Originally published in Doris Lessing’s second collection of short fiction, Five (1953), “The Antheap” relates the growth from childhood to young adulthood of Tommy, the son of white settlers in southern Africa. As elsewhere in her short fiction (e.g., “The Old Chief Mshlanga”), Lessing uses a child’s viewpoint to explore the processes of both enculturation into racist ideology and resistance to such acculturation.
The antheap of the title refers to the place where Tommy meets secretly with Dirk, the son of the white mine owner Mr. Macintosh and a black woman who lives in the African compound on the mine. That Dirk is Macintosh’s son is known by all on the mine but can be acknowledged by no one, as young Tommy discovers when he asks his mother why Dirk is a different color from the other African children: “ ‘why do you ask?’ said Mrs. Clarke, with anger. Why, she was saying, do you infringe the rule of silence?” (311). The allegedly childless Mr. Macintosh takes an increasingly paternal interest in Tommy, paying for the education that will provide him with a promising future, but Tommy cannot forget that he is a changeling who has usurped the place of the real son, who is abandoned to a life of poverty and dangerous toil on the mine. An intense relationship develops between the boys, and Tommy becomes the means through which some of the father’s riches are channeled to their rightful recipient, passing on to Dirk the education that he is receiving in a city school.
The story explores themes of friendship, justice, and freedom, aiming never to underestimate the difficulties involved in a relationship that transgresses social codes. As a child, Tommy is taught to understand that his becoming a man involves operating the racial exclusions that his society is based upon: “ ‘You’re too big now to play with a lot of dirty kaffirs,’ ” his mother tells him (307). And young Tommy himself thrills to the self-importance he feels when Dirk tries to sell him a duiker: “ ‘Damned cheek, too much’ ” (309). Despite the older Tommy’s recognition of the injustice of Dirk’s situation, the boys are nonetheless frequently set in conflict over the privilege that Tommy cannot seem to help but believe he has a right to: “Slowly [Tommy] understood that his emotion was that belief in his right to freedom which Dirk always felt immediately” (346). Tommy’s belief in his own freedom, as well as the possibility of his accepting as natural Dirk’s lack of freedom, becomes an issue in one of the sculptures of Dirk that the promising artist Tommy produces: “ ‘Why haven’t I any hands or feet? . . . Surely it needn’t be wood. You could do the same thing if you put handcuffs on my wrists” (346–347), demands Dirk, responding to the disempowerment that he perceives in Tommy’s representation of him. In what is perhaps a moment of deliberate self-reflexivity, Lessing’s text here touches on the politics of representation, on the way that producing a representation of someone—in either visual art or fiction—involves the exercise of a certain power.
Finally however, the boys both understand themselves to be bound together in a relationship that is deeper than liking, or being alike, and “closer than brothers” (320). At the close of the story the boys have won an agreement from Macintosh to send them both to university: “The victory was entirely theirs, but now they had to begin again, in the long and difficult struggle to understand what they had won and how they would use it” (349). Joining Tommy and Dirk together in the plural “they,” this ending is merely a beginning for the boys. Their job is rather like that of the reader, to interpret what has taken place and what it will mean for the future.
Lessing, Doris, This Was the Old Chief’s Country: Collected African Stories. Vol. 1. 1953. London: Michael Joseph, 1973.