In search of lost ground

Lost Ground by Michiel Heyns (Jonathan Ball)

The short review of this book is simply this: it’s remarkable, and you should not only read it but buy a copy as you will want to look into it again.

It’s hard to know how Michiel Heyns does it ­—part magician, part juggler and fine linguist, he presents a novel that is as mysteriously alluring, yet as simple as the photo of some dorp street on the cover. It has something of the quality of a John Meyer painting: unpretentious, familiar and the light is right. That is to say it is bleak and clear, despite the fact that the photo is taken at a time when long shadows fall across the street, and beloved.

The narrator is Peter Jacobs, “moffie son of the Jew chemist”, who has returned to the dorp of his childhood to research and write an article he hopes to place with the New Yorker or the Independent.
The dorp in the Little Karoo is Alfredville—like Verkeerdespruit in Heyns’s first novel, The Children’s Day, a sort of composite name for a dorp that is not exactly somewhere but is ­nonetheless perfectly platteland, or everydorp.

A crime of the heart has recently shocked the community and Jacobs wants to write about its political implications because the man who has been charged with the murder is the coloured police station commander and the victim is his white wife. Heyns examines this crime out in the open but there is another, initially barely visible even to the protagonists, which makes it all the more heartbreaking.

Language and meaning

As in The Children’s Day, Heyns investigates language and meaning on almost every page. The people of the village, to whom Jacobs talks extensively in their homes, the hotel bar and on the street, provide the means to a cameo in each dialogue, often with tendrils stretching into the rest of the novel.

For example, Joachim Ferreira, new owner of