Marnus Erasmus is ten years old, living in South Africa in the 1970s. His closest friend is Frikkie Delport, with whom he’s been in class since grade one. They were not friends right away because Frikkie was somewhat of a bully, but one day when Frikkie was about to cruelly bully Marnus for his large ears, Marnus quickly directed Frikkie’s attention to how he wasn’t spinning his top properly. After this, they were best friends.
Frikkie’s father is an important man and his mother owns a clothing shop. Their servant is Gloria, a Coloured woman who speaks Afrikaans without an accent; Mum (whose name is Leonore) says this is because she fancies herself white.
Marnus explains maths to Frikkie, who just does not get it no matter how hard he tries. Initially Marnus refused to let Frikkie copy his homework because he knows it is a sin, but eventually he gives in. Their teacher, Miss Engelbrecht, notices their similar answers one day and Marnus lies, saying that he has been helping Frikkie with maths and their answers were similar because of that. Nowadays, they make sure Frikkie gets some of the answers wrong.
The boys like to walk down to the Gardens, or to the National Museum. Frikkie says his oupa (grandfather) used to have hunters hunt the bushmen on his property for twenty pounds each. Miss Engelbrecht says this is not true—the evil Xhosa killed all the Bushmen, not the Boers.
Marnus likes talking to Jan Bandjies, a Coloured fisherman, and hearing his old whaling stories. Jan says whalers have killed all the whales, which is why you do not see them much anymore. Frikkie tells Marnus that a whale’s penis is eight feet long, which Marnus does not believe. Frikkie swears it is, and Marnus says swearing is bad. Frikkie replies that his dad swears, which Marnus says means he is going to hell. The boys argue over this, and Frikkie says he will not tell his dad he is going to hell if Marnus doesn’t tell that he said “cock.”
In an interspersed narrative, a man, whom it is made clear is an older Marnus, wonders how long the forces can hold out. Messages coming from the South African side are full of contradictions and no one knows what to believe. Marnus calls his sergeants and section leaders and tells them they’re going to prepare the extended platoon. There is a sense of both fear and thrill; it is a choice between life and death.
Dad (whose name is Johan) says Nixon will be out of the White House soon and that the Americans are losing the Vietnam War. This is typical, he complains—why do the Americans try to tell other countries how to run things?
Marnus has a sister, Ilse, who is six years older than him. She is in high school and is probably going to be head girl. She is pretty, intelligent, and a talented singer.
Just before Marnus’ birthday, Dad becomes the youngest major-general in the history of the South African Defense Force. This is a tremendous honor, and Mum and Dad prepare to go to a fancy party. The children sit with them while they get ready. Mum looks extraordinarily pretty with her new short blonde hair, and Dad looks very handsome.
Marnus thinks that you get accustomed to the dust; it is everywhere. He and his men wait for the command to move, and they wait for food.
Dad announces a visitor from South America is coming. He is a General, but he is to be called “Mister Smith” and he is here “on business.” He and Dad became friends overseas, and he will be here the first week of December.
Mum muses aloud about her garden, annoyed that the former Coloured who tended it—Chrisjan—went away once and never came back, even though he’d been working the garden since Oupa’s day. Not long after Chrisjan left, the fishing stuff went missing, and since Chrisjan liked to fish, Mum assumed he stole it. She says you can never trust the Coloureds.
If the visitor wasn’t coming, the family would be going to their holiday cottage at Sedgefield right away, but now they will have to delay a bit. Doreen, the family’s servant, does not go because Mum thinks she should get a holiday as well.
Marnus thinks about the imminent visitor, whose room will be underneath his. Marnus has the best view in the house, over the sweeping bay and mountain of Cape Point. He loves his room very much.
Oupa Erasmus built the house when he came here from Tanganyika. He sold all his East African properties and made a lot of money, and got out before all the turmoil. The blacks took over German East Africa and renamed it Tanzania. Oupa, Ouma, and Dad, their only child, came here and built a house at the top of St. James Street. This place reminded Ouma of the white sand beaches back at home. The newspaper printed a picture of this lovely finished house of the Afrikaners from German East Africa.
