The Children’s Day by Michiel Heyns. Tin House. 244 pp. $14.95.
Late in Michiel Heyns’ The Children’s Day, set in South Africa, Simon, the book’s adolescent protagonist and narrator, reads Dickens’ Great Expectations. It’s a book the reader may have already been thinking about, since Heyns’ novel, like Dickens’, is a coming-of-age tale with a bit of a twist, and since it concerns a protagonist/narrator who is never quite as perceptive as he thinks he is. For Simon, Dickens’ novel, read while on holiday at the Cape in the summer of 1965-66, becomes an occasion for a friendly chat with an older man who has begun to take an interest in him. Flattered by the fact that someone notices he is a dedicated reader, Simon initially misses the erotic overtones of the interest, but, like Pip finally learning who his secret benefactor truly is, Simon learns the nature of something he has not understood till then.
Simon’s story’s present day is December, 1968, when a tennis match between his white boarding school, Wesley College, and the “Clutch Plates” from a technical school, whose team includes Fanie van den Bergh, a poor Afrikaans boy from Simon’s village, sets off a retrospective narrative of Simon’s childhood, from 1964 to 1966, in the African Free State village of Verkeerdespruit. Simon’s parents are well-educated liberals, so his own homelife with his father, a magistrate, and his mother, secretary of a charitable organization, is more than usually enlightened, boasting a warm, gently humorous family circle, but the hazards of trying to read between the lines in village life and at school provide a succession of social lessons that, while potentially harrowing, tend toward comic acknowledgement of human foibles. In the end, the novel aims to offer a sense of individual potential beneath the deadening drabness of white middle-class culture in apartheid South Africa.
Structured by the device of letting bits of action in 1968 set up the more lengthy retrospective sections, the novel’s transitions can seem at times a bit too pat; one almost has the sensation of those wavy fades that used to occur in old movies before a flashback. But the novel is entertaining as a coming-of-age story that becomes a coming-out story, and the device of a young boy learning about himself in the distorting mirror of awkward and epileptic Fanie, whom Simon professes to dislike to the point of infatuation, provides Heyns’ novel with the classical grace of other finely wrought tales of adolescence. As the narrator of his own growth, Heyns’ Simon is never quite as self-conscious as Dickens’ Copperfield, looking to find in the charming Steerforth the “hero of his own life,” but it’s clear that Heyns’ narrative knowingly plays with such motifs on a smaller scale, imbuing his novel with a vivid and compelling sense of student and small-town life.
The retrospective narrative features a series of episodes or encounters in which Simon comes into conflict with the mores that dominate his world. Steve, a motorcycle-riding young man new to town, is a potential sexual liberator as he takes Simon skinny-dipping in a river, but Simon’s initiation is undermined by the forces of propriety that surround him. Rather, it’s Fanie whom Steve takes along on a joyride to another town (considered abduction by the authorities) and kisses (considered molestation), for which Steve is imprisoned. Heyns’ technique allows him to present events in at least three registers at once: Simon’s uncomprehending but faithful accuracy to events at the time; the point of view of social opinion, which Simon expresses as part of his own upbringing; and the point of view of grown Simon who has already learned the lessons he wants these childhood adventures to illustrate. The narrative’s manner of willful naïvete occasionally cloys, but Heyns keeps things moving—there’s always a new character to present a new problem—and is able to deliver Simon’s reality with an affectionate grasp of a young, inquisitive, and self-conscious boy’s world, leavened with an adult’s arch commentary:
I had never considered [kissing] to be something that one might do voluntarily or because it gave anybody any pleasure. People did kiss in movies, but people in movies also did any number of things that people in Verkeerdespruit or even Winburg wouldn’t dream of doing, like bursting into song in midconversation or dying for their beliefs.
The town of Verkeerdespruit offers familiar small town characters such as the quietly knowing phone operator Betty Brand, who hears all the business of the town, while the school scenes provide rich opportunities for the usual nemeses of student life—sadistic teachers like the lisping and sardonic Mr. de Wet, young idols, like the tennis coach Mr. van der Walt, and embarrassing sexual discoveries, such as trysts between teachers. Tried and true as such material can seem, Heyns has a sharp sense of how to convey both poignancy and satire in Simon’s scenes of instruction:
Mr. Viljoen seemed to be doing push-ups on top of Miss Rheeder, and he was making grunting noises. They had evidently not heard me open the door. He changed position and I could see her face: her eyes were closed. Then she said in an out-of-breath sort of way, “This is better exercise than playing tennis with Nico van der Walt,” and they both laughed in that way I could now relate to its source. I was in the presence of The Mystery.
Part of the emotion and humor of the moment is furnished by the fact that Simon has been sent to Mr. Viljoen’s office by Mr. van der Walt, who wants confirmation of his suspicion of what Miss Rheeder’s absence from tennis practice means. As in this instance, most denouements in these stories are tartly comic. Easily the most emotional story is the tale of Simon’s dog, Dumbo, alleged to have contracted rabies, and the confrontation between Simon and his parents that the fate of the dog occasions.
The situation of a young boy, tried by such experiences, who wants to distance himself from the “gormless maladroitness of backwater living” is common enough to make Simon’s story universal, but the specifics of South Africa add a dimension that differs from other settings, as for instance when Simon learns about the implications of the Sabotage Act from his father: “sabotage is now . . . a matter of definition.” We’re reading, in a sense, a primer on class—and to a lesser extent, race—relations of the time as Simon gradually achieves a grasp of the social implications of his upbringing and his friendships, and the meaning—on various levels—of his interactions with Fanie. The full significance of the latter is left to the closing pages, with illumination for Simon literally taking place with a lightning-bolt.
Handled particularly well is Simon’s sexual confusion and the lessons he learns from adults, such as his interlocutor at the Cape, or from Mr. Robinson, the headmaster of the school Simon attends in Bloemfontein. Both encounters are made the occasion for happy life lessons, when they could as easily have been much darker. Indeed, the headmaster takes what seems an unusually broad-minded attitude toward the activities between two boys that Simon feels compelled to report, with almost unbelievable naïvete at that point, but it all serves Heyns’ purpose of writing an enabling fiction about maturation.
First published in 2002, The Children’s Day has finally reached the U.S. via the imprint of Tin House Books, which is to be commended for bringing to light a gently humorous, good-natured story of coming-of-age in South Africa in the era, as Philip Larkin would have it, immediately after “sexual intercourse began.”
Donald Brown reviews poetry, fiction, and theater for The New Haven Review and The New Haven Advocate.
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