Jenny Hobbs’ Kitchen Boy is the story of JJ Kitching –World War II hero and rugby legend, Durban celebrity, and family man. The book is set on the day of his funeral. It’s a grand affair in the Durban Cathedral, presided over by a publicity hungry bishop and a fire-and-brimstone township Reverend. Among the hundreds of mourners in attendance are the surviving members of JJ’s World War II South African Air Force air crew – a motley collection of ancient, grumpy old men. Sixty years ago they marched off to war as volunteers for the Allied cause, in search of glory and adventure. They flew supply missions into Warsaw, in support of the Polish partisans, and survived bombings and crash landings. And then, just a few weeks in, they were captured and incarcerated in Stalag Luft 7.
The narrative is made up primarily of their silent reminiscences and whispered conversations, remembering prison camp boredom intermixed with bursts of horror, and a single terrible incident that changed the lives of JJ and a fellow prisoner forever. They are men who have been through hell, who endured the 500km death march from Poland to Germany in ice and snow, and who returned from war lost and angry. As one observes: ‘war doesn’t stop when it ends.’
Their musings drive the book’s core theme – the dehumanisation of war, the horrifying brutality to which men can be driven, the acts of dishonesty and betrayal committed in extreme conditions, and the extent to which the ensuing guilt and regret sticks around for the rest of one’s life, undermining trust, and creating an insurmountable barrier that will always separate those who have lived through horror from those lucky enough to believe they have control over their lives, their destiny and their integrity.
But don’t let that put you off – the story is jam-packed with colourful characters, and steers well clear of morbidity. We hear snatches of gossip, bickering and secrets from an array of extended family members, ex-servicemen, former servants, Springbok legends and Sharks players, bored teenagers with inappropriate urges, and the odious undertakers, Purkey and Clyde, lurking conspicuously on the side lines.
The lingering tensions, disparities and social awkwardness between South Africans of different races are subtly explored, with satire, wit and sensitivity. Powerful black characters, such as the feisty mayor of Durban, resplendent in her orange turban, JJ’s sexy young daughter-in-law, with her high powered university job, and Theodora, the former maid, cut a swathe through the mainly pale and grey-haired congregation, leaving shock, exploded prejudices and grudging respect in their wake.
Jenny begins the book with a quote from Khalo Matabane, ‘The past and the future are all interconnected’. Her book is a poignant illustration of the truth of that statement, and of the long lasting damage that conflict inflicts on the survivors.