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Michiel Heyns on Etienne van Heerden: A Stranger in a Strange Land

In Love's PlaceBy Michiel Heyns for The Sunday Times

In Love’s Place
Etienne van Heerden (Penguin)

Etienne van Heerden’s novels have been translated into twelve languages – no mean achievement for any novelist, but perhaps the more so for a novelist who has remained so faithful to his founding inspiration in his native land. The publication of In Love’s Place, Leon de Kock’s translation of In Stede van die Liefde, marks another milestone in the career of this prolific, versatile and internationally acclaimed novelist.

Having grown up on farms in the Graaff-Reinet and Cradock districts, Van Heerden, at present the Hofmeyr Professor in the School of Language and Literature at the University of Cape Town, has retained his Karoo boyhood as a powerful element in his fiction. As the Dutch critic Herman de Coninck commented, Van Heerden’s novels are as essential to an understanding of South Africa as those of Amos Oz, Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Marquez are to a grasp of their respective native lands.

The themes introduced in Toorberg, his first full-length novel (1986), recur in much of his later work: the individual against the group, the bonds, both sustaining and constricting, of family, race, nation and country; the burden of the past and the challenge of the future; the rootedness of farm life and the dangerous appeal of the city.

His most overtly political novel was Casspirs en Campari’s (1991), subtitled An historical entertainment. Written at the time of transition to democracy, the novel explores, dare I say entertainingly, the absurdities of the apartheid regime and the exigencies of the struggle. It may also be Van Heerden’s most hopeful to date.

Since then, Van Heerden has frequently returned, in novels like Die Stoetmeester (1993, translated as Leap Year), Kikoejoe (1996, translated as Kikuyu) and Die Swye van Mario Salviati (2000, translated as The Long Silence of Mario Salviati) to the theme of the alienated Afrikaner, attached to and yet resentful of a heritage both enriching and constricting. This was most strikingly embodied in Zan de Melker in 30 Nights in Amsterdam, who is at odds with both her domestic and her national context: obsessively promiscuous and epileptic, she scandalises the conservative community of Graaff Reinet; and as a political dissident she falls foul of the South African security establishment.

Zan is representative of any number of Van Heerden’s characters who, feeling themselves estranged from their milieu, look to Europe for more a congenial cultural context. Thus, though his work is strongly marked by his rural background, Van Heerden’s novels differ from the stereotypical ‘farm novel’ in that many of his main characters are sophisticated cosmopolites.

In In Love’s Place, the protagonist, Christian Lemmer, is a dealer in African art, commuting between Johannesburg and Cape Town, but also between Berlin, Antwerp and New York, world cities providing alternative perspectives on his native country. Even his comfortable home in complacent Stellenbosch, with a loving if troubled wife and a no more than normally rebellious son, leaves him unsatisfied. He tries to reconcile his attachment to his cosy nuclear family with his suppressed rebellion by renting a clandestine flat in Sea Point, surrounded by drugs, gangsters and prostitutes.

And yet Lemmer is not at home in this alternative Africa either, adhering to one of Van Heerden’s recurring themes: the estrangement of the enlightened Afrikaner both from an African context inhospitable to ideas of Afrikaans nationhood or identity, and from the repressive conservatism that for a long time characterised Afrikaner thinking and behaviour.

This ambivalence enables Van Heerden to survey, often sardonically, the rituals both of the prosperous suburbanites and of the criminal classes. Characteristically, Van Heerden places these urban strains against the simpler concerns of the countryside – in this instance, the little community of Matjiesfontein, centred on the Lord Milner Hotel, the little hamlet’s link with the greater world speeding past on the N1. In this instance, the obstreperous son of Christian Lemmer abandons his violin in the dirt road in front of the hotel, unintentionally creating a disastrous disruption of the little community, as the young Coloured girl, Snaartjie Windvogel, discovers her own miraculous musical gift.

It has been said that a novelist can achieve the universal only through an intimate knowledge of the particular, and Van Heerden’s distinction lies in his supreme command of the particular, the local, the national, which he can then, with no sense of strain, extend to the larger themes relating his novels to an international context.

The inventiveness of his language presents a daunting challenge to a translator, a challenge that Leon de Kock’s agile translation readily meets. In Love’s Place, through this translation, becomes a valuable addition to South African literature in English.

- @MichielHeyns1 Heyns’ latest novel is Invisible Furies (Jonathan Ball)

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