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Friday, December 09, 2016

The Peripatetic Philosopher shares:


Another excerpt from DEVLIN, the novel

© December 10, 2016


A normal situation is apt to become a choreographic microcosm of a macrocosm phenomenon.  That proved to be the case for Devlin with “The Dinner Party.”

Devlin and Sarah along with Martin and Meghan were invited to the St. John’s Wood Estate for a dinner party located in Regency Park in northeastern Johannesburg, the home of Sir William Trenchard, a British national with a home in South Africa.  He and his wife, Lady Anne, were playwrights who had written a new play, “John Donne Resurrected,” that had been fully banked for the London stage for early 1969.  The dinner party was a celebration of that achievement.

Devlin knew nothing about the play or the playwrights and had no idea why he and Martin had been invited.  He tried to beg off, but was strong-armed by Sarah and Martin.  Sarah never knew a party she didn’t die to go to while Martin considered it good for business.  By chance, Devlin was a fan of Donne’s poetry now recalling a signatory line of one of the bard’s poems: I am two fools, I know, for loving and for saying so in whining poetry, who are a little wise, the best fools be.  He couldn’t put it better.

He found it ludicrous that he the son of an Irish Roman Catholic brakeman on the railroad was to be dining with British royalty and their friends.  What could be more absurd?  As for Sir William, he resembled a Bengal tiger masquerading as an English gentleman.  His features were grand, medium height with the lean handsome face and stiffness of military command, with eyes haloed with a tinge of jade.  They sparkled with a grand radiance as he greeted his guests as they were announced by a tuxedoed Swahili giant: “Mr. Seamus Devlin & his wife, Sarah Devlin, Mr. Martin Matthews & his wife, Meghan.”  He knew Sarah was eating this up like a thousand calorie dessert, while Meghan seemed to take it in stride. 

They then ascended the wide staircase lit by mellow hues of stained glass windows passing the cavernous and eloquent laden library into the main dining room.  The ascent had all the ambience of three hundred years of colonial rule. 

Devlin wondered if anyone noticed this absurdity or that none of the guests appeared to be Afrikaners, that is, if his eye test were accurate.  The Afrikaner government ran the country but the Brits behaved as if they were still in charge.  In his obvious short exposure to such ambiguities, it seemed apparent that the Brits had failed to acclimate to South Africa as their ancestral home the way the Afrikaners had.  The Brits bodies might be in South Africa for business, but their minds and hearts were in Great Britain.  The mother lode of gold and diamonds supported that nostalgia of lost empire.  Hypocrisy, Devlin thought, was palpable but in an odd way he was getting used to it.

*     *     *

The British Empire in South Africa was stunned in 1948 by the loss of power as the Afrikaners took charge.  Now, here in 1968, they were essentially vanquished with only Southern Rhodesia holding on to the remnants of Empire against impossible odds.  That said the South African Brits looked into the headlights of the future and decided to party as if nothing had changed.

Sir William and Lady Anne, in addition to being playwrights, were magnets of the British television industry, but thus far had been unsuccessful in opening television to South Africa, a media that was vehemently opposed by the Afrikaner government. 

Devlin noticed light flooding down the curving staircase as he climbed to the dining room, silhouetting a figure in evening attire who was slowly descending to meet them.  He was a tall, loose-limb young man not much older than Devlin with dark tousled hair, bruised bloodshot eyes, ruddy cheeks of a well lived in face with the contours of early aged wrinkles.  Devlin mused, too much sun and too many cigarettes. He was smoking a cigarette now and did not remove it from his wide full-lipped mouth as he said, “Got here early, missed the crush.”

Devlin stopped, looked at him with a puzzled expression.  “You are …?”

“Marshall Dabney,” he said offering his hand, “I’m with ITI," seeing no comprehension in Devlin's eyes, he continued.  "I'm your friend Lucky Williams’s boss.”  And then making a stiff-shouldered bow to Sarah, “And I take it this is your lovely wife.”  He gave her a curt smile, which she returned.   

“I’ve been here five years, wretched politics, can’t wait to get back to the States, how long have you folks been here?”  They were holding up the line of guests who were now bunched on the staircase, but Marshall seemed not the least concerned.

