Klassiek reeks: Bart Nel | General Fiction
Johannes van Melle
The novel with which the name Van Melle is associated above all is Bart Nel, first published in 1951. The novel is set during the historical rebellion of 1914, an uprising that was triggered by the support of Gen. Botha and his government for Britain – the old enemy – against Germany in the First World War.
When Gen. Botha decides to attack German South-West Africa, many Boer farmers take up arms against their own government. Even though Bart Nel is one of the rebel leaders, and the events of the novel are interwoven with those of the rebellion, essentially the novel Bart Nel is not a historical novel. Rather it is a psychological or character novel about a complex process of desolation.
For Afrikaans writing of the time this was surprisingly modern, so much so that it initially went unnoticed. The narration is sober yet not without empathy, and it leads the reader into the lives and thoughts of Bart and Fransina, his wife. Inevitably, and therefore tragically, Bart’s role in the rebellion tears them apart. They are alienated from one another, and because of their pride and a lack of understanding, reconciliation becomes impossible.
This sequence of events, which sees Bart lose his loved ones – both his wife and daughter– and all he possesses, is portrayed as a merciless process of deprivation. Never before had that been done in Afrikaans, and it made Bart Nel a unique book. In fact, in few novels have human impotence and limitation, and the incapacity to understand even one’s closest family and loved ones been expressed with such agony, and so convincingly.