The Smell of Apples

The Smell of Apples Summary and Analysis of Pages 120-160


Marnus accounts for the history of Kalk Bay, a place where the houses are older than St James because that is where the first fishermen lived. He mentions how the English took over the Cape in the 1800s and built the railway line. They ignored the Afrikaners who told them not to build it along the shore, and Dad always says their house would be worth more if it wasn’t separated from the beach by the tracks.

This is one of the most beautiful places in the country, Marnus knows, and Dad would say that no one and nothing can take it from them. One day they are in the car with a crate of apples from Uncle Samuel’s place and Dad says even the apples were brought to this country by the Dutch.

Uncle Samuel had to escape from Tanganyika because the blacks wanted him to pay his debts and confiscated his farms. They took his passport and he had to arrange an undercover flight with help from Oupa, who had friends in Rhodesia. Uncle Samuel and Tannie Betta had to leave everything behind.

Tonight is the ceremony where they see if Ilse made head girl. In the afternoon Marnus plays with David and Martin Spiro because Frikkie is not around. They play all afternoon and then Marnus has to go home to get ready. On the way he says he wants to pick some flowers from the other side of Mrs. Streicher’s fence for Ilse. The twins are surprised and scared of Mrs. Streicher. Marnus starts to pick the yellow flowers but he hears a voice and the boys all take off running in fright. Marnus trips and skins his knee and he knows Mum will be furious.

At home Mum is with Ilse, who has been crying. Marnus assumes she is just being dramatic. Mum espies his knees and is indeed angry, and tells him to clean himself up and put Mercurochrome on them.

Marnus asks Mum why Ilse was crying and she hesitates, and says Little-Neville has been hurt badly. Ilse demands she tell Marnus what happened, and begins crying again. Mum says Little-Neville and a cousin went to the railway yard at Touwsrivier to steal some charcoal for Doreen’s sister, but they caught him and rubbed something on his back and held him in front of the locomotive furnace. Mum is crying and Marnus’ eyes fill with tears.

Marnus showers, thinking of Little-Neville. When he gets out Mum tells him she invited Zelda to come with them tonight. Marnus is annoyed but Mum chastises him for being selfish.

The General comes and helps Marnus with his knees, and smiles at him that his son is always grazing himself too.


The sun is hellishly hot. Marnus takes out a crumpled letter from his pocket and rereads it. It is from Mum. She speaks of the beautiful Cape and her and Dad there. Dad had the flu and never seems to remember he is older now. Ilse visited and the two had a lovely time. There are shanties everywhere now, and a terrible recession. Black people call for sanctions against the Afrikaners and there are strikes often. Mum then says one day she was in his room, looking out over the bay, when she saw a whale. She could not believe it, and ran downstairs to get Doreen. The two women went out to look at it, and Mum could not help but remember Marnus when he was young. She misses him terribly, and wants him to come home.

After he is done reading, Marnus hears something, and, fearfully, takes off running.


The General leaves to see Brigadier Van der Westhuizen and Mum, Ilse, and Marnus go to pick up Zelda. Ilse rolls her eyes at the old dress of hers that Zelda is wearing.

On the drive the conversation turns to Little-Neville. Mum sighs that they do not know why the Lord gives them the hardships He does, but they must not question it. Marnus asks if they were really white people who did that to Little-Neville, and Mum says yes, but that it wasn’t right for Little-Neville to steal the charcoal. Isle looks irritated but says nothing. Marnus thinks that it is never right to do that to a child. He asks Mum why white people did it and she sighs that not all white people are Christians and there are lower class whites too; railway people also are not educated. Isle speaks up and asks if they were actually railway people, and Mum says uncomfortably that she assumes they were.

They drive past Table Bay, in which Robbin Island, once a leper colony but now a “prison where they keep the most dangerous criminals” (140) is located. At the school Ilse goes to prepare for her role as the accompanist for the choir.

Mum, Marnus, and Zelda go to the seats with the committee members and other honored guests because Dad is the chairman of the School Committee. Marnus is happy that his mother is the prettiest of all the mothers. Zelda stares at everyone and Marnus wishes she had not come. Dad arrives a few minutes later, looking handsome and professional in his uniform and general’s epaulettes.

The award-giving begins. Ilse gets a prize for coming first in class, for being captain of the netball team, and for debating (which has of late gotten tougher with Dad as a coach, for they argue a lot). The choir sings and the headmaster reads out the names of the prefects. The deputy head boy and girl are announced, and finally the headmaster announces Ilse Erasmus as the head girl for 1974. Mum cries and Dad smiles broadly, and Marnus is happy for his sister.

Ilse walks to the piano to play “Die Stem.” It is strange at first, because she stops and starts twice. Then she starts pounding the keys loudly and leads the audience in a way they are not used to. She makes them sing verses they do not really know, and it is awkward. Marnus can tell Dad is upset.

Afterward they wait in the foyer for Ilse as people mill about or leave. Ilse’s teacher comes to say hello and congratulates Dad and Mum. Dad asks him if he’s seen a change in Ilse since she came back from Holland, and he says yes, she has been a little over-critical or unpredictable, and some teachers did not even want her to be head girl. She is an incredible pupil but seems to be questioning their authority.

Ilse comes up and everyone congratulates and hugs her. Dad has to leave to work since there has been another terrorist attack in Mozambique. Mum will have to pick up the General on their way home. In the car Mum asks about “Die Stem” and Ilse says she just wanted to play a bit. Mum has an edge in her voice and says her teacher says Ilse has changed a bit, and she better think about what God has blessed her with and what will happen if people start to dislike her. Ilse says being unpopular isn’t the end of the world, but Mum says it can be hell. Isle retorts that it must be that way for Tannie Karla, and Mum says she better stop before she ends up like Karla. Ilse then asks if Mum would ban her from home too. Mum stops the conversation and turns on music.

