Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 26, 2023

The Smell of Apples (1993), by Mark Behr

In a review of the Booker-longlisted novel An Island (2020) by South African author Karen Kennings’, academic David Atwell suggested that An Island is a useful successor to The Smell of Apples, an ‘ethically-centred’ 1990s study text on uncovering apartheid-era secrets.  In my own review I linked to Attwell’s review — and, intrigued, I bought The Smell of Apples…

The Smell of Apples (1993) was Tanzanian-born South African author Mark Behr’s debut novel but he wrote only Embrace (2000) and Kings of the Water (2009) before his untimely death at the age of 52.  The Smell of Apples won the 1996 M-Net Award* for a novel in English; as well as other South African book awards including the 1994 Eugene Marais Award; and the CNA (Central News Agency) Debut Literary Award.  It was also recognised internationally: it won the 1995 Betty Trask Award; it was shortlisted for the Steinbeck Award and it won the 1996 LA Times Book Prize for First Fiction.

The significance of these awards is not to be overlooked.  The Smell of Apples was published the year before South Africa had its first democratic elections in 1994, and these awards show that the new South Africa was open to books which interrogated the legacy of apartheid.  It’s a coming-of-age novel, featuring a boy who hero-worships his father Johan, a General in the army who is mounting covert operations in Angola while publicly denying that they are taking place. And that’s not all that’s very disturbing about this father…

The apples of the title — sweet, fresh and crisp — are a metaphor for innocence.  But apples can be deceptive —they can be rotten inside and can also be tainted if they come into contact with something foul.  The ironically named family of Marnus Erasmus is a microcosm of South African society and they represent a family and society defined by racism, hypocrisy and moralising cant.  It depicts in hideous clarity how these attitudes were formed, but it also shows that the system is starting to crack. It’s not just that the sanctions are starting to bite so there is, for example, petrol rationing, it is also that order in society is starting to break down so that it affects the white minority.  There are also challenges to the regime from within their own circle.  Family cohesion is breaking down, which is catastrophic for conservative families because their religion values (their version of) ‘family life’ so highly.

Cultural warning:
Aspects of this review use offensive terminology from the Apartheid era.

The story is told in two time frames: the end of the school year in 1973 when Marnus is just a boy of eight or nine; and in June 1988 when he is a Lieutenant in the South African army, fighting over the border in Angola. As a boy, Marnus has a best friend and ‘blood-brother’ called Frikkie, and their lives revolve around school, homework, fishing and not getting caught when they get into minor mischief.  For Marnus, who has absorbed his authoritarian father’s sanctimonious strictures about morality and truth, telling lies about helping Frikkie with maths homework demands an ongoing secret penance in his nightly prayers. Marnus is depicted as a rather nice little boy, whose encounters with others including ‘Coloureds’ are generally positive.  He has mean thoughts about some peers who are less privileged than he is, but he has been taught to keep these unkind inclinations in check.

It is not until late in the novel when he has an encounter with a servant who was sacked for theft that we see his sense of entitlement emerge and recognise the kind of adult he will become.  Chrisjan, now a derelict begging on the streets, doesn’t recognise Marnus, and Marnus, convinced of his own importance in this wretched man’s life, is outraged.  He misses Chrisjan and the chats they had in the garden, and considered him to be part of his life, albeit one whose unequal status is never questioned.  When this connection is repudiated, Marnus is furious… and he is horribly cruel to this vulnerable man.

Marnus has an older sister called Ilse who is starting to question aspects of the regime that trouble her.  Because of her father’s position, she is destined to be Head Girl at her exclusive school, but from an exchange trip to Holland she’s been exposed to different ideas.  She loves her Tannie (Aunt) Karla but her father won’t have her and her liberal ideas in the house so Tannie has gone into exile in Britain.  The gulf between Ilsa and her mother is exposed with piercing clarity when they venture into the ‘Coloured’ part of the hospital to see how the child of their domestic servant Doreen is getting on after a shocking attack by white men (for whom there is never any accountability BTW.)

This section of the hospital looks smaller and darker than the way I remember Ouma Erasmus’s section.  I wonder where all the doctors are, because everything looks so quiet here.  I wonder if there are Coloured doctors or whether white doctors have to operate on the Coloureds.  After a while, a Coloured matron arrives and asks if she can help us.  Mum says we’ve come to see one of the patients.  The matron asks who the patient is.  Mum says it’s a boy that got severely burnt in Beaufort West.  Him and his mother arrived here this afternoon by ambulance.  The matron says they have too many casualties to simply know who it is, she needs the patient’s name.