“Marshall,” Devlin said, “we’re holding up the line.  I suggest we move on.”

The American executive looked hard at the faces below, waved his cigarette with a dilettantish flair, moving back up the stairs, “if you insist.” 

Sarah turned and whispered into Devlin’s ear, “Display some social grace, please!”

He wanted to say I may be a hayseed but he’s a bozo, the ugly American in full form, but he knew this would have no traction with her.

He was still thinking of the library they had passed wondering how much it was used and how much was for show.  He’d like to spend the evening in there finding out.  They then passed a richly furnished anteroom, where several were already congregating with pre-dinner cocktails in their hands.  Sarah moved to stop but he continued passing through the open double doors that he estimated to be ten feet high and then into the eloquent carefully appointed dining room.  He roamed the room stopping to view and feel the warmth of the late afternoon sun on his face as it highlighted the well-attended garden framed by the majestic French windows laced in golden filigree. 

Someone was playing soft music on a finely tuned piano near the door.  The sandy-haired man turned from the piano and beamed in Devlin’s direction with him nodding approvingly.  The pianist was attired in a tuxedo as well.  Sarah was also dressed appropriately in an evening goon, but he insisted in coming in a business suit, and consequently, stuck out, as she had predicted, like a sore thumb.

He looked at the placards where everyone was to sit and noticed Sarah was far removed from him.  He sighed with relief, no lecture tonight, at least not during dinner.  There must be a God.  He sat down next to a woman old enough to be his mother.  She was fanning herself with her dinner program.  He noticed that most of the diners were middle-aged men and women with the girth to confirm their prominence; only the host and hostess were slim and athletic looking, while everyone sported a good tan except the lady next to him. 

Devlin had not spoken to either Martin or Meghan since they arrived, but saw that they, too, had been split up.  Clearly, this was by design to prevent people from talking shop.  It however increased his unease because it was so clearly contrived.  He was uncomfortable in social settings in the best of circumstances, but this was the extreme.  He felt non compos mentis and was afraid it showed. 

Martin was waving his dinner program at him.  He waved back.  He was still trying to decide if Martin was an innocent or the injured party from the fiasco at Kruger National Park.  He wondered, too, if Meghan had talked, and decided that would be the last thing she would do.  Sarah had been distant ever since, as if she had something cooking in retribution.  Whatever it was he was sure he would know in due course. 

Martin was dressed to the teeth in a tux, and looked quite handsome.  He even looked sober.  Devlin studied the faces seated across from him, and then took a pirouetted glance to the right and left on his side to take in the eminences of Johannesburg society, at least the British wing.  He felt imprisoned in a gilt-framed portrait of another time and place, which should be lodged more properly in a shadowy grotto among neglected books.  He was certain no one shared his gloom as they all seemed to wax gay and garrulous to the point that you could eat the noise.

Do you see me, da, from your place in heaven?  Your son is an interloper, a party crasher.  In your fifty years of life striving to maintain a sense of decency you never envisioned this for your son, did you, his joining the enemy who crushed you!  

“That man across from us is Count Stanislas Kosminski of Poland, he is the one with the full whiskers, and next to him is the president of the Barclay Bank of South Africa.” 

Devlin appreciated this as a conversation icebreaker.  He never developed the art.  Obviously, he was meant to be impressed.  He looked at the lady next to him, sharp-nosed with a whey-face and small, twinkling bead-like eyes, and nodded.

Undeterred, she put out her hand, “I’m Marya Sklodowska.  That was the name of my great-grand aunt, Marie Curie, the scientist, don’t you know.  I carry her original Polish family name.  My husband is that chap over there, perhaps you’ve already met him, Pierce Edmund, he’s South Africa’s most eminent bookseller.”

That perked up Devlin’s attention.  “What kind of books?”

“All kinds.  Why, does that interest you?”

“I’m a bit of a reader.”  He wasn’t about to launch into his interest in writing.  He’d never shut her up.

“I see, and you are?”

“Devlin, Dirk Devlin.”

“An American, I hear it in your deep melodious voice.  Are you a professor?”

“No, I work for a chemical company.”