Dad then went to school at Van Riebeck and Oupa volunteered for the navy. This was when Doreen started working for Ouma, who originally had only had male servants but now had to take a female one. She liked Doreen a lot, though. Doreen lived in Grassy Park, where the government built houses for the Coloureds.
Oupa’s fishing boat capsized during a storm and he was lost and presumed dead. Dad and Uncle Samuel, Oupa’s younger brother, searched and searched but found nothing. This was when Dad, Mum, Ilse, and Marnus moved in to the house on St. James. Ouma died not long after during a surgery to remove a pair of scissors that had been left inside her after Dad’s birth, a C-section. Dad cried, the first time Marnus had ever seen this.
A huge funeral was held for both Oupa and Ouma, since the former never really had one. Many important and respected people attended.
The preparations are done, and now all they do is wait. Marnus thinks of the shift in attitudes among his men, even before the loss at Quito Caunavale. They seem more cynical, so different than when he arrived there for the first time. There is not the same passion, gravitas—only “the dull shadow of irony already lying across the young faces” (29). He thinks of the village of Chitado in the Southern Angolan landscape, a place of ruins, refugees, and ravage.
Marnus looks out his window to watch Dad and the man exit the Volvo. The man is tall, with brown skin and short black hair and a mustache. He looks up at Marnus and smiles, waving his hand in a salute of sorts. Marnus is embarrassed.
The older Marnus ruminates on his past. Perhaps the one week in December determined it, or maybe the summer before, for “the arrival of the visitor cannot be divorced from what preceded his coming. To understand my own choice, I need to insert as much as the detail as possible” (31).
The commander’s space looks like an Ops-room or Ops-tent. He wants to know everything about the terrain, the enemy, the weapons, the training. Marnus admires this commitment to detail.
Mum and Doreen are readying things for dinner. Doreen is hoping to leave early because her son, Little-Neville, is coming home from school in Touwsriver. She sends him here because he is clever and she does not want him in Grassy Park or Cape Flats, where the Coloureds live and “get drunk and then they murder and rape each other” (32). Mum complains about Doreen leaving early, but everyone loves Doreen. She knows her place and is not forward or cheeky and she makes lovely, special sandwiches for the children.
Ilse and Marnus sit with Mum as she gets ready. Marnus asks about the General, and Mum reminds them he is just a friend from New York on a business trip.
Finally, everyone is introduced and they sit for dinner. Marnus is nervous that the General will mention his spying from the window, but he does not. He smiles and says Marnus is a carbon copy of his father. Marnus is surprised at the phrase, and Ilse snottily explains what that means.
Marnus tries hard to keep the peace with Ilse because their constant squabbling bothers Mum, but after the Moby Dick incident he finds this hard to do. Marnus had decided to tell his sister about books he read and liked, so one day he told her about Moby Dick. She listened patiently and when he was done, sniffed that she’d read it one day but she’d read the real one, not the children’s version he read. Marnus simply gave up after this.
At dinner the General compliments the food and the house. Dad tells the story of the house’s construction and says it was good that Oupa and Ouma left Tanganyika when they did, as all the white farmers were run off their land. That was when people like Uncle Samuel and Sanna Koerant and others came out. They told people that the beautiful farmhouses were neglected and the blacks preferred to live in shacks next door to them. It was now a place of misery and poverty where Dad grew up. Business came to a standstill, and Oupa’s old hotel wore down. Dad will never forgive the blacks and Communists for what they did to his hometown, and he does not think his children or anyone else should forget either.
