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

Business Day - - THE BUSINESS LIFE -

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.

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