“How impressive.  You must be very smart like my great-grand aunt.”


“What do you do if I may be so bold as to ask?”

Now, that’s why I hate these things!  How do you explain something that is mainly coded in silence and is not available for public consumption?  You can’t.  So you don’t.  The question begged dissembling.  “I do a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” he answered inanely.

Clearly miffed, she turned to the gentleman on her right who was already three sheets to the wind but more than happy to accommodate her with his inebriated lies.

*     *     *

Sir William touched a spoon to a glass, asking for everyone’s attention.  After welcoming the guests, he went on to say something about the new play, how difficult it was to get it right in terms of costumes, customs, character and history, and how they agonized over it for the past four years before bringing the project to fruition.  Nothing was mentioned about their respective global financial interests in radio, television, newspapers and magazines, many of which they owned. 

*     *     *

It was an intimate dinner party of some thirty people.  Devlin noted there were nearly as many attractive Bantu men and women serving as there were guests.  The Devlins and Marshall Dabney were the only Americans.  There was an Australian investment banker and his wife, a Dutch engineer and his wife.  The engineer had been looking for oil in South Africa without success.  There were three professors and their wives from Witwatersrand University.  Devlin imagined they were from the Fine Arts College of the university.  The Polish Count displayed a chest full of ribbons, which along with his broad mustache and silver dome made Devlin think of a Nutcracker doll.  It was interesting to see that the South African banker and his wife were seated on either side of Sir William and Lady Anne.  Then a late arrival caught Devlin’s eye.

*     *     *

He was a man about Devlin’s age darkly handsome, bearded, though not extravagantly so, perfectly attired in evening dress, tie-pin and watch chain glistening, and the thumb of one white kid-glove resting on his cummerbund, while the other hand swung a cane in slow silent arcs beside him.  Devlin found him fascinatingly distracting in a vague way while he noted what appeared to be a conspirator’s smile slicing across the man’s thin lips.  The man was the embodiment of Empire, he thought, splendid and decadent as if in a time warp.

It appeared as if his late arrival was deliberate.  Devlin’s attention, once insouciant, now focused rigidly on the man.  As he passed the other side of the dining table nodding to this and that person, he felt Devlin’s watchful eyes and stopped, looked Devlin in the eye, then surprisingly, graciously bowed.  Devlin dropped his eyes.  He felt suddenly cold, confused and embarrassed for his hypnotic attention to this man as if he were a peeping tom.

Shortly thereafter, Devlin was shocked as if by a bolt of electricity as he felt a hand rest gently on his shoulder.  “I’m Norton James of ICI, and you are, I take it, the young American who is going to make us all very rich.”

“Pardon?” Devlin shuddered, as he rose to shake hands with the eloquent bearded man, only to have the hand reappear on his shoulder and gently have him remain seated.  He took no comfort in being nearly a head taller than Mr. James.

“They tell me it is you who is putting this clambake together, our horribly incompetent affiliate, the Stone Age specialty chemical division of African Explosives, and your company’s sterling subsidiary.  I don’t even know your name, but the description of you is so accurate that I knew who you were as soon as I saw you.”  He took out a cigarette from a silver case offered Devlin one.  He nodded it off.  “Don’t smoke?  I envy you.”  Then he smiled broadly, as he lit his cigarette with his Ronson lighter.  “Some of your admirers call you ‘angel face,’ which I can see what they mean, but they missed your steel, am I right?”

“Dirk Devlin, everyone calls me Devlin.”

“How odd, don’t you think, I mean, for someone to be called by his surname?  When Devlin made no move to respond, the man did a strange thing.  He touched his chest with his cane.  “I’ve a confession to make.  You’ll think me terribly insincere.  I knew your name, knew you preferred to be called Devlin instead of Seamus, and right now I feel terribly wicked.  Can you forgive me?” 

When Devlin still did not respond, he raised his cane hand to his bearded chin, and appraised Devlin.  “My informants missed you completely.  They missed your uncompromising spirit, your no nonsense demeanor.  They also missed that steel in your eyes.” 

