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Penguin SA

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Etienne van Heerden’s In Love’s Place Launched at The Book Lounge with Michiel Heyns

Etienne van Heerden

On a wild winter night an impressive number of Etienne van Heerden’s fans arrived at The Book Lounge to celebrate the launch of this widely-acclaimed Afrikaans writer’s latest contribution to South African literature, In Love’s Place. Those who braved the elements learned that the original novel in Afrikaans, In stede van die liefde, took him ten years to write, and it then lingered on his desk for “a very long time” afterwards before he relinquished it to translator, Leon de Kock. The author was joined by Michiel Heyns, a multi-talented author (who is also a translator) in a fascinating discussion that ended all too soon.
Michiel Heyns and Etienne van HeerdenIn Love's PlaceWelcoming the duo, Mervyn Sloman recalled his student days in a flea-ridden Observatory digs. “I picked up a second hand copy of Casspirs and Camparis and was absolutely blown away by it. What is particularly special for us ‘souties’ is that more and more of Etienne’s books are being translated into English. Penguin are doing a wonderful job of that.”

Heyns began by quoting an extract from the novel that described the central character, Christian. “He’s entered a phase of his life where everything is symbolic. He sees patterns everywhere, like a great threatening network of interconnected events and signs.” Heyns wanted to know if that was autobiographical as he’d observed that patterns were very important throughout the novel. “This is mentioned quite often. You’re fascinated by pattern making,” he said.

Van Heerden reflected that even if a book touches lightly on the life of the author, it could still be a very, very personal text. “For me, there’s a difference between saying that happened to me on one hand, and saying it’s a psychological autobiography. One doesn’t have to look at the events specifically but to notice that yes, there are patterns that trace through…”

Michiel Heyns traced the patterns from Toorberg and 30 Nights in Amsterdam, noting the recurring theme of town versus country, city versus farm. He wondered whether this related to Van Heerden’s upbringing as it was “more than simply ‘Jim goes to Joburg’, but an elemental conflict in the characters who want partly to remain and partly to get out.”

Van Heerden, who grew up in Karoo, left at age 14 when his father died. “We’d been a farming family for 13 generations. It was a great loss for me, with the Karoo background lost. We moved to Stellenbosch, close to my mother’s more English speaking family. From that time onwards, the Karoo was totally sealed off to me. My mother didn’t like to speak about it. It was a no go area we seldom mentioned. Yet it became a bank balance, something, I’d always revisit in my writing.” That said,the author insisted he was not nostalgic about the Karoo.

They spoke of many fascinating issues, including the position of the Afrikaans writer today who finds him or herself on the margin, which Van Heerden described as a “wonderful” place. Growing up in an Afrikaans world where history was canonised by the dominant culture offers him a unique perspective.

“This is where creativity comes from – the margin stirs one to write back in anger, discomfort or protest. Consider how the debate has shifted. When I grew up in a very Afrikaans world, Afrikaans writers were centralised, powerful. With the shift in power as the cultural capitals have changed, Afrikaans writers have to speak in English if they want to be part of the debate,” said the author.

This translates to the cultural field and the discourse in the country. Heyns reflected how 30 years ago you were an outsider if you didn’t toe the party line. “I’m in the lucky position where people translate and publish my work. It’s so important that between the cultural spots we develop a cross-border conversation.”

Van Heerden was enormously excited to note that various South African publishers have recently published new novels simultaneously in English and Afrikaans. He cited new titles by Eben Venter, Dominique Botha, Deon Meyer, Mike Nicol, and Charlie Human.

“It is vitally important to develop the conversation between English and Afrikaans writers,” he said, “in order that we might explore the collective amnesia that my generation knows about, to open up the enormous silences in our past.”

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Liesl Jobson (@LieslJobson) tweeted from the launch using #livebooks:

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