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Cold stone jug by Herman Charles Bosman

Cold stone jug (original 1949; edition 1971)

by Herman Charles Bosman

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403484,020 (4)4
Herman Charles Bosman s unique account of the term he served as a young man in Pretoria Central Prison. Convicted for the murder of his step-brother, and initially condemned to hang, he had his sentence commuted to be a regular convict through the 1920s and into the 1930s."
Title:Cold stone jug
Authors:Herman Charles Bosman
Info:Human & Rousseau (1971), Unknown Binding, 220 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:autobiography, prison, humour, South Africa

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Cold stone jug by Herman Charles Bosman (1949)


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A prison record seems to be almost de rigueur for great colonial short-story writers: O. Henry did his stretch for embezzlement, Henry Lawson was in and out of Darlinghurst in his later years, and there are doubtless lots of other less distinguished examples. South Africa's greatest short story writer of the early 20th century, Herman Charles Bosman, was no exception: during a visit to his mother and his new stepfather in July 1926, when he was 21, an argument got out of hand and he shot and killed his stepbrother, with the result that he was convicted of murder, which carried an automatic death sentence. After a period on death row — which he claims to have rather enjoyed, but that sounds like hindsight — his sentence was commuted to ten years imprisonment. He remained in Pretoria's Central Prison until August 1930, when he was released on parole.

Cold stone jug, written nearly twenty years later, when he was a successful journalist and short-story writer, is his prison memoir. It's written with his characteristic dry humour, but it's often indirectly very moving when he talks about the psychological effects on himself and others of being locked up, and the damaging social effects of the "indefinite sentence" system that put offenders into a vicious circle of ever-increasing periods of imprisonment it was almost impossible to break out of. And there's lots of fascinating period detail about the way the prison is organised, the social hierarchy, the sometimes surprisingly subtle acts of resistance or protest, and some great thumbnail stories from the lives of his fellow prisoners, artfully chopped about and left incomplete to reflect the fragmented nature of opportunities to talk to other prisoners.

One thing that struck me is that this is a book set in an all-white fragment of South African society: black people only appear very peripherally — in an opening scene, Bosman is in a basement holding cell at the police station, and the prisoners can see the legs of passers-by, "mostly natives"; later on he mentions that the bodies of men who have died in the prison are collected by a pair of "kaffir prisoners", presumably from a different nearby prison. And that's it: the prisoners are white, the guards are white, and Bosman never sees anyone else.

Bosman doesn't draw a veil over the less palatable sides of prison life: the casual brutality, the culture of dagga smoking, and so on. He describes being disgusted when he realised that another prisoner had fallen in love with him and kept sending him sentimental notes (but points out that he was still very young: by the time of writing, he's overcome his prejudices and some of his best friends are gay or lesbian...). When another prisoner, a disgraced schoolteacher, tells him in graphic detail about the twelve-year-old girl he'd had sex with, Bosman admits that he started having fantasies about young girls himself. Again, he points out that he was very young and had had little chance for sexual experimentation before being locked up, but it's still rather creepy. I don't suppose a modern writer would get away with that kind of honesty.

So, definitely comes with some caveats, but still a fascinating book. ( )
  thorold | Jun 20, 2020 |
Gallows humour. Autobiography about the author's incarceration for murder. Perceptive and darkly funny. ( )
  HedgePig | Nov 11, 2007 |
"Cold Stone Jug" by Herman Bosman was recommended to me during a trip to South Africa earlier this year. I ended up acquiring the anniversary edition, which finally came a few weeks ago. The book is in the same family as Dostoevsky's "House of the Dead", which similarly fictionalizes a real-life stint behind bars.

Like "House of the Dead", "Cold Stone Jug" describes the day-to-day prison experience. The clothes, the routines, all are described in intimate detail. Like "House of the Dead", the narrator moves from a death sentence to a fixed term in prison, to release. Even the reliance on the prison infirmary as a release from the monotony of prison life is duplicated.

What makes both works enjoyable is the hopefulness, strained though it is at times. We know that somehow the narrator survives the ordeal, somehow his humor and wit survive. The anniversary edition in particular is enjoyable because it includes prefaces, etc that firmly root the work in the biography of Bosman and in the reality of the penal system he was incarcerated in.

Like any good book, this book left me wanting to read more from and about the author. Further reviews of the author's work to follow... ( )
  duhrer | Oct 19, 2007 |
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Herman Charles Bosman s unique account of the term he served as a young man in Pretoria Central Prison. Convicted for the murder of his step-brother, and initially condemned to hang, he had his sentence commuted to be a regular convict through the 1920s and into the 1930s."

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