The Smell of Apples

The Smell of Apples Summary and Analysis of Pages 42-82


The sounds of battle are everywhere but Marnus has to tell his men they are not going to move; they have to wait for orders from HQ. Everyone is frightened and the black section-leader looks critically at Marnus. Marnus knows race does not matter here; bullets do not discriminate.


In the mornings Dad always feeds the gulls, and they make such a racket that Marnus hears them. He goes downstairs and watches the circus of gulls. They all trust Dad because they know him.

Marnus thinks about how sometimes he and Dad watch boxing or listen to it on the radio. He also thinks of Mum and her singing, and how sometimes she sings and plays the piano when Dad is not home.

Dad and Mum do not want Ilse and Marnus taking the train to school because in one week two white women were raped by Coloureds at the Salt River Station. Mum drives them around in her green Beetle, the most ubiquitous vehicle in the region. Mum does her singing lessons between the driving around.

Ilse is good at everything and has many activities, except she quit Voortrekkers, which disappointed Dad. Marnus and Frikkie still are in it. Mum and Marnus have to wait while Ilse is in her music lessons. They used to go visit Tannie Karla then, but after the big argument, they have not gone back. They listen to Afrikaans serials on the radio. This makes Marnus think of a story from when Dad was a baby: a Musai woman picked up Dad and gave him her blessing, but Ouma was terrified that he would be infected by some disease so she scrubbed him until he screamed.

Friday afternoon is the best time for Marnus and Dad. They walk along the beach and sometimes go swimming. If Dad is not there, Marnus has to go with Mum to Ilse’s music lessons. When Dad and Marnus are out in the water, Dad tells Marnus to listen carefully to the gulls and the sea. Marnus thinks Dad might be thinking about Oupa, who went missing out here.

The first few times Frikkie came, he was afraid of the water and did not go in. Marnus was irritated that Dad was paying so much attention to him. Finally after a few times Frikkie did come in, and the three of them would have fun floating around in the water.

Marnus phones Frikkie to see if he can come visit. Perhaps he can stay the whole weekend since Sunday school is over for the year. The Delports go to Groote Kerk and the Erasmuses go to the Dutch Reformed Fish Hoek. Dominee Cronje is the minister there and he and his wife are very well known.

Frikkie gets permission to come over but he says his mother told him he cannot behave like a hooligan; he recently got a terrible hiding for being mean to Zelda Kemp. Marnus has never gotten a hiding and Ilse only has had one (she called a Bantu man who came to speak with Dad a racial slur—a “kaffir”—and was punished and made to apologize). Frikkie is terrified of Dad even more than the woodwork teacher, even though he sees how Dad never beats Marnus or Ilse.

Marnus meets Frikkie at the St. James station and they walk to see what catch the boats have brought in. As they pass under the train tracks they hear Zelda Kemp calling out a hello to them. Frikkie says they should run away from her, but she follows them all the way to the quay, her red plaits streaming out from under her hat.

The boys go out on the quay to the lighthouse and watch as waves smash against it. Zelda is out of breath and has red spots on her cheeks. Marnus tells her to leave them alone but he knows Frikkie is in the mood for sport. He says they should play chicken, but Zelda says no. Frikkie grabs her hat and teases her that her mother is a stripper (she is not, but there is a woman in town with the same last name who is a notorious stripper).

Zelda is scared and wants to come get the hat. She is crying and nearly hysterical and Marnus thinks they ought to stop. But then the wave cracks against the concrete and swallows Zelda up under the water. The boys rush to find her and for a second they think she is dead, but she is still alive. They help her up and she continues crying. Marnus softly apologizes.

They all walk away from the beach and Zelda says she is glad they are moving. Her father got a job at the main post office and maybe the railways. She will not be going to Jan Van Riebeeck high school.

Back at home Doreen is worrying about Little-Neville, who did not arrive on this morning’s train. Marnus tells Mum that the Kemps are moving and Mum is pleased because this means Zelda might have a chance to go to university now. She is glad the government takes care of its people.

