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In the novel The Smell of Apples, written by Mark Behr, Behr uses a first-person perspective through the main character Marnus, an eleven year old boy. The book uses a first-person narration, through Marnus, to relay both the events of when he is older and fighting as a soldier in the war and the current events of his life in 1973 as an eleven year old boy. As he narrates his life as an eleven year old he is what Daniel Lehman calls a ‘naive narrator.’
A ‘naive narrator’ is when the narrator of the story is a child or young adult, who is immature in his thinking and relaying of events. The narrator is often easily influenced by those around him and their thoughts and the way in which they speak or narrate often shows the opinions and influences of the other characters around them.
Marnus is a naive narrator because he is often influenced by his parent’s views on race, a controversial topic in South Africa at the time, and Behr uses Marnus’ narration to both reveal and criticize racial stereotyping in the novel. Both Marnus’ mother, Leonore, and father, Johan, are racist, viewing coloureds and blacks as less than them and they project these views onto Marnus and his sister, Ilse. Therefore, we can see these racial stereotypes in Marnus’ narration.
Behr reveals Marnus’ views on race by showing that Marnus has a generalized view of Coloured people and their actions and morals. “All the Coloureds live on the Cape Flats and at weekends they get drunk and then they murder and rape each other” (Behr 32). Marnus also generalizes the Coloureds as “hooligans” who create “savage going-ons” (Behr 32). These stereotypes are untrue and demeaning to most Coloureds, as only a select few commit such crimes and act in such an uncivilised manner, however, this has no connection to their race. Behr uses these generalizations to highlight and criticize how such generalizations were widely spoken of and taught and how they added to the racist stereotypes that existed at the time. It shows how society used the actions of some to justify their generalizations and racist views.
These stereotypes paint non-whites in a bad light and show how non-whites were criminalized “More often they’re criminals who won’t ever get to see heaven” (Behr 19) and often blamed for crimes they didn’t commit due to their race. “Because Chrisjan liked fishing, Mum knew immediately that he must have stolen our stuff. Mum says that’s exactly the way the Coloureds are. You can never ever trust them” (Behr 19). This criticizes society as a whole race was generalized and reveals that because they were deemed inferior to the whites, then automatically they were poor and had to commit crimes and live immoral lifestyles.
Behr criticizes the racial stereotypes by highlighting how irrational some of the stereotypes are. Marnus tells Frikkie that the General is half-Spaniard and half-Indian to which Frikkie replies that if he is Indian, it therefore makes him a Coloured. “I wonder if he is some sort of Spaniard, because his skin is so dark and his hair and moustache are almost pitch black” (Behr 37). Marnus says that you need to have ‘real Black blood’ in order be a Coloured. Even though Mr Smith visually has dark skin, Marnus doesn’t think he is a Coloured because he is not a typical South African Coloured. He is not half black; therefore, he is not deemed inferior like the other South African Coloureds. Marnus genuinely believes that the differences between races is not only skin color, but basic physiology, imagining that Coloureds and Blacks are actually a different species all together (Perry). The only reason he sees Mr Smith as an equal, despite his skin tone, is the fact that he is a respected General from another country. Therefore, Marnus and his family are incorrect in seeing all the other Coloureds as inferior, purely based on their skin tone. The fact that Marnus doesn’t regard him as inferior purely because his parents do not see him as inferior, shows the extent of his parents’ influence on his own opinions.
Through Marnus being a naïve narrator we can see how racism was indoctrinated in the minds of the white people, especially how easily Marnus could be almost brainwashed into believing what parents and authority tell them about race even if it was unrealistic. One of the best examples of this is Marnus’ statement that the blacks have different blood to the whites, as we know this is biologically untrue (Perry). It is also unrealistic of Marnus to believe that America took all the smart Black people as slaves and left the dumb Black people behind. “The blood that was left in Africa was the blood of the dumber blacks – that’s why you won’t find an educated black anywhere” (Behr 66).
Throughout the novel, Black and Coloured people are constantly depicted as dumb and uneducated as we can see this through various quotes such as “Of all the nations in the world, those with black skins across their butts also have the smallest brains” (Behr 38) and “It’s just like the Coloureds to act all stupid when it suits them” (Behr 164). Behr also uses statements such as “The Bantus are even dumber than the Coloureds” (Behr 39) to criticize how they even differentiated the level of a person’s intelligence based on how light or dark their skin was and not on their actual intellectual capacity.
When Little Neville gets beaten up by white men, Marnus’ mom refuses to believe they were in the wrong, blaming his beating on the fact that it was wrong of him to steal in the first place. She justifies the actions of the white men by saying that they weren’t Christians and were of a lower class and uneducated, she refuses to acknowledge that the beating probably happened because Neville was a coloured and the men were racist (Behr 139). She tries to force Marnus to agree with her opinion and when he questions whether it was a racially based crime, she refuses to let him think that any normal white man would do that. Behr uses this example to criticize how the racism was not always violent actions against non-whites, but the mere indoctrination that white people were better than non-whites and that non-whites did something to deserve such violent crimes if they occurred.
Marnus has also not only been exposed to racial stereotypes about non-whites, but has even been exposed to racial stereotypes about white people, especially the English. The English are hypocritical and killed many people and then left. Marnus has been taught that the Afrikaners are superior, not only to the Blacks and Coloureds, but also white English speaking people and he must be proud of his Afrikaans heritage (Behr 163). Marnus is also taught to think that it is up to the Afrikaans people to keep the country safe from the Blacks who will destroy the country. “They’re trying to take over everything we built up over the years, just to destroy it as they destroy everything they lay their hands on” (Behr 164).
It is clear to see through the way Marnus speaks that his language is replete with stereotypes and has racially prejudiced views against the Blacks and Coloured people. It is also clear to see that Marnus that he has picked up these racial stereotypes from his parents as their opinions and views have been reflected onto him. One can therefore say that Marnus is a naïve narrator and through his narration the stereotypes are revealed and criticized.
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