The Smell of Apples

The Smell of Apples Study Guide

The Smell of Apples is a semi-autobiographical novel by Mark Behr set in South Africa in the 1970s. The story is narrated by eleven-year-old Marnus Erasmus. Marnus is the son of a well-respected military hero who is regarded as a future member of the Cabinet, and so Marnus and his older sister, Ilse, are raised to have great expectations of themselves. Through Marnus' eyes, the reader sees the insidious way in which this particular generation of South African youngsters was brainwashed into thinking that not only were the black Africans less than the whites but also that they were a different species altogether. The novel cleverly shows how essentially decent people perpetuate hate on behalf of their government whilst simultaneously believing that they are doing the best for their children and their nation by protecting both from savages. Interspersed with the narration of the young Marnus are passages by Marnus, fifteen years later, as he fights in another country's war in Angola against a communist army that seems by the end of the novel to be overpowering Marnus and his troops.

The novel was Behr’s first. He wrote it while in Norway in 1991, then published it in Afrikaans in 1993, and it was translated into English in 1995. In an interview he explained how influential Alice Walker’s The Color Purple was on the text: “More than any other text, The Color Purple inspired me to write The Smell of Apples in a bid to grasp how an average racist heterosexual white man, who is also just an ordinary human being, is created and has that identity and privilege sustained—often without being conscious of the privilege thus afforded.” He said the novel was ultimately about “how an ordinary boy is loved into bigotry and hypocrisy; and how he becomes a privileged supporter of an exploitative and oppressive system—not unlike many of us were in youth or continue to be in adulthood.”

Critics generally lauded the book; the New York Times wrote, “Mr. Behr has created a lyrical and memorable child narrator, along with a story that will fill in the gap for American readers as to why many young Afrikaners came to help tear down the edifice their forebears had devoted their lives to building.” Kirkus Reviews called it “an acute, if sometimes schematic, rendering of a time, a place, a family, and a terrible obsession with race and identity that came close to destroying the beloved country and all its people.” The novel won South Africa's biggest literary prize, the M-Net Award, The Eugene Marais Award, the CNA Debut Literary Award, the Betty Trask Award for the best first novel published in the United Kingdom, and was shortlisted for both the Steinbeck and Guardian Literary Awards.