Mum tells Frikkie they have a guest from America, Mr. Smith, and the boys have to share the parents’ bathroom.

Marnus takes his shower with Dad. Dad smiles and asks if “that little man of yours [stands] up yet sometimes in the mornings?” (63) but Marnus is shy and does not answer. It has not happened to him, but he has seen it happen to Frikkie.


Sleep is nearly impossible. When Marnus awakes he recollects a dream of riding horses down a beach with a man with dark skin and a mustache. It feels familiar.

They are still waiting for command, and for food. Everyone is weak. Marnus can feel how his jaw protrudes. He walks over to a baobab tree to pee. He inspects his penis and his balls, and feels the cool air on them.


The children sit and listen to the adults’ conversation at dinner. Dad has a lot to say to the General, beginning with the fact that everyone is against South Africa because they have all the gold and the diamonds, and they aren’t dishonest and hide their laws like the rest of the world. He says all the best blacks were taken out of Africa during the slave trade and the dumb and weak ones are still here; America has all the strong and clever ones so it is disingenuous for them to tell South Africa what to do with theirs. Dad continues and says they have a strong army and the nearby Portuguese colonies aren’t as against them as the rest of the world.

Marnus thinks about how the family went to Lourenco Marques and had a wonderful time on vacation. He loved going deep sea fishing with Dad, and liked that Mum and Dad seemed to act like they were on their second honeymoon. Another time Mum reminisced about when she and Dad met, and how she loved that he was “a man in uniform, who can be so touched by music” (69).

Dad continues to talk about how stupid America is, and how the Russians want Mozambique and then the Republic of South Africa. None of the Western nations know anything about what is good for South Africa, and other countries keep playing into the hands of the Communists. The General smiles and says at least they have friends in Chile, and Dad laughs that he has them in the U.S.A. too. Both men laugh.

Frikkie and Marnus both want to join the army when they get older. They think the navy is full of “poofters” (obviously Oupa Erasmus was not one, though, Marnus hastily thinks).

Marnus wonders what the General looks like in his uniform. Dad’s visitors don’t wear their uniforms here, but Marnus has seen pictures of Chilean uniforms in a book Dad has. Marnus also wonders if the General has been in the war because Dad says there is always war in Chile because the Communists are everywhere.

Dad says the boys need to get going to sleep because tomorrow they are getting up very early to go fishing. The General is interested in this and asks if they can come. Marnus is excited.

The boys brush their teeth and Frikkie ventures that he thinks Ilse is in love with the General. This surprises Marnus. Upstairs he sets their alarm clock for four in the morning. As they settle down, Marnus asks if he can tell Frikkie something that he won’t repeat ever. Frikkie says yes, but Marnus gets nervous and backs down. He protests that he cannot say anything. He feels bad, though, because Frikkie always keeps his secrets and he’s his best friend. Marnus says they have to go to sleep.

Frikkie gets up a moment later and turns on the light, and grabs a Bible. He swears an oath he won’t tell anyone what Marnus is going to tell him. Marnus is still not convinced, so Frikkie suggests they become blood brothers. They prick their fingers, Marnus says an oath and Frikkie repeats it, and they rub their blood together.

Once this is done, Marnus tells Frikkie about “Mr. Smith” being a general from Chile and Dad’s other visitors. He says no one can know because everyone hates South Africa and no one can know these people are on its side. Frikkie is hushed and fascinated. He asks if there might be a war somewhere. Marnus says yes, that Dad says things are bad in Rhodesia because the Communists mess up people’s minds.

Marnus turns off the light and goes to get a drink of water before going to bed. To his surprise, he encounters the General in the washroom. As Marnus awkwardly gets a drink of water, the General says he reminds him of his own son. Marnus espies a huge scar on the General’s back that is almost as thick as his own arm.

Back upstairs Marnus goes to tell Frikkie about the scar but his friend is asleep. Marnus thinks about how the General is handsome and wonders if Ilse really is in love with him. He is rather incredulous about this, for Ilse is only seventeen and the General is married and has children.


