Review: 30 Nights in Amsterdam

2011-03-23 00:00

AT a time when there is hot debate around whether South African reviewers are being too kind to mediocre South African writing, it is a pleasure to be reviewing a local novel that can stand its ground in any company, anywhere in the world. Etienne van Heerden’s 30 Nights in Amsterdam is very good indeed.

And before I go any further, a word of praise for Michiel Heyns’s translation from Afrikaans. I haven’t read the original version, but the fizzing, crackling, inventive English never feels like a translation and is a huge part of the novel’s power.

The story concerns buttoned-up, nerdy Henk de Melker, a museum curator in Somerset East who shares his office with the grave of a child and writes monographs about unimportant people: being unimportant is their qualification to be written about, in his view.

And then he receives a letter from a lawyer in Amsterdam, telling him that his almost-forgotten Aunt Zan has died and left him her house in that city. But he has to go there, and live there, to claim his inheritance. Cautious and pedantic, he realises that, if nothing else, a visit to Amsterdam will offer him a chance to do research for his latest monograph on Cornelius, the third, almost invisible Van Gogh brother who died in South Africa during the Boer War.

The narration alternates between the third-person chapters telling Henk’s story, and the sparkling first-person tale of Aunt Zan, the epileptic, wayward daughter of Karoo respectability who, in the 1960s, had unusual links to the budding armed struggle. Zan and Henk’s memories don’t always mesh; there is much about Aunt Zan that Henk knows nothing of, and much that he once knew and has suppressed.

It will take his trip to Amsterdam to free his imagination, and offer the dull, grey adult a glimpse of the observant, imaginative and not always attractive child he once was as he finds out the truth about his aunt. And, almost importantly, about himself.

The story is gripping and moving; the themes of exile and belonging are handled with superb skill.

If South Africa produces a better novel than this one this year, I will be surprised.


Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.