Stargazer (Roepman) by Jan van Tonder

I’m not used to reading a book that is set in my own country.   So reading Stargazer was like listening to the voice of an old friend.

Stargazer is a semi autobiographical novel.  It’s set in the sixties; Verwoerd’s South Africa. It is told through the eyes of Timus, a thirteen years old boy.  He is the youngest of seven children in a poor white family, living in a Railways house on the Bluff in Durban.

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Now this is familiar territory.  I grew up in the seventies, well after the assassination of Verwoerd. But South Africa under PW Botha was not that different.  I recognise the smell of those times.  

In part, this is a wryly funny account of a young boy growing up.   Timus wants to know about so many things- about sex, about girls, about his own body.  The author pokes gentle fun at the boy’s naive attempts to impress and his impatience with his own scrawny underdeveloped self.

It is also a story of lost innocence, with some deeply shocking moments.  The  forces of poverty, of close minded religious conservatism, of the fear of the unknown, and the uncompromising laws of Apartheid South Africa distort lives of each member of Timus’s family and the community around them.

Love, fear,  hope, God, poverty and Apartheid.

The stargazer of the title is Joon.  He is a outsider, a young man equally loved and ridiculed.   Joon has a squint so severe he can hardly see where he is going.  But stargazer Joon  has the uncanny ability – not only to see into the hearts of others, but to act on his knowledge and heal their pain.

I could not get hold of the original Afrikaans version – Roepman, but I soon realised that this was not a problem.  The translation is excellent, the language retains its Afrikaans voice.

Here is a description of Gladys, the black woman who worked for Timus’s family:

Gladys’s husband came once a month.  On a Saturday.  Ma told Gladys it was all right for him to spend the night, but if the police found him here, she’d say she hadn’t known, or we’d all be in trouble too.

You always saw him from a distance.  He had a family-sized Fanta in each hand.  In the morning light, with the sun behind him, the bottles glowed like orange light bulbs.  He called out a friendly greeting if he saw any of us.  John.  I never found out his real name.  Bantus have their own names beside their white names.

Here is a conversation between Timus and his Grandmother, Ouma Makkie.

Ma had told us not to shy away when Ouma wanted to give us a hug.  “Ouma?”
“Yes , Timus, my boy?”
“What’s innocence?”
“I don’t know how to explain it.”

She took out her hankie.  The snuff had stained the fabric.  She blew: prrrrr!  Then she put her arm around me again as she said:  “Innocence is something you recognise only when you no longer have it.”

“Then what’s the use of having it, Ouma?”

She shrugged.  “I don’t know.  This I can tell you, Timus, my boy, we’ll get it back in heaven one day.”
Ouma Makkie walked out of the kitchen and past the bathroom on her way to her room.

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