Longing for October: Flora, Fauna, and the Concept of Home
Zoë Wicomb aptly writes in her essay titled, Setting, intertextuality and the resurrection of the postcolonial author: “… setting becomes absorbed into character” (Wicomb, 2006). This statement runs true for the two protagonists of her novel, October – each having profound and complex connections with their natural landscapes. Despite Mercia’s emigration, she continues to look to the flora around her to form ideas and attachments about a sense of home, either real or imagined. On the other hand, Sylvie’s upbringing and relationship with various animals lays the foundation for her processing of trauma and memory. Expanding on the abovementioned ideas, this essay will compare and contrast Mercia and Sylvie’s different perspectives on flora and fauna. Furthermore, I will analyse how these points of view impact and inform their respective ideas about place and how it is made meaningful by notions of home and belonging. Lastly, this essay will consider whether their perceptions change throughout the novel and how this might affect their ideas about space. I will be providing a close reading of certain passages from the novel as well as referencing various articles and essays to support my argument. First, I will begin by examining Mercia’s perspective on flora and fauna throughout the novel and discussing how this moulds her ideas about home.
Unlike her impoverished South African family, Mercia has the bureaucratic and financial privilege to travel, both for work and leisure. Mostly travelling with Craig, she is incredibly drawn to the nature and landscape of her exotic destinations, often creating parallels with her hometown of Kliprand. Upon seeing the volcanic scenery of Lanzarote, Mercia was “surprised by the familiarity of the island… in some ways they might as well have gone home to the Cape” (Wicomb, 2014, p. 232). The dry and dusty landscape of the Spanish island reminds her of the harsh Namaqualand of her childhood. However, she does not seem thrilled by the resemblance and rather dismisses the likeness as not being able to evade her heritage. This is seen in the line: “Murrays and Malherbes… there’s no escaping us” (Wicomb, 2014, p. 233). Mercia’s disdainful attitude toward her place of upbringing is contradicted only several pages later, making readers wonder about the true nature of her feelings toward Kliprand. Despite Craig’s reluctance to visit the Jardín de Cactus, Mercia insists on going out of her way to visit the famous cactus garden. Furthermore, readers are also told by Craig that “… [she] bloody hate[s] cacti too…” (Wicomb, 2014, p. 235). After making the long journey to see a collection of plants she despises, the attached third person narrator reflects on how often Mercia “derided that childhood” yet still cherishes the memory of her father teaching her the names of plants in their garden (Wicomb, 2014, p. 236). This obvious inconsistency appears to allow readers to reflect on Mercia’s ambiguous attitudes about her hometown and family. However, this tension is explicitly overstated in the question: “Was there no choosing between the contradictions of longing for and longing to be away from home?” (Wicomb, 2014, p. 236). It is here that Wicomb explicates the uneasiness and uncertainty that Mercia feels about Kliprand and whether she considers it ‘home’ or merely a place filled with memories of cruelty, sternness and a lack of emotion.
In her essay on October, Meg Samuelson alerts our attention to how “… the novel conveys the unhomeliness of home [by using] uncanny allusions and an unsettling use of free indirect discourse” (Samuelson, 2017). This paradoxical feeling of unhomeliness at home is carried with Mercia in all the different places she both inhabits and visits. Towards the end of the novel, Mercia visits Macau where she will be interviewed for a professorship position at the university. Like in Lanzarote, she is “fascinated by the flora” and the narrator spends a considerable amount of time describing the lush and ornamental gardens of Macau (Wicomb, 2014, p. 262). Yet again, Mercia identifies floral elements from the Namaqualand in the exotic flora of Macau: “And so many of the flowers are those of the Cape: bougainvillea, hibiscus, poinsettia, oleander” (Wicomb, 2014, p. 262). It appears as though Mercia is attempting to draw too contrived a parallel between the nature of her holiday destinations and that of her birthplace. This seemingly forced and imagined similarity suggests to readers that Mercia may have an unresolved and suppressed longing for Kliprand that reveals itself in her attitudes towards familiar flora. Her constant psychological return to the Cape countryside manifests in the forced associations she makes abroad. Mercia exhibits this same behaviour earlier in the novel when she travels by train from Glasgow to Edinburgh. While watching her train pass through various Scottish towns, the narrator smugly remarks that there is “no escape from home” at these reminders of South Africa and Britain’s colonial past. Along with the glaringly British names, Mercia sees “reminders” of home but in the “… hanging baskets of petunia and begonia, ugly municipal combinations of pink, orange and purple” (Wicomb, 2014, p. 130). The novel’s protagonist yet again draws contrived connections between the colours of her native Namaqualand and the council-issued flower baskets used to brighten up the train station.
