Wonderful verbal witticisms

2012-01-25 00:00

THE Big Stick is the English version of Zacht als Staal (Soft as Stee l) — the author’s ­second novel — and it loses only a little in trans­lation. In fact, bar the tiny ­language issue, Soft as Steel may even have gained in this English retelling.

Like a bon-bon layered from dark, bitter chocolate and sweetly nutty bits, the interwoven tales of Staal — the moffie with “the big stick” who was exiled from Zeerust to the gay heaven of the Netherlands in the eighties — will have you devouring the pages like so many Ferrero Rochers.

The tale starts with a foreword by his presumed lover, before a Dutch detective is bemused by first the drowned, poofter-bag-carrying skinhead and then by his formidable mother, Alma Nel. Nel fought Staal’s gayness all his life and now, maybe not too late, tries to understand and accept her son in memoriam.

In between, his tomboy sister, the psychologist who tried “to cure” his queerness, and many others virtually leap off the pages to render a new noir that is as much romance as it is a ­detective story.

The tiny language issue in the English rendering is the one discordant note throughout this wonderful piece. In the original, De Nooy ­captures the verbal confusion that happens whenever Afrikaners and Dutch try to understand each other’s similar-looking languages. (Just look up the Dutch for “cat breeder” and you get the idea.) But in English, De Nooy’s verbal witticisms plod on the pages either as a heavily accented “that’s a lorra money”, or as gaps ­between the lines that leave the reader to deduce in which language the untranslatable joke happened.

But do read on, for the deducing is deucedly well worth it and may also see you getting De Nooy’s first novel, Six Fang Marks and a Tetanus Shot.

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