More fantastic than fiction

2009-06-24 00:00

HAVING asked myself all the way through reading Little Ice Cream ­­­­B­oy, Jacques Pauw’s novel based on the life of Ferdi Barnard, why Pauw wrote it as fiction rather than as a straight­forward biography, it was the first question I asked the author when we met at the Cape Town book fair last week.

“I tried to write his biography — I asked him if I could,” says Pauw. “He says that if he gets out, he’ll get back to me. My only condition is that he must really tell me everything.” But while he’s in jail, Barnard is not likely to do that. They would probably throw away the key. He has committed four murders that are known about, but it seems likely that there may have been more.

Having decided to go the fictional route, Pauw says, having never written fiction before, he didn’t realise that by writing in the first person he would have his character taking up residence in his head. And when that character is an apartheid assassin, gangster and drug dealer, it is not a comfortable experience.

In 1989, Pauw was assistant editor and co-founder of the radical ­Afrikaans paper, Vrye Weekblad. He says that, from early on, Barnard had been fingered as a possible killer of the academic David Webster, and in 1992, Pauw tracked down an address for Barnard and met him.

“We struck up a rapport — he was clever, funny and liked attention. I never experienced him as a rabid kind of racist,” says Pauw. “He just has a complete contempt for life.” In 1996, at a drunken lunch, Barnard ­confessed to Pauw that he had killed Webster for a R60 000 “production bonus” from the Civil Co-operation Bureau.

Pauw says — and not entirely joking — that at the time of Barnard’s conviction, he reckoned that if the man ever got out of jail, Pauw would pack his bags for Australia. After all, Pauw’s evidence was instrumental in putting Barnard behind bars. But ­despite all this, Barnard retains ­contact with Pauw, and when he ­married Betsy de Ridder in jail, he asked Pauw and the infamous killer Eugene de Kok to be his best men. Correctional Services said no, but Pauw made a Carte Blanche documentary about the wedding.

“I hope this is finality,” he says, talking about his book. But he admits that, if Barnard phones him tomorrow and asks him to go to Pretoria Central to see him, he’ll go. “I have never considered myself to be an ‘author’. I am a journalist who happened to write a work of fiction. And I’m endlessly ­curious about the man; curious about prisons. I have a fascination with that morbid, sordid aspect of life.”

Is Ferdi Barnard a psychopath? “I don’t know,” says Pauw. “When he got engaged to Betsy de Ridder, I asked her the same question. She said he might well be, then said that he’s changing every day.” The softly­ ­spoken Pauw raises his eyebrows ­and shrugs.

De Ridder has a psychology degree, is older than Barnard, and wrote to him after he was imprisoned, keeping on at him until he agreed to meet her. You can’t help feeling that a book could be written about her and her motivation too.

So, is Barnard evil? “That’s my own question about him,” says Pauw. “It’s one of the reasons I have engaged with him. Unlike Eugene de Kok who is sour and dull, he’s an engaging character. I despise what he has done, but I can’t say I dislike him. Is he ­inherently evil? I just don’t know. I would love to give an answer as to what evil is — I’ve thought about it so much.”

The end of Little Ice Cream Boy shows, as the review on this page says, a glimpse of redemptive humanity in the fictionalised Barnard. “I’m trying to say to the reader that he does have feelings. Sure, he’s an evil ­bastard, but I do think he has human feelings.”

The story of Barnard and his goings on is more fantastic than most fiction. Pauw, who now heads the Justice Project at Wits University, has written about him and the CCB both in fiction and non-fiction.

He may say that he hopes the man is now out of his head, but I am left feeling that his fascination with what makes the killer tick is so deeply ­ingrained in him that if there is more to be told about Barnard, Pauw will be the man to tell it. He knows too how important it is that this kind of obscenity from South Africa’s past should not be forgotten.

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