He took an elegant drag on his cigarette, and blew the smoke away from Devlin.  “I can see how that could happen.  You’re neither into small talk nor for looking people in the eye.  You don’t go for all that folderol.  Some take that to be your weakness, but it is apparent that you don’t care what they think.  They missed that."

Devlin still did not speak.  This man captivated him as if an eminent character rising out of a Victorian novel in the library of this august mansion.

“Yes,” Norton James continued, tapping another cigarette out of his silver case and depositing his butt into a small silver container, which disappeared into his coat pocket.  Devlin studied the initials on the cigarette case, N.W.J.  

Noticing this, James said,  "The W stands for William.  My mother was a history don at Oxford, and an authority on William the Conqueror.  Need I say more?”  He waited.  Devlin finally moved to speak but James filled the void before he could.

“I suppose she hoped that I might conquer something for bloody old England before it completely expired.”  He lit his cigarette.  “I also know while I’m in a confessing mood that I already knew that you neither drank nor smoked.  See how busy my agents have been?  Now, be honest, aren’t you a bit squeamish about all this intrigue surrounding you?”

Devlin didn’t answer.  The man’s public school voice put him in mind of Sir Lawrence Olivier as it had Martin’s.  They both sounded the same as if their tongues had been engineered to a common perfection in England's public school education.  Close up it was apparent James was closer to HB’s age than his, but the comparison with HB ended there.  James wore his confidence on his sleeve; HB’s confidence resided in his head.  Yet, he felt naked before this man.  Why?

Reading Devlin’s discomfiture, James added, “Sorry, old chap, if I upset you.”  What made him think he had that kind of power over him?  “In any case, you’ll be happy to know I’m not MI-5.” With dramatic pause, he allowed Devlin to ponder this, then resumed haughtily.  “I said we had never met, which of course is quite true, but my man John Cavendish has met you.  He described you to the “t,” but missed your steel.  I suspect he’ll pay for that.”

“You’re over BAF?”

“That’s right, out of ICI’s London digs, I’m John Cavendish’s boss.  I feel for him in this assignment now that I’ve met you.  He’s ambitious but doesn’t care much for the homework.  I surmise you’re all about the homework.”

“If you mean doing the job you say you’ll do, the answer is ‘yes’.”

He laughed.  “I don’t suspect he’ll be a member of your inner sanctum.”  He extinguished his cigarette, then went through the same ritual of stamping out the butt, depositing it in his silver container, lighting another, and resuming his soliloquy.  “Don’t you agree?”

Devlin remained silent.  Silence was his secret weapon and he employed it with the skill of a surgeon.  Norton James seemed oblivious to the fact that Devlin hadn’t responded to a single one of his questions.  The charade reminded him of the pomp and circumstance of ceremony without the music.

“Pity,” James continued.  “We Brits are an obvious ruin to be exploited by our American cousins without fanfare.  John’s into resurrecting Great Britain’s honor and glory.  He doesn’t see the lay of the land, sorrowfully so.”

*     *     *

To Devlin’s relief, Sir William asked for everyone’s attention inviting them to go to their designated places for dinner.  With that James waved his cane in departure, “I enjoyed our seminar, and I plan on taking your advice.”

“But I didn’t give you any.” 

“Sure you did.  Your silence spoke volumes.” 

People crowded around the tables now, examining placards, looking disappointed and moving on, organized chaos the British way, Devlin thought.  Eventually, he saw James reappear on the other side of the dining table directly across from him beaming like a Cheshire cat.  He had to smile to himself.  He was the guest of a Bengal tiger and entertained for the past twenty minutes by a Cheshire cat.  Were they not bookends of an emasculated empire? 

How could you trust a man who talked disparagingly of his South African affiliate and his man who headed the operation?  Much as James attempted to bait him he didn’t see Cavendish as friend or enemy, just someone he had to persuade to do his best for the common good. 

James thought he was clever and that he knew him.  He had no idea of his visceral hatred of the British for what they had done to the Irish and Ireland.  His roots went back to Dingle Bay outside the Six Counties of Northern Ireland.  How did James miss that?  Perhaps he didn’t.  Perhaps that is why he saw steel in his eyes.