They pick up the General and take Zelda home. On the way, Zelda falls asleep and Marnus stares at her and thinks she looks pretty and he and Frikkie ought to be nicer to her.

Back at home the General admires Ilse’s trophies and asks what else she likes to do besides win things. She smiles and says she likes to read and that she is currently reading Moby Dick. She says the story is about more than just whaling, and says something about Queequeg and Ahab. The General asks her if she has her own “dark mysterious stranger” (151) like Queequeg and she laughs and says she is not allowed to see strangers. Mum rolls her eyes and says she can see whomever she wants. The General teases Ilse, asking if he is a stranger. Marnus decides there is definitely something going on between the two.

Mum is in a good mood tonight and is laughing at the General’s jokes. He asks her to play and sing, and she concedes. She sings Gershwin’s “Summertime” and Marnus wishes everyone could see how lovely she is. She sings another song and Marnus notices Ilse is crying.

Mum finishes and the house is silent. Before he can stop himself, Marnus asks Ilse to sing the trout song but she refuses. He persists and Mum tells him to knock it off. Later, upstairs, Marnus tells Ilse he knows why she didn’t want to sing it, and she rolls her eyes.

Marnus thinks of the General’s scar and wishes he could see it one more time. He decides to peek down into the room, where he sees the General standing in front of the mirror. There is a reddish reflection in the mirror as well and Marnus assumes it is Ilse. The General smiles and looks at the door. A door sounds at the end of the passage and the reddish reflection leaves and the smile stops.

Marnus feels poorly for thinking such thoughts about his sister, and thinks about how Ilse would never do anything like that. He prays for forgiveness.


Marnus’ attempts at shaking his pursuers off has seemingly failed. He is alone and fatigued. He hears people crashing behind him, and keeps running, hoping to find the river.


It is the last day of Standard Three. Marnus still feels bad about the thoughts in his head. School finishes early and Miss Engelbrecht hands out the annuals. Marnus’ essay is inside and he is extremely pleased. When Mum picks him and Frikkie up from the Delports’ house, he hands her the essay gleefully. Ilse says she will read the essay aloud.

In the essay Marnus takes the reader through the museum and all the interesting things one can learn from the uniforms in particular. He accounts for the wars and the wicked natives.


While Marnus is still adhering fully to the ideology of his parents and his country, Ilse has, as mentioned in the prior summary/analysis, begun moving away from such nationalist, racist views. Her manner of pushback is still characterized by a degree of childishness—she is only 17, after all—but she is indeed pushing back. During debate practice she argues with Dad. She refuses to countenance Marnus’ naïve, nationalistic essay. She calls Mum out for banishing Tannie Karla and evinces extreme sorrow and frustration over what happened to Little-Neville. And, most dramatically, she makes a statement at her school ceremony while playing the national anthem of “Die Stem.” During the introduction “Ilse suddenly stops. All the heads turn toward her. She’s sitting there, looking down at her hands” (145). Then she starts again, but “pounds the keys so loud that the ponytail at the back of her head bounces from side to side” (145). She plays the first chords again and refuses to let the audience sing as they normally do.

After the song is over, Marnus looks at Ilse after her display of passive-aggressive resistance (he does not recognize this for what it is, of course), and notes, “I can’t make out if her eyes are closed, but her head is bent down almost right against the piano. Do far away, down there behind the big piano, she looks so small to me, much smaller than usual” (146). This image reveals that Ilse is going to have a long, hard road if she continues to resist her parents’ and community’s norms and values.

One of the triggers for Ilse is the news of Little-Neville. Thus far in the novel, apartheid has manifested itself as different living situations and jobs for whites and Coloureds, as well as repeated aphorisms and stereotypes about the difference between the races. Now, though, the vicious, violent nature of apartheid rears its ugly head and there is no way Mum’s platitudes about God can obviate the horror of what happened to Doreen’s son. Marnus struggles to understand what has happened, asking Mum questions about it and occasionally coming back to it his thoughts. Yet, Behr makes clear that the possibility of Marnus really seeing what actually happened—virtually state-sanctioned violence against a child due to false assertions of difference between the races—is not going to be realized. Critic Jay Rajiva writes of the space Marnus inhabits: “Nothing can be said in this space, nothing of ethical consequence; no statement can turn its face toward the trauma of apartheid’s deadly logic as visited on actual black bodies. There is no space to offer counter-narratives, or even counter-logics.”

At the end of the novel Mum, Ilse, and Marnus visit Little-Neville in the hospital. After they leave, a distressed Ilse bursts out, “I think it’s better if he dies,” and explains further, “Mummy, just imagine what he’s going to feel like once he starts remembering what happened to him. Think of how he’s going to hate white people” (191). Ilse certainly has sympathy for the boy, but here she cannot help articulating a perspective that belies her progressivism. Rajiva writes, “Even to the most progressive member of the Erasmus family, Little-Neville’s racialized experience of trauma is less disturbing than the thought that the survivor of a violent assault might come to feel animosity toward white Afrikaners. Ilse’s subject position both circumscribes and performs the range of empathic responses available to white South Africans, with respect to black trauma.”

To conclude, Rajiva suggests that “the reduction of Little-Neville’s trauma foreshadows Marnus’ later difficulty in accepting that it is his father, not the visiting Chilean general, who he sees raping Frikkie; the discourse of Total Strategy brings a similarly totalizing blindness to the trauma of vulnerable bodies.” Secrets, repression, obfuscation, and minimization permeate the micro and the macro in this hermetic society.