A large portion of the novel is spent describing and discussing the Murray’s childhood playground – the veld behind their house. Mercia has many vivid memories of playing in desolate landscape with Jake, learning the Afrikaans names of all the Cape plants and flowers. Mercia feels a strong attachment to the veld near her house, evident in the way she reacts upon finding out that her nephew has never ventured out into nature. She cynically says, “Imagine, the child not knowing his own patch! Surely a child’s physical world should not be so circumscribed, especially here where you can see for miles across the veld” (Wicomb, 2014, p. 43). The narrator recalls one of Mercia’s childhood memories that has had a lasting effect on her and her ideas about Kliprand as home. The narrator describes the “dead old veld” bursting with small pockets of floral colour and texture – “… the vygies with their little pink or yellow daisies dotted here and there across the grey bush, brazenly staring at the sun” (Wicomb, 2014, p. 46). This fond recollection of playing with her brother in the veld focuses on how “… he came back from minding the goats with an armful of flaming flowers… he had run all the way to present the treasure to Mummy” (Wicomb, 2014, p. 46). The picturesque domestic image of Nettie fussing over Jake and the kalkoentjies that he picked for her is shattered once Meester sets his eyes on the makeshift vase. In an outburst of rage, the children’s “… words dried up under their father’s fierce eyes as he reached for the aapstert behind the door, so that the children whimpered with fear” (Wicomb, 2014, p. 47). As a child, Mercia’s deep connection to the plant life near her home is disrupted by brutal human interference in the form of her father, unable to see the picking of flowers as merely an act of kindness and beneficence. It is because of this instance and others like it that her interactions with a place and its flora are tainted by memories of emotional trauma and emotionless cruelty, inflicted by her father.
This distressing event is both contrasted and recreated only several pages later when Mercia takes her nephew out for a walk in the veld. Nicky asks whether he would be allowed to pick some flowers to give to Sylvie and it is this question which sends his aunt spinning into a bout of anxiety. The narrator says, “Her heart breaks for the repetition, the foreboding… a sledgehammer in her head and the roar of blood in her chest” (Wicomb, 2014, pp. 48, 49). Mercia’s panic is obvious in these lines as Nicky’s question sends her back to the day when she and Jake were beaten for following through with the same train of thought as Nicky. Her attitude toward the flora of her hometown is summed up succinctly in the telling line: “Why is it that name… the homely Afrikaans, kalkoentjie, that makes the eyes prick?” (Wicomb, 2014, p. 50). This line epitomises Mercia’s outlook on plant life as its formulation as a question suggests that she is ambiguous about her stance, yet its rather clear and overt content indicates that she knows something about what lies at the root of her floral-based tension. On the other hand, Sylvie has a vastly different experience and perspective on flora and fauna to that of her sister-in-law. Mercia’s character is more drawn to vegetation and plant life than Sylvie, who is deeply attached to animals, especially the livestock she both rears and slaughters. The narrator chooses to discuss Sylvie’s love for animals in an overt and open way, ensuring that the readers fully understand this central aspect of her character. The attached third person narrator says, “Sylvie has much experience with sheep. She has since childhood reared lambs, has cradled hanslammertjies in her arms, hand-fed them milk from a bottle and teat…” (Wicomb, 2014, p. 12). This detailed explanation aims to show Sylvie’s expansive knowledge about sheep and her intimate involvement with them throughout her life. Her excitement and ease when it comes to talking about the topic is seen in the line: “This is her territory, and she delights in the… woman’s ignorance” (Wicomb, 2014, p. 69). However, her passion for the farm animal changes considerably when Oom Lodewyk agrees to employ her in his local butchery when Sylvie is just a teenager. The narrator describes the way her “face fell” when she is told of her new job and when one of her mothers asks if she is “… not the one who loved goats and sheep?” and “Why then would she not be delighted with the plan?” (Wicomb, 2014, p. 115). Sylvie’s love for living animals is obvious throughout the book, especially when the narrator tells of the lamb she was given as a gift. This idea is reinforced in the line: “It transpires that there is no stopping Sylvie when it comes to sheep. She tells of being just a little girl when she was given her first kid” (Wicomb, 2014, p. 71). This profound love of animals is forever changed when she goes to work in the butchery and Sylvie rhetorically and heartbreakingly asks, “As if dead animals, carcasses were the same as live ones” (Wicomb, 2014, p. 115). It is only later in the novel that readers begin to understand the emotional baggage that comes with Sylvie’s love for and attachment to animals.