*     *     *

As the Bantu servants rushed in with steaming casseroles of food, coffee pots, and wine bottles, the clang of silverware and dishes and sideboard conversations of the diners, it appeared to drown out Sir William’s attempts to hold court.  He finally gave up and withdrew into the group around him.

Devlin had turned his wine glass over and his coffee cup up.  No one loved coffee more than he did.  “You don’t drink wine, young man?”  It was the whey-faced lady addressing him.  “Wine has medicinal and nutritional benefits to rival food, surely you know that?”

It was clear that she had already had several glasses of wine, but hardly touched her food.  He had scarcely eaten anything himself, as the main course was a bird so small it seemed better suited to a cage where it could chirp the night away. 

“Did you hear me, young man?  I asked you a question.”

“I’m sorry, my mind was drifting.  Would you mind repeating your question?”

Just then a young servant coming out of the kitchen with a huge bowl of cold soup was upended when a gentleman rose from his chair abruptly and backed into her with red tomato soup spewing into the white hair and white gown of the lady next to him, as well as turning his white dinner jacket into a splotchy red and white.  It resembled a crime scene as a pool of soup on the mauve carpet had the appearance of spilled blood.

A hush went over the dining room and then nightmarish silence.  This only lasted seconds as the diners finally fathomed what had happened.  Lady Anne, who was also splattered with the soup, fought to maintain her composure but lost it in the end.  “How could you do something so bloody stupid?” she chided the servant, then caught herself, and smiled.  “Please,” then quietly, “get assistance to clean this mess up, now!”  Then added, “And bring in new linens and chairs.”  The chairs of the offending gentleman and his lady were mortally wounded with the stain.

“Yes, my Lady,” the young servant said in perfect English fighting back tears. 

The accident had not been the servant’s fault as Devlin had a perfect view of the whole affair as he faced the door to the kitchen on the other side of the dining table.  Sir William seemed undaunted by the mishap, which surprised him.  It was as if he was used to a modicum of chaos. 

Devlin watched as people programmed to empire quickly resumed as if nothing had happened.  The tomato stained guests disappeared, Sir William again resumed holding court to his coterie, while Lady Anne reappeared in a new gown with a fresh face and coiffure, now sparkling with composure.  The contretemps was replaced by the celebrated composure of the British stiff upper lip so acclimated to disaster.   

The whey-faced lady looked at Devlin as if nothing had happened.  “As I was saying, why do you not drink wine?  This is the best that I have tasted in ages.”

Wondering what he should tell the lady, she resumed.  “You’re not a Muslim are you?”

He looked at her.  Where did that come from?  He thought, do I look like a Muslim?  He was just about to invent his wine phobia, when she started to cry.  Huge tears welled up in her beady eyes and caused her mascara to streak down her cheeks like Indian war paint.  She wiped her eyes with her napkin, turning it black, still crying and muttering to herself. 

Devlin didn’t know what to make of this, or what to do.  He looked around him for help, but everyone seemed engaged in private conversations.  “Can I help you?” he asked helplessly.

“No one can help me.  You won’t even drink with me.”

She’s drunk.  That’s it.  “I don’t drink alcoholic beverages, madam, wine included, because I’m allergic to alcohol.  I could go into a coma.  Now you wouldn’t want that to happen, would you?” 

“You poor boy, why didn’t you say that before?  Why did you sit there mute as a fish causing me to think . . .?  She started to cry again. 

Then he felt someone behind him.  “Don’t get up!  I’m Pierce Edmund, Marie’s husband.”

“She called herself Marya something.”

Mr. Edmund smiled.  “I know.  She hates these things.  Drinks herself into a stupor.  Uses her great aunt’s name to cover her self-consciousness.  I could tell you were listening to her.  I hope we can see you again under different circumstances, you are?”

“Dirk Devlin, I’m with …”  Mr. Edmund wasn’t listening as he was lifting his wife out of her chair without protest and almost carrying her away.   “But is she related to Madam Curie, the Nobel Laureate?”

“Oh, yes, that part is true.  She has the same inquisitive mind of her great aunt, but unhappily, has never developed the tools to facilitate it as her ancestor did.  One of life’s many little tragedies.” 

And whose fault is that?  Yours?  Devlin wanted to say. 

