Marianne Thamm

Afrikaans to the rescue

2007-06-21 08:39

Marianne Thamm

There are many things I love about author Marlene Van Niekerk's epic novel, Agaat, winner of the prestigious R75 000 Sunday Times Fiction Prize at the weekend.

Firstly, there's the sheer size of it. There is something fabulously defiant about a book that clocks in at around 700 pages in this age of speed, chronic abbreviation and instant messaging.

Then there is the author's dazzling imagination that informs this epic tale which "lulls you into its depths", as one judge on the Sunday Times panel described it.

Let me just declare here that I was lucky enough to find myself invited to serve on that panel this year along with Professors Andries Oliphant and Harry Garuba as well as playwright Mike van Graan and independent book store owner, Corina van der Spoel.

So, if I sound intelligent here it is only because being a member of the panel was the equivalent of a private master class in literary theory and tradition. Between November and April we (the judges) read around 30 works of fiction by South African authors. And while there were many accomplished, imaginative and exciting books on the long list, Agaat stood out immediately.

An Enduring Landmark

It did indeed meet the criteria of the Fiction Prize in that it is a "work of rare imagination and style, evocative, textured, a tale so compelling as to become an enduring landmark in contemporary fiction".

Michiel Heyns' magnificent translation has made this dense text accessible to an English-speaking readership but the narrative itself transcends language, locality and even culture.

Essentially the story is set on the farm, Grootmoedersdrift, where the bedridden owner, Mila Redelinghuys, paralysed and speechless, lies dying. She is nursed by Agaat Lourier, the child of a farm worker she adopted as her own but later abandoned after the birth of her own son. But this is just one thread in the vast and delicate tapestry that Van Niekerk has woven.

It is also a story of land, of farming, of climate change and motherhood. It is about oppression, liberation, love, loss and reckoning. And as daunting as it may seem it is not without humour.

A Renewal of the Form

The fact that the work was originally written in Afrikaans and that a translation has won the Sunday Times Fiction Award is significant. South Africans who write in English would be writing against a literary standard set by masters such as Joyce (Ulysses). There is little room for innovation within this frame but when writers are freed from this tradition - as Van Niekerk was writing Agaat in Afrikaans - it can result in a renewal of the form.

And so it is ironic that the English South African novel has, in a sense, been rescued by Afrikaans. And it would be incredible if in the not too distant future novels written in any of the other nine official languages could expand those horizons even further.

"The English novel has to open up to the polyglot linguistic environment that we live in," commented Professor Oliphant.

While South Africans who read and enjoy books are still a minority in this country, it seems things are slowly looking up.

Apart from the growing numbers of excellent books published by local authors, over 17  000 people visited the Cape Town International Book Fair this weekend.

That's just a few thousand short of the around 20 000 who usually flock to Newlands to watch rugby.

There is hope.

Send your comments to Marianne.

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