Deserving of a wide audience

2008-02-06 00:00

IN an interview with Fred de Vries in May last year, writer Ingrid Winterbach described moving to Durban as a “humbling experience”. A well-known writer in Afrikaans circles and winner of numerous writing awards, Winterbach was virtually an unknown in the predominantly English-speaking city.

But as De Vries notes, that could be set to change with the recent translation into English of Winterbach’s 2002 novel Niggie, for which she won the prestigious Hertzog Prize for prose.

Now titled To Hell with Cronjé, the book certainly deserves a wide audience.

Set in the closing months of the Anglo-Boer War, it tells the story of a small group of Boer fighters who risk their reputation as loyal burghers by leaving their commando in Beaufort West to return a disturbed young soldier to his mother in Ladybrand.

Among the group are Reitz Steyn and Ben Maritz, a geologist and a natural historian respectively, who are able to use their academic interest in their surroundings to keep at bay their intense disillusionment with the fruitless roaming and with the war in general.

The group is forced to spend some time with a weird contingent of unfit burghers in a transit camp, during which time, the sensible Steyn is overcome with a need to connect with his dead wife and, in what must be one of the book’s dramatic highlights, the duo delivers a remarkable presentation on the origins of life and the equality of humans, to an incredulous and hostile audience.

Winterbach’s prose is relentlessly plain, but breathtaking agile. It’s a perfect vehicle for a moving story which has as its focus not the heroes of battle, but ordinary men who are pushed to the limits of emotional and physical endurance by bigger, seemingly arbitrary forces.

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