“Pierce,” the whey-faced lady stirred, “aren’t you going to the smoker?  I’m not keeping you from it, am I?”

“Some other time, love,” he moaned feeling her dead weight in his arms.  “We’re going home.”

Devlin could see the relief in her face.  “You’re taking me home?”  Her voice was that of a little girl.  “You’re so good to me.”

“Yes, dear, I’m taking you home.”

Devlin watched them leave deciding something else was going on.  This was a lonely lady who felt abandoned; a woman who didn’t relish her aloneness yet retreated into booze as her only comfort.  Isn’t it ironic, he thought, two loners in proximity to each other but unable to negotiate their aloneness with any candor.  He knew too late that he was fond of her.

*     *     *

The smoker to which the lady had referred was a separate ritual to the evening affair.  Men and women retired to different rooms, men to the library and women to the anteroom where he had seen them having cocktails at the head of the stairs as they arrived, men having their cigars and whiskies and conversations around politics, business and international affairs, women smoking cigarettes, drinking champagne, wine and whiskey, gossiping about their dinner conversations as if conspiratorial spies.

John Donne may have written No Man Is An Island, but the present company suggested otherwise.  Devlin didn’t want to hear about the dirty tricks during the American presidential campaign back in the States, or about the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Nor did he want to be treated to a rehash of the riots in Detroit and Los Angeles or be asked questions about the high jinx at the Democratic and Republican Presidential Conventions in Chicago and Miami, much less about the Vietnam War, or the Cold War with Soviet tanks in Hungary.  But what choice did he have but to go to the smoker? 

Since he had spent so little time in the States in recent years, he confessed to honestly having no valid comment about any of this other than what he read in The International Herald Tribune.  He would have preferred to participate in a discussion of Donne’s poetry and its role in the new play.  That obviously was not going to happen.

No, he didn’t want a cigar; no, he didn’t want a whiskey or beer; yes, he would take a cup of coffee.  He decided to keep in motion hearing the buzz as he past clusters of two or three men, cup in hand looking at the books, which were so expensively bound he dare not take them off the shelves.  He studied the paintings on the wall and recognized a Degas wondering if it were an original, and decided it most likely was.

The room was encased in a solid cloud of the cloying odor of cigar smoke forming an evanescent umbrella preventing the nervous chatterer from escaping the room.  He looked at the group and decided they typically ate and drank too much and exercised too little if at all.  He had an urge to declare: Attention, plump and pompous movers and shakers of South Africa, you are living on borrowed time under apartheid.  Enjoy it while you can!   The reflection depressed him.  What was he doing about apartheid?  Nothing! 

*     *     *

It was as if Sir William had read his mind.  He was quite drunk by now, waving his cigar, and spilling his drink as he spoke.  “Imagine what this country would be like without apartheid,” he asked rhetorically as everyone stopped talking to listen.  “Imagine if these monkeys were ruling things what South Africa’s destiny would be?”  He paused.  “That aside most of us here tonight would be scalped, our homes burned to the ground, our businesses raided, our wives and children raped and kidnapped, our schools ransacked and torched, and all of this replaced with drug traffickers, roaming gangs of militias, unemployed blacks killing each other, disease rampant, society totally unhinged, the country reduced to chaos with everything driven back into the Stone Age.  So, I toast the Afrikaner government and apartheid for the good of South Africa and for all of us Brits.”

“Hear, hear, hear!” yelled the group in an inebriated chorus.

Devlin watched in amazement.  White-headed and bald-headed men alike, cheered like fanatics at a football game, not a naysayer in the bunch, not even sandy-headed Martin Matthews who held his drink high in agreement.

In the sanctuary of the library, Sir William could rage apocalyptically on what he dare not say in public.  Here professors could raise their drinks in agreement while writing anti-apartheid books, while these and other iconic heroes of free enterprise could behave as if refugees from a mental institution.

Devlin wondered if this were the prevailing Anglo view of South Africa.  Were the Brits complicit with Afrikaners because of blood wrenching fear more than for business reasons?  Surely, they must know the servants in their homes hear their maniacal wailing. 