Mum says his name is Neville.  The matron looks at Mum as if she’s waiting for something.  Then she asks: ‘And his surname?  What is the patient’s surname?’

Mum says she doesn’t know.

Then Ilse says: ‘It’s Malan.  His name is Neville Malan, and his mother is Mrs Doreen Malan.’  (p.188)

Marnus wonders how Ilse knows what Doreen’s surname is.  The reader wonders how a family can have a servant for decades and not know her surname.

As an adult, Marnus follows his father into the army to protect the Republic from the hostility of the world beyond its borders. Wikipedia tells me that the South African Border War, also known as the Namibian War of Independence or the Angolan Bush War took place between 1966 and 1990, and…

Despite being largely fought in neighbouring states, the South African Border War had a phenomenal cultural and political impact on South African society. The country’s apartheid government devoted considerable effort towards presenting the war as part of a containment programme against regional Soviet expansionism and used it to stoke public anti-communist sentiment. It remains an integral theme in contemporary South African literature at large and Afrikaans-language works in particular, having given rise to a unique genre known as grensliteratuur (directly translated “border literature”).

Wouldn’t it be interesting to know more about this border literature? As far as I can tell, it’s the subject of academic interest behind paywalls.  But The Smell of Apples would certainly qualify, because of the way the plot develops… in both time frames.

One final point, however, is that there is a graphic scene which may trigger distress in vulnerable readers.  It is difficult to identify without spoilers, except to say that it involves both boys in a tragic loss of innocence.

*The M-net Awards were awarded from 1991-2013.  Initially the prizes were awarded in two categories: a work of fiction in English, and one in Afrikaans.  In keeping with South Africa’s multilingual population, it expanded to include categories such as Nguni, SeSotho, SeTsonga, TshiVenda, and there also was an award for Film.  Writers who won this award who are reviewed here at ANZ LitLovers include Zakes Mda, Ingrid Winterbach, J M Coetzee, Dan Sleigh, and Andre Brink.

Author: Mark Behr
Title: The Smell of Apples (Die Reuk van Appels)
Publisher: Abacus (an imprint of the Little, Brown book group), 1995, (2014 reprint), first published in 1993
ISBN: 9780349107561, pbk., 200 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $24.88

From a quick search, it seems that The Smell of Apples is still available in paperback, but not, I think, as an eBook.



  1. I have had a copy of this book for many years, but, of course, I’ve not read it…


  2. I think this might be the war mentioned in Damon Galgut’s The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs.


    • I haven’t read that one yet.
      I would hazard a guess that Coetzee’s Disgrace might be an example of ‘border literature.’ All the reviews I’ve come across focus on the #MeToo behaviour, but I was always interested in what happened to his daughter, living on a farm on the border between chaos and order, exemplifying the transition between one society and another and the power relations between them. (I’m being careful in case people haven’t read it yet.)


      • I read that when it first came out and can’t remember a thing. Maybe I should reread it at some point.


        • It was the first Coetzee I read… before he started writing (a-hem) more challenging texts…

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Great review that really brought it back to me. I read it in 2013 and it made a big impression, especially the treatment of the maid’s son.


    • Hi, thanks for stopping by:)
      Yes, that is shocking, in so many ways, conveyed so economically… like when, as they are leaving the hospital ward to go on their holiday, Mum gives Doreen 10 rand, which is 10 dollars. I reacted to that straight away, as I did so many times while reading this book. I thought, how stingy! How emblematic of that woman’s complete failure to understand *anything*! Doreen, not able to live with her children because she has to be a live-in servant far away from them, not able to drop everything to be by Little Neville’s side when it wasn’t clear whether he would live or die, and now, finally confronting the long-term care of this poor child, gets given such an insulting amount of money. And no one says or does *anything* about the men who did this to that child!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I have just read Peter Temple’s In the Evil Day which is about men who fought in the US’s confected anti-communist ‘war’ in Angola. I hadn’t realised Temple was born and grew up in South Africa.


    • No, I didn’t know that either.
      Is that a crime novel, or something else?


      • Not so much crime as thriller. Spies and mercenaries, set mostly in Europe. I’d say read it. It’s an interesting counterpoint to the very Melbourne Jack Irish.


        • A tax-deductible research trip!


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