As the novel continues, the insidious nationalist and racist sentiment that characterizes Marnus’ life becomes even more and more pervasive. Susan Vanzanten Gallagher says succinctly that Marnus’ “home and life are imbued with Afrikaner nationalism. He attends Voortrekkers every Friday afternoon, eats boboties and rice with raisins, attends a Dutch Reformed Church, and idolizes his father, the youngest major-general ever in the history of the South African Defence Force.” Thus, every aspect of the boy’s life has him absorbing and accepting and regurgitating the things he hears and learns. Behr has Marnus utter such ironic comments as the rest of the world not being on South Africa’s side because “The ordinary people in those countries have all been brainwashed. They don’t understand what’s really going on here” (80). Mervyn McMurtry calls the novel a “masterly analysis of the psyche of supremacy,” that is a “scathing indictment of the bigoted nurturing that results from the nexus of historically, socially, and culturally constructed powers of hegemonic masculinity,” and Kerry Bystrom agrees, saying it “reveals the rot at the very heart of the white family, building block and prized metaphor for the Afrikaner nation.”

Almost every time Marnus talks about his father there is some indication of this intertwined nationalism and racism. Dad forbids Tannie Karla from coming over anymore because she is too liberal. When he talks about sports, he says “[overseas] they discriminate against us white South Africans” (44). At the dinner table with his family and the General, he portrays South African whites as under siege from the rest of the world because “we have all the gold and the diamonds” (66) and “we don’t hide our laws like the rest of the world” (66). In a nauseating and cruel understatement of the Slave Trade, he says the blacks that live here are inferior because “all the clever ones and the strong ones were shipped out of Africa” (66).

What is so manipulative about Dad’s racism is that, mostly, it is commonplace and often subtle. He embodies a sort of rectitudinous, benevolent paternalism around the Coloured population, and, in one scene, admonishes Ilse for calling a Bantu man an “ugly black kaffir” (53) because “they’re also human, and Dad says we should treat them as human beings” (54). In a vacuum this suggests that Dad is a decent person who does not want to treat the Coloured population differently. By this time the reader knows better, though; Dad might pat himself on the back for decrying such explicit racism, but the comments he peppers his everyday speech with reveal just how deeply racist he is.

The General seems to agree with everything Dad is saying, and brings his own perspective from South America to the table. Bystrom delves further into the character of the General, who tends to occupy very little space in most critical analyses of the novel. She shows how South Africa under apartheid and South American dictatorships had much in common in terms of Cold War militarism, anti-communism, and nationalism. Pinochet’s Chile is “an uncanny double for apartheid South Africa,” Bystrom states succinctly. This is expressed in the novel through the frequent conflation of Dad and the General. The men have physical similarities and “share common goals and values.” Marnus has the same hero-worship for the General as his father, and, at the end of the novel when he’s trying to reject his father after seeing him rape Frikkie, he does so by rejecting the General’s epaulettes. Ultimately, Marnus has a vision of “his father and the general as mirror images from opposite sides of the South Atlantic, each standing for an aggressive defence of their own anti-communist ideology.”

To conclude, we will look briefly at that symbol of masculinity—the penis—which so occupies the male characters in the story. First, we learn that Dad and Marnus take showers together. Initially, while surprising given Marnus’ age, it seems innocent enough. Dad asks him if his “little man” is “standing up” yet, and Marnus is embarrassed and shakes his head. Again, maybe a little odd, maybe not. In a later scene, Marnus as an adult inspects his penis and testicles. Just as when he was a child, his penis is flaccid. McMurtry notes that this scene reinforces Marnus’ “powerlessness and impotency.” By the time the reader has finished the novel, the importance of these scenes are clear. Dad has repressed homosexual inclinations, and though there is no evidence that he has molested Marnus, the showering has a rather ominous tinge now. We also know that Marnus does not stand up for Frikkie when Dad rapes him, and that Marnus grows up into a young man who, as far as we can tell, does not question his lessons of childhood. His flaccid penis as a child and his flaccid penis as a man stand for his inability to exercise any sort of autonomy and assertiveness.