He could imagine the outrage of the Bantu who while suffering social and economic injustices had to remain stoic while hearing their masters describe them as less than aborigines.  What could be more incendiary?  Had he wandered into a festering civil war zone?  He felt himself a coward for not speaking out against apartheid.  He knew why he hadn’t.  He couldn’t afford to, and in that sense HB was right.

*     *     *

He looked forward to discussing Sir William’s barbaric rant with Josiah.  Were Josiah white, he would have a superb career in South Africa, but would he think like these men? 

Devlin had had many conversations with his chief chemist, Rung Viljoen, and not once did he refer to the Bantu in derogatory terms, and certainly not as monkeys.  He neither thought of them as a race apart nor as being Godless.  Afrikaner history had struggled against the British, and sometimes the Bantu to establish a nation state.  He did have trouble understanding why the Bantu were critical of the Afrikaner government foe providing ethnic tribes with their own homelands.  Herein lay a blind spot. 

“What if your homeland is arid, underdeveloped with no infrastructure or industrial-economic base, and you are forced to flee to the British and Afrikaner commercial centers for work, what then?” Devlin had asked.

Rung looked at Devlin in his ignorance.  “You are judging the Bantu with Western idealism.  You have no sense that it is necessary for us to pitchfork these people into the twentieth century.  They are primitives, unwise in the ways of the modern world.  We are their guidance counselors.”

It was futile to argue with Rung, but Devlin still felt compelled to point out the fact that the Anglos controlled commerce.  Otherwise, why was he in South Africa?

That stung.  “Before 1948,” Rung said, “the British exploited the Bantu tribes for 300 years.  They exploited us as well.  They pushed us out of our own homes on the Cape, resulting in our trekking across the continent, not once but twice to the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.  Diamonds were discovered on one trek and gold on the other.  Both times the British followed to steal our wealth and discoveries, both times we capitulated and were subjugated to British rule, that is, until 1899, when the Boer War was fought against them, which we lost, enduring more subjugation and humiliation.”  He paused to see if Devlin was listening.

Satisfied, he continued.  “We are a tribe like the Bantu.  We have a different language, different customs, different religion, and different traditions than the Bantu.  But the Bantu have diverse differences among themselves in culture, religion, language and customs.  They are not and never have been a homogeneous group.  We know that.  We have tried to deal with that fact strategically and systematically, and for that we are criticized.”

Devlin imagined he was being given a history lesson that was typical of Afrikaner grammar school children.  Rung was a university graduate with two degrees from the University of Pretoria but his thinking seemed frozen in that early recitation of Afrikaner history. 

“Surely, you can see this is self-serving, a rationalization that hardly justifies draconian apartheid.”

“I will concede apartheid hasn’t worked as planned, but I will not concede that it is draconian.” 

“It may be a valiant attempt but, Rung, you must admit it is a valiant failure.”

“That may be how you Americans see it, but don’t you think that is a little hypocritical?  You have your own history of slavery.  We don’t consider the Bantu slaves.”

“That is true.  We have our own 300-year history of Negro enslavement.  But, Rung, you left out the fact that one of the reasons you left the Cape was because the British wouldn’t allow you to treat the Bantu and the Hottentots as slaves.”

“Oh, come on now!”

“Are you saying that is not true?”

“Yes, I’m saying it is not true.” 

Incredible, thought Devlin, he doesn’t know his own history so much for education.  There was no point in pressing on with the discussion.

But Rung Viljoen was not through.  “We Afrikaners were enslaved by the British from the moment they followed us to Cape Town in the late seventeenth century, denying us our religion, our language, and following us across …”

“You've already said that.

“We have done our penance.  What have the British done for the Bantu other than exploit them as they have exploited us?”

“Well, they did crush the Zulus Empire in the late nineteenth century, didn’t they?”

“Yes, and then the British favored the Zulus over us when it came to jobs.”

“I didn’t know that.” 

“There is a lot you don’t know.  You probably don’t know that the British tried to drive us off the Transvaal a year later.  We finally made a stand.  It was 1880.  That was the First Boer War.  You in the West remember only the Second Boer War fought in 1899.  In defeat, the British treated us as bad as the Germans were treated at Versailles at the end of World War One.”  Rung took a deep breath.