As an adolescent, Sylvie was rather tomboyish and preferred to go with the local boys to help Meester care for the sheep and goats. The narrator recalls the way in which Mercia and Jake’s father took young Sylvie under his wing, teaching her all she needed to know about livestock: “How the child loved to hear Meester’s stories about sheep” (Wicomb, 2014, p. 214). The narrator also speaks of her enthusiasm when it came to spending time with her adult neighbour, “… not for all the world miss the slaughtering of a sheep in Meester’s yard” and “… beg[ging] after school, please could she go with Meester and the boys to the veld” (Wicomb, 2014, p. 216). It is on these excursions that Sylvie’s love for and perspective on animals becomes contaminated with traumatic memories of Meester’s sexual abuse and grooming. The narrator grimly forebodes disaster in the lines: “… away in the secluded kloofs with only sheep to keep an eye, Meester might one day see that the child was no longer a child, that she had grown hips and breasts, and that perhaps she no longer wanted him as a father” (Wicomb, 2014, p. 217). The language once used to describe and take pleasure in the veld and its flora and fauna become disturbingly entangled with the predatory rhetoric of Meester: “Oh, how Sylvie ached to be alone in the veld with Meester, who said she was clever and beautiful… [and] knew everything about plants, about the red earth…” and “His fingers were like the tapered flutes of Jan Twakkie flower at the edge of the dry vlei” (Wicomb, 2014, pp. 218, 219). Unlike her sister-in-law, Sylvie is unable to escape the traumatic memories of her history of abuse. Her job at the butchery, her hometown, the sheep and goats for which she cares as well as her son that looks so much like her abuser all are painful reminders of her past. Sylvie is not afforded the same privilege that Mercia was – to flee the place of her difficult and distressing childhood.
Mercia and Sylvie have two greatly differing perspectives on flora and fauna in Zoë Wicomb’s October. Mercia has a deep attachment to a place’s landscape, vegetation and plant life but one which brings memories of her unforgiving and cruel father. Her attitude toward flora is constantly and contradictorily, both asserting and challenging her ideas about home and where that may be. On the other hand, Sylvie is far more connected to animals, especially the livestock she has learned to care for, slaughter and process into meat. However, her outlook on fauna is informed by a repressed and secretive history of sexual abuse that thus informs how she views her hometown, family and her idea of home. Ultimately, both women struggle with what it means to make a place meaningful, especially in the wake of trauma and tragedy. Their struggles manifest in completely different ways and on different sides of the globe, allowing them to process their suffering in two opposite ends of the spectrum .
Samuelson, M., 2017. Unsettling Homes and the Provincial-Cosmopolitan Point of View in Zoë Wicomb’s October. In: K. Easton & D. Attridge, eds. Zoë Wicomb & the Translocal: Writing Scotland & South Africa. London: Routledge. Wicomb, Z., 2006. Setting, intertextuality and the resurrection of the postcolonial author. Journal of Postcolonial Writing, 41(2), pp. 144-155. Wicomb, Z., 2014. October. 1st ed. Cape Town: Umuzi.