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Boeke | Books > Resensies | Reviews > English

The Colours of Love and Memory: Wessel Ebersohn’s The Classifier

Jonathan Amid - 2011-09-30

The Classifier
Wessel Ebersohn
Publisher: Umuzi
ISBN: 9781415201510
Prys: R190.95

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South African author Wessel Ebersohn has released ten novels, all of which are thrillers. With his latest offering, The Classifier, Ebersohn changes tack to produce a plangent, detailed coming-of-age story set during apartheid in the 1970s. As the rites of passage of a young white boy become irrevocably intertwined with the loss of innocence for a gentle coloured girl, the novel cogently charts the devastating consequences of a doomed romance.

Ebersohn ably presents an account of the lived textures of everyday life under apartheid for the Afrikaner community in Durban. He renders the emotional fabric of family and community during a time of extreme duress credibly and compassionately.

The Classifier weaves a meandering plot from the strands of memory, always fertile ground for literary inquiry. The memories we encounter are those of the adult Chris Foster, known for much of his life (before emigrating to the United States) as Chrissie Vorster.

As a boy, Chrissie grows up in Durban, with a devoted, loving mother, two competitive older sisters, Annie and Michie, and a solemn father, Bernard. Chrissie’s mother is a housewife, while his father occupies a position of authority as head of the province’s Race Classification Office.

While Bernard is reluctant to inform his son of the fraught, politically charged nature of his work, he repeatedly asserts that he is doing “important work”, to the good of all Afrikaners. In desperate need of affection and acceptance from his taciturn but principled father, Chrissie chooses not to question his father’s work.

Apart from spending time with his cousin Abraham, whom he adores (Ebersohn sketches their bond with considerable lightness of touch and warmth), Chrissie does what every white, young teenage boy would have done during his early teen years: he plays sport, he makes mischief around the house with his friends, he dreams of being a man. Chrissie knows that money allows “ambitious projects”, like buying a motorbike, to come to life, and he becomes an entrepreneur, first selling cookies – which, by all accounts, are hard to swallow – before striking it rich by selling old and second-hand household items. Chrissie sells these items at his stall at the local market, and this is where he meets Ruthie, a delicate coloured girl with an “olive complexion”.

Slowly but surely, Chrissie and Ruthie fall in love. It is with the incandescent intensity of first love that the young couple share almost everything with each other (physical intimacy and intercourse are deferred until they can no longer bear to be together without it). It is only a matter of time before news of their relationship is made public, with heartbreaking costs.

From the outset, The Classifier felicitously plays on the meanings implied by its title. To classify is to stage a taxonomy, to categorise and to pigeonhole – exactly what Chrissie’s father Bernard does for a living. Classification also implies the government’s withholding of information (particularly that which is deemed threatening) from its citizens. Although Bernard initially withholds the nature of his job from his son, he later employs him in his office, training him in the finer “arts” of racial classification, so that he becomes a highly skilled “classifier” in a short period of time.  

The reader enters into a twin relationship with this melancholic, moving text: we are privy to the vivid memories of a childhood love affair that shaped the arc of one man’s life, and immersed in a crystalline vision of seclusion and segregation, shame and indignity, suffering and emotional turmoil.
Ebersohn gradually reveals the near impossibility of “classifying” or silencing our feelings for those we love, and the ongoing tensions between our pleasant and pleasurable memories and those we would rather forget. The overlaps between memories of loss and the want for a loss of painful memory are all too apparent.

It is credit to the author that his measured prose and rejection of a strident or moralising tone remain throughout. Without the need to sensationalise, the author trusts the reader with material inherently charged with emotional resonance and symbolism.

Contingently, the representation of Afrikaner family life and cultural identity seemed to me to be spot-on, with references to religion and the NG Kerk (Dutch Reformed Church), the culinary skill of Afrikaner women and their quiet dignity, and a myriad references to Afrikaner heritage well handled.  

Equally impressive is Ebersohn’s representation of people in difficult situations. In The Classifier this extends from the more obvious victimhood of people of colour and mixed race to those like Chrissie, whose relationships with an “other-skinned” person leave him precariously balanced between love so strong and societal laws even more unyielding in their arbitrary ferocity and facile omnipotence.

As a Bildungsroman and meditation on the colours of love and memory The Classifier is a mosaic stitched together from muted pastels rather than bright ochres. As the narrative switches between brief insights into the life of the older, more mature Chris and more animated elaborations of his teenage life in Durban, Ebersohn invests his protagonist’s narrative voice with an alternating wide-eyed wonder and residual trauma, oscillating cleverly between the ignorance and intemperance of youth and the damaged, wistful thoughts of adult life, cut open by loss and regret. We are thus offered an insider’s sense of familiarity and urgency tempered with the detached observations of an older self.
The novel’s fabulation crosses over into a historic-literary examination of the lasting after-effects of apartheid and the concomitant performance, resistance and mediation of identity across the fault lines of race and class. The novel at its core is also about the need for a place to call home, the desire for affiliation and acceptance and the precariousness of convention. The rule of the father (to borrow from psychoanalysis) is also at the forefront of The Classifier.

If there is a disclaimer for The Classifier it is that its relentless focus on interiority – both in the sense of its examination of the inner life of its protagonist and the inner workings of a country at war with its citizens – renders it occasionally cumbersome and often taxing. The sections that deal with the adult Chris are also unfailingly self-involved and insular, and he may not come across as overwhelmingly sympathetic.

Ultimately, Ebersohn’s evocative and satisfying The Classifier is able to demonstrate impressive insights into a bygone era that will haunt us for a long time still.