“The Second Boer War ended in 1902, and for forty-six years we plotted our revenge.  We went to school, studied hard, which made us ready for governance.  We developed our own language, created universities, wrote books, composed music, and created an indigenous white South African race of people.  This is our homeland.  We are a nation.  We have nowhere else to go.”  His eyes watered.

“The world sees us as a gang of thugs because of the Sharpeville Massacre.  They don’t see that the PAC (Pan Africanist Congress) provoked it.  Think of this.  We were only a few years in power when PAC disruptions were organized on the Transvaal to put us in a bad international light.  Contrived riots were staged, rational responses became irrational, strategic interventions were reduced to abortive tactics, the desirable approach was lost to necessity.  I am not justifying the massacre.  It is a dark day in our history.  Any thinking Afrikaner will admit it because he is not for destroying life.”

“How do you feel about Nelson Mandela?”

“What do you know about this man?”

“I know he has been in prison for a long time.”

“Six years.”

“I know he was the head of the African National Congress, a lawyer, and against apartheid.”

“You surprise me.  You know more about my country than most foreigners.  Mandela was an organizer, a rebel, some say a terrorist, who wanted to overthrow the Afrikaner government, or majority rule.  That is sedition in any country.  For that, he went to prison.  He is an ideologue with an untenable agenda.”

“That’s your point of view.”

“I’m not finished.  In prison, he has been treated with respect, dignity, and appropriate decorum as a leader and a man of principle who had broken the law.”

“I’ve not read of any campaign to release him.”


“Why is that?”

“I should think it is self-evident.  He would be a threat to the government and possibly instigate a civil war.”

“That’s the Afrikaner point of view?”

“A realistic point of view.”

“If you like.”

“The fact that we are talking civilly and openly about a terrorist who has reached respectable status I think should speak well for my country’s tolerance of dissent.”

“But he is in prison, right, and you see him as a terrorist?”

“No, I don’t but I’m a moderate Afrikaner.  I don’t represent the majority view.”

“So, there is division on apartheid in Afrikanerdom?”

“Indeed, verligte Afrikaners like me on the left accept inevitable change, but verkrampte Afrikaners on the right resist even the most modest change, such as sharing public toilets.”

“We are still dealing with that exact issue in the southern United States a hundred years after the American Civil War.”

“I know and am not surprised.  We are a white tribe like your American Pilgrims who came to America about the same time my people came to Cape Town.”

“Your point?”

“We Afrikaners want to avoid Civil War.  The verligte feel majority rule is inevitable, but we want it to be peaceful, and have a role for Afrikaners.  We feel it must be slow.  There is poverty among the Bantu, but the living standard of South African Bantu is superior to the rest of the black races on the continent.”

“This is true according to what I have read.”

“It is no accident.  We know that the Bantu must be elevated professionally as the Anglos will leave in droves once majority rule is established creating an incredible vacuum that Afrikaners cannot fill.”

“You see this, or you fear this?”

“Both, especially we that claim to be verligte.”

*     *     *

It was strange that Rung’s conversation should come to mind as Devlin looked among the books in this library surrounded by pampered Anglo aristocrats who had nary a thought about the coming tide.  When there was a lull in the conversation, he asked, “Where will you all be when the ANC takes over?”

All heads turned and looked at the tall blond American.  Devlin didn’t fill the void, but left the question agonizingly penetrate the silence.

Then someone said, “Sir William, I don’t think the American will be attending your play.”  The place erupted into the ruckus laughter of self-conscious relief. 

Sir Williams looked at the group and then the American, moved to say something, then thought otherwise.  He stuck his cigar in an ashtray with force, and said, “I believe it is time to rejoin the ladies.”

*     *     *

“What was so funny that the rafters literally shook?” Sarah asked on the way home.

“Somebody told a joke.”

“I heard differently.  I heard it was you sticking a pin in their balloon.  You’ll get us departed, do you know that?” 

“That will never happen, my dear, with this crowd.”

“Why do you say that?  They run everything.”  She would not mind getting deported.

“They run everything but they are in charge of nothing.  There is a difference.”

She shook her head.  “God, I wish you drank!”

*     *     *