of evil.
This and the ever so slightly over sentimentalized ending are, however, the books only faults in an otherwise engaging and readable narrative. And to be fair to Snyman he does go some way to admitting that he is ‘fed up with people, myself included, who can’t stop yearning for the past. That’s what’s making us feel out of place.’ Quite so, but is it not also true that that this ‘past’ largely did not exist? Sadly the conclusion Snyman never reaches, but has a strong calling from the book’s shadows, is that the fiction of ‘noble Boer’, the ‘decent Englishman’ and the ‘struggle hero’ are all, to a some extent, a dishonesty. And is it not, after all, this deception – rather than the myth of ‘good men led astray’ – that explains South African’s confused sense of belonging to a place where fictional memory bares no relation to quotidian reality?