Dad continues, extolling the merits of the Afrikaner and his history. The Afrikaner’s struggle for self-government and freedom from the yoke of the British was a noble one, but now the blacks are trying to do to the Republic what they did to Tanganyika. In his mind, “those with black skins across their butts also have the smallest brains. Even if you can get the black out of the bush, you can’t ever get the bush out of the black” (39). Marnus thinks about how Uncle Samuel would agree with him, saying the Coloureds should only get the minimum. Samuel thinks the Bantus are even dumber than the Coloureds, and are usually criminals who won’t go to heaven. Marnus is sure Doreen will, though, and she will live with the Christian Coloureds there.
Conversation continues pleasantly. Mum speaks of her role as a singing teacher and her full-time role as a mother. Ilse says Mum sings wonderfully, and the General asks Ilse about her own singing. He asks her about a Chilean writer named Gabriela Mistral, whom Ilse does not know, and when Ilse mentions Pablo Neruda, he says uncomfortably that Neruda is not popular among the people.
Dad suggests moving into the lounge. As they do, the General turns to Marnus and jokingly asks if he is the face in the window or if there is a half-wit hiding in the attic. Marnus’ face turns red and he says it is him.
The Smell of Apples presents a reality—the young Marnus’ idyllic childhood—but then undercuts and undermines that reality every step of the way. The narrative on the surface is of a relatively happy child with a stable family and a good best friend, a lovely home in a beautiful area, a strong sense of self and family history, and numerous exciting and amusing activities to engage in regularly. However, Behr complicates that story not only with the inclusion of the older Marnus’ wartime troubles but with subtle and occasionally explicit indications that not all is right in Marnus’ paradise.
In this first section the reader meets Marnus, his best friend Frikkie, his Mum and Dad, his sister Ilse, and their servant Doreen. They learn Marnus’ family history, and, interwoven with that, some of the history of the Republic of South Africa as well as those of its neighboring countries coming to terms with the end of colonialism and concomitant independence. The Erasmus family are Afrikaners, the term for the Dutch living in South Africa. As Dad makes clear throughout the novel, theirs is a noble history and one characterized by others—the English, the Coloureds (Behr uses the official designatory term for black people in the region), the Americans, the communists—trying to take what is theirs or telling them what to do.
As a prominent general in the South African Defense Force and a pillar of the community, Dad’s assertions have a lot of weight among his family and his peers. He espouses nationalist sentiment that is absorbed, repeated, and promoted by his son; for example, Marnus’ narration is filled with “Dad says . . . ” and numerous aphorisms handed to him from the adults in his world. While Marnus sometimes wonders about the things he hears and sees, he mostly accepts them as fact. Rita Barnard notes, “while [Marnus] is not altogether imperceptive, a considerable portion of his narrative has the quality of quotation, reiteration of ideas and ‘facts’ heard first from adults.” His narrative is “replete with stereotypes, all of which purport to establish what [Homi] Bhaba calls the ‘fixity’ of others.' There is no lessening of the grip on Marnus’ narrative on the part of his father or the other adults living in and espousing the ideology of apartheid.
Jay Rijiva agrees with Barnard, writing, “Marnus’ voice is indistinguishable from the vocal overlay of his parents,” and “aphorism infiltrates point of fact, presaturating physical space with ethical tautology.” According to Merriam Webster, an aphorism is a “concise statement of a principle” or a “terse formulation of a truth or sentiment.” Aphorism, here using the word in its plural sense, is all over this text through Marnus’ repetition of his parents’ maxims on, say, black laziness and corruption, the heroism and nobility of the Afrikaners, God’s magnanimity, etc. Rijiva calls aphorism in this novel “a silence, allowing parental and authorial voices to compartmentalize lived experience in order to corrode or trivialize its ethical meaning.” It silences racial difference but it also wears thin and “reconfirms apartheid’s weakness as a legitimate social model.”
Behr’s goal with this novel seems to be, as Barnard suggests, to “[offer] a veritable compendium of the sayings, stereotypes, and justifications that made up the everyday banality of apartheid.” And since readers have older Marnus’ experience in the shadow war in Angola, it seems clear that “Any hope that he might come to reject the lessons he ventriloquizes so cleverly is thus foreclosed.”