Max Annas's thriller 'The Farm' exposes contradictions of life in SA

09 November 2020 - 12:10 By Michael Sears
'The Farm' is Max Annas's debut thriller.
'The Farm' is Max Annas's debut thriller.
Image: Supplied

Max Annas used to live in SA, where he taught at the University of Fort Hare, before he returned to his homeland, Germany.

He now lives in Berlin but still visits SA regularly. His background is in journalism, and he’s published in the non-fiction arena in culture and politics. His work is widely acclaimed.

His first novel, The Farm, is set in the Eastern Cape and was recently released in English by Catalyst Press in North America and by Lapa in SA. The novel finished third in the 2015 German Crime Prize and is currently under film production in SA.

The novel takes place over eight hours. The Muller farmstead is attacked by a gang, and the Muller family, their workers, and several visitors are trapped inside the house. There is no way to call for help.

No one appears to know what the attackers are after - there are too many of them, and they are too well-armed for a simple farm robbery. However, the farmers, too, have a good supply of guns, and the advantage moves from attackers to defenders and back as they try different strategies. But men and women on both sides are dying.

Tension and intriguing characters make this a book you shouldn’t start until you have enough time to finish it. It’s hard to put down!

In this exclusive The Big Thrill interview, Annas talks about inspiration, writing an action thriller set in Africa, and the challenges of writing a novel that takes place over just eight hours.

What motivated you to write a thriller about a farm attack set in SA in the first place?

When I was living in SA, attacks on farms were a highly disputed matter. I wanted to look closer into it. Talking about it, there were, and there still are, two factions, and they are both lying. White people deny they are responsible for the (political) situation in which you are attacked when weak, and in a farmhouse you are very weak. And the black elite talking about the land question is hiding the fact that they want the land for themselves, not for the black poor.

Although The Farm is an action thriller, it exposes contradictions in modern SA - the yawning gap between poor rural blacks and the generally white landowners, for example. Would you comment?

I don’t see the “although.” A thriller, call it an action thriller or something else, is the best way to deal with contradictions and conflict. It begins with the very first sentence of the book, spoken by farmer Muller: “I am not a racist.” It’s the culmination of all contradictions of white life in SA.

The story is told from the points of view of several characters, each giving their own perspective of what’s happening and their reactions more or less at the same time. Why did you choose that writing approach for the novel?

It’s an antihero approach. The Farm  deserved an ensemble of main characters instead of a leading woman or leading man. Only through different eyes, a lot of them, am I able to offer my view on what above you call contradictions in modern SA life. And then, as the outsider I am in SA, with my first 44 years spent in Germany, it seemed easier to offer these different viewpoints than loading the baggage of the whole story on the back of one main character. That figure would have had too much to carry.

The Mullers are a close family, but they react in quite different ways to the attack. Although the patriarch of the family, Franz Muller, had absolute authority when he had control, he is unable to lead. Neither can the black policeman with him. That role falls to Mrs McKenzie, a woman visiting Muller’s wife. Were you exploring the varied reactions of different individuals to life and death stress?

Franz Muller is the boss, undoubtedly, but only under normal circumstances. That night on the farm is nothing normal. Muller sees his property attacked and his family. And he doesn’t know by whom. The policeman is in a hostile - white - environment. So the role to act with decisiveness and responsibility for all falls to a different person. Plus, Muller’s interest is property and family and, maybe, his workers. And that’s it.

Originally published on November 2 in The Big Thrill. Click here to continue reading their conversation.