30 Nagte in Amsterdam

30 Nagte in Amsterdam by Etienne van Heerden (Tafelberg)

Etienne van Heerden needs no introduction; as a novelist he is honoured both at home and internationally. Among his many talents as a writer is his ability to create an image, central to the theme of his novel.

So in Toorberg (Ancestral Voices) it is the water flowing from the mountain springs and in the boreholes that is at the heart of the novel, and in Die Swye van Mario Salviati it is that extraordinary antithesis of boreholes, the “blitswaterkanaal”.

In 30 Nagte in Amsterdam one of the most telling images is that of the museum office in which Henk de Melker spends his days writing monographs on historical nonentities, and somewhere above him is a display of the actual beam from which the Slagtersnek rebels were hanged. Henk is literally hemmed in by history; as always in Van Heerden’s work, the past is very much present.

A rather pathetic figure, Henk recalls his childhood in Graaff Reinet, and also spends 30 nights in Amsterdam deciding whether to accept an inheritance of a flat there. The other main character is Henk’s Tant Zan whose lawyer has summoned Henk to Amsterdam.

Zan narrates her own story in exuberant, poetic and passionate style, with amusing irreverence for authority. An epileptic, she is lovingly cared for by her family and the whole village. But she is not just vulnerable and different; there is a sexual side to her that demands freedom, and this is oddly paired with her role as a comrade in the liberation struggle, recruited to the local Sobukwe cell. Henk, as a child living in the same house as her, was frankly terrified of her, and it seems Van Heerden is also ambivalent. In a wonderful passage in which Henk begins to have intimations of what Freedom might mean, he sees Zan as a forerunner of a new way of being; she flouts convention and goes her own difficult path. But her behaviour is often too extreme, very hard to take.

This is a long, baggy novel, expansive and rich in associations. Sometimes it seems a little too comfortable, and takes liberties with historical probabilities. The Sobukwe cell behaves more like a circus troupe, attracts attention to itself and perpetrates hideously violent killings.

After many novels in which Van Heerden examines the role of white South Africans in colonialism and apartheid, this seems an effective way to debunk the myths of struggle history.

I missed the clear energy of Toorberg and Die Swye van Mario Salviati.

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Jane Rosenthal
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