A voice to remind us of our recent past
Etienne van Heerden has penned a vivid, postcolonial novel that deals with displacement and memory, writes Sue Grant-Marshall
ONE of the best author profiles I’ve ever read was Rian Malan’s non-interview with JM Coetzee. The monosyllabic, reclusive writer was no match for razor-penned Malan who, in spite of a drought of answers, sketched a riveting and insightful portrait.
Etienne van Heerden, one of SA’s greatest living authors, is the polar opposite. He strolls in casually, slimly dressed in black. He has rooibos tea and the healthiest brunch going. His heart was quadruple-bypassed a decade ago, courtesy of the family’s high cholesterol gene that felled his father at 49.
“They gave me seven years. I’ve had 10.”
He’s seriously relaxed for someone who is so busy writing, collecting awards and reading his fiction at universities across the US and Europe. In addition, he’s a professor at the University of Cape Town, where he lectures on literature, literary theory and creative writing.
Van Heerden, whose novels include Ancestral Voices, Leap Year and The Long Silence of Mario Salviati, has just had his latest book, 30 Nights in Amsterdam, released in English.
He reaches out to tap it: “Have you had the opportunity to look at it?”
Umm, right. Internationally acclaimed Van Heerden, who has been compared to Latin America’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez, wonders if I’ve had the time to read his book.
It nestles between us, rich with the textures, flavours, voices and scents of the Karoo. Soon we are piling into it the way others devour a springbok pie. It sweeps us up and deposits us in his childhood town, the dusty, dreamy and terrible Graaff-Reinet of the “apartheid struggle sixties”.
Naturally, we also travel to the watery city of marijuana, Van Gogh and sex on stage, a place as far removed from the dry vlakte of the Calvinistic Karoo as you can imagine.
What these places share, for a while, are the central characters, Henk and his eccentric aunt, Zan. That’s short for Susan, who informs her indignant family that she’s changed her name to the Xhosa Xan. She is the epileptic, strangely ailing and exquisitely lovely daughter of the town’s “queen mother”.
Ma Olivier, or Mrs Oliv-iyay, is the widow of a once prosperous sheep farmer. She holds sway over the family from an enormous desk, laden with share certificates and records of stud merinos, that she calls “the substantiality”.
It’s on to this her grandson, Henk-apology as his taunting classmates call him, tremblingly deposits orders from the subversive Struggle cell to which his troubled aunt secretly belongs. He’s found them in Zan’s locked room housing her beloved vase collection that only she may dust.
It’s one she describes as: “Silent throats fulfilled with sighs. Open mouths upturned. Blind vases with their smooth skins and their astonishing light. They gather everything into themselves. I have stored all my secrets in them.”
The story weaves between Henk’s childhood and the adult he’s grown into, a meticulous and plodding researcher who writes slim monographs about unremarkable historical figures.
He’s working in a museum when he receives the news that his long-vanished Aunt Zan has died and left him her house in Amsterdam. But, in terms of the will, he has to spend 30 nights in that city before he can take possession of the home.
Once Henk is in Amsterdam, Zan’s lawyer, Grotius, subtly draws him out about his buried and unusual past, enabling the historian who has forgotten his history to finally confront it.
As Henk does so he recalls Zan going into what she calls her eighth colour before she has a seizure or a “foaming”, as the family labels it. He remembers trailing his aunt on her visits to the “location” via the town prison, where she lifts her skirts to the appreciative convicts. She lifts her skirts to many men in this erotic novel. Her only weapon of protest is her body and she uses it as her form of dissent.
Early on in the book the one man she has truly loved is murdered and her Struggle colleagues force her to witness their incineration of his body.
Van Heerden points out the cremation spot on one of two maps he has in the book. The other is of central Amsterdam.
The latter is a city he loves and visits several times a year. He was working there as an academic a few years ago, “when at a friend’s house I heard this voice, Zan’s voice”, he says. “I rushed to my apartment on The Spui and began writing. I had a sense of being an amanuensis — someone entrusted to write important documents. Maybe it was a psychotic incident, who knows?” He shrugs. “Usually when a writer starts a book, he does so with a strong visual image. But a voice — this was different.”
Van Heerden has also written collections of short stories, books of poetry, essays and a book on postmodernism. His satirical cabaret work is featured regularly at major arts festivals. He’s also the founder editor of multicultural internet website LitNet.
Since Ancestral Voices (Toorberg in Afrikaans), his books have been translated into 12 languages and sell all over the world. He studied law, qualified as an attorney and worked on the Cape Flats before leaving law to go into advertising.
He finally ended up in academe in the 1980s. It was in that troubled decade he became a member of a group of Afrikaans writers who secretly met exiled African National Congress members.
His writing is centred on the Eastern Cape Karoo, where he grew up on his father’s farm in the Graaff-Reinet and Cradock districts. “As a writer you need to pick a spot on which to concentrate. I am rooted in the Karoo but I need the stimulation of city life. I love the energy of Joburg.”
Van Heerden lives with his German-speaking wife, Kaia, who is a doctor, in Stellenbosch. She keeps a firm eye on his health. He recalls his lengthy bypass operation. “They cool down your heart. I think there’s a memory in me of a chainsaw cutting through my breastbone. Surely you must retain something from such an experience.”
After it he enjoyed a huge burst of creativity with novels coursing through his veins, almost lining up to be written. 30 Nights in Amsterdam was one of them, a compelling, vivid, postcolonial novel that deals with displacement, memory and forgetting.
It ensures that we, unlike Henk, will not let slip our extraordinary recent history, one that Van Heerden sets in his beloved, dramatic Karoo — “the landscape of the mind”.
CASUAL AND SLIM: Etienne van Heerden looks after his health after a heart-bypass operation 10 years ago.