The inspiration behind Etienne van Heerden’s latest novel

2011-03-23 00:00

ETIENNE van Heerden’s 2007 novel, 30 Nights in Amsterdam, has just been published in an English translation by Michiel Heyns (see review on this page). My first question to Van Heerden at the Time of the Writer Festival in Durban last week was, why does he not translate his own work? Particularly as the language used for the character Zan is so exciting and idiosyncratic.

“My English isn’t good enough. I work in English, but Afrikaans is my thinking language. And I prefer to spend my creative energy on something new. But I found the process of this translation an invigorating experience. I fell in love with the English language — I have always felt that Afrikaans has the descriptive ability to move very close to landscape, and until now, I have been sceptical about English.”

Van Heerden describes writing in the character of Zan as like striking a match to a field of wheat: he could hardly keep up with her voice. But translation was difficult as Zan’s first-person narrative is far from conventional, and Van Heerden worked closely with Heyns and with their agent, Isobel Dixon. He describes Zan’s language as a “compost of idioms, historical events, plant names and Karoo Afrikaans”, and somehow, that had to be conveyed in English.

But in the original, it was the nerdy, locked-in Henk who was the more difficult to write, although the easier to translate, he says. The contrast between the two characters is important to the structure of the book, but Henk’s part of the story is in a lower key, without Zan’s fireworks. Van Heerden says that at one stage he had thought of only having Zan as a narrator, but he found that Henk gives a breathing space from her intensity, and also provides her with a context.

Zan is one of those larger-than-life fictional characters who stay with readers long after they have finished the novel. I ask Van Heerden where the idea for her came from. The early part of the book is set in the house Van Heerden’s family owned in Graaff-Reinet, and he tells me that he also had an Aunt Zan, who suffered from grand mal epilepsy.

“ She was silent. Her grand mal was controlled by medication, and this was in the 1960s, when the medication was like a brick against the head. So she wasn’t really like the fictional Aunt Zan, but she also had a glass room [in the novel, Zan has a room, a private space, in which she collects glass vases of all shapes and colours]. She almost never spoke, and about two weeks ago, my wife said to me: ‘You must have watched her as a small boy and seen the strangeness, and now you have given a voice to her’.”

So even if it was not a conscious act, and the real and fictional Aunt Zans are very different, the silence and strangeness of the one has gone into the exuberant creation of the other. And when I ask Van Heerden how easy it was to get rid of that wild, exciting voice when the writing was finished, he says he hasn’t.

Her character is still a strong presence in his psyche. “If you create a character you like working with, they will stay with you,” he says.

But there is more to the novel than just Zan, whose exile to Amsterdam comes from her part in the struggle, and in particular her links with the Sobukwe Cell whose cover is making Hollywood movies in the Karoo. Van Heerden says there is no basis in fact for the Sobukwe Cell, and he describes it as not a parody of the struggle, but as a critical look. At times the antics of the cell may be funny, and those involved are certainly not politically adept, but serious and horrible things are done by them. “A cell that went awry,” is how he describes it.

“The struggle is being ossified in writing,” says Van Heerden. “The novel creates a space around the idealised narrative, and that’s important. The term I like is ‘contra-history’. And the book is also very critical of the kind of life that was led by white society in the 1960s.”

This leads on to the idea of “critical nostalgia”, the exile returning, but to a changed home. “It’s coming home to a new place,” says Van Heerden. “The old space is history. I see the book as being about belonging, and the nature of belonging, and about memory.”

If it is about belonging, it is also about exile, not belonging. I ask Van Heerden if he could ever live permanently overseas. He talks about how, having lived in Europe for six months, he returned to South Africa on a summer evening, and was almost overwhelmed by the flowers, the insects, the sheer sensuality of his homeland. “It’s in your psyche: you have to come back,” he says. “As you get older, you revisit the past. I go back more and more to the Karoo, and it is becoming more and more healing for me.” And, perhaps because of this, the Karoo permeates 30 Nights in Amsterdam , almost becoming a character in the novel.

Read the review here.

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