Let us travel in time and turn to the seventies in the nineteenth century. We find ourselves in Bloemfontein, the capital village of the Oranje Vrijstaat, in what is now South Africa. Bleomfontein is young settlement of about thirty years at that time. People from many places have descended on this place. People from Dutch ancestry, German ones, British, Malayan people, people from local communities.
One a stagecoach arrives in Bloemfontein. The exuberant Hirsch family returns from a visit to Germany, a young woman from Scotland is on board. Also the protagonist is on board. He is a Dutchman who has travelled to Bloemfontein to find some relief from his ailments. During the journey to Bloemfontein mister Versluis struggled with his health and upon arrival he is taken to one of the local hotels, run by mrs. Schröder, to recuperate. Dr. Krause visits him on a regular basis. Another regular visitor is reverend Scheffler, pastor of the local Lutheran Church, who was raised on a mission station. In order to get more privacy Versluis moves to a kind of private guesthouse, run by the Dutch lady mrs van Vliet.
Versluis is the outsider and the observer in Bloemfontein. He prefers to stay on the fringes of society eventhough many people welcome him and invite him to their homes. Especially the Hirsch family is keen to welcome him. Scheffler pays regular visits, notwithstanding the clear non-believing views of Versluis. It seems that every European is welcome, very much so, to keep a European stronghold ‘in the heart of Africa’. That is what dr. Kraus told Versluis. Mrs. van Vliet wants to keep a Dutch presence in Bloemfontein. It seems everyone is looking for identity. Where do I belong? Do I belong to Bloemfontein or The Netherlands? To Bloemfontein or Germany? Reverend Scheffler was raised on a mission station, but went to Germany for his theological studies and now serves this congregation in Bloemfontein. Where does he belong? He has decided to choose Africa as his place of home. Who accepts the other in his otherness? When, during a walk, Versluis is caught by a thunderstorm, he is being helped by the Amien, the Malayan coachman of the Hirsch Family. While helping Versluis Amien is chased away by Joseph, one of the black workers at the hotel run by mrs. Schröder.
Next to identity as a theme I saw another theme: emptiness. Versluis does not want to get involved with other people. He wants to be on the fringe of society. Even when people near him (e.g. that Scottish lady with poor health, in the room next to his at the hotel, or fellow Dutchman Gelmers) are close to death he sees first and foremost his own condition and his own longing for distance and privacy. He looks at the emptiness of the area around Bloemfontein. he is welcomed by this emptiness, he is embraced by the silence.
Schoeman has written a book that prepares the reader for slow reading. Do not expect one great event after the other. Look for the small steps, a short sentence spoken. Slow but going strong. One line after the other and Schoeman keeps you attached to what he writes. No distance.
Karel Schoeman – ‘n Ander land – 1984
This novel has been translated into:
English: Another Country, Sinclair-Stevenson, London 1991
German: In einem fremden Land, Knaus, München, 1993
French: En étrange pays, Éditions Robert Laffont, Parijs 1993 / Éditions Rivages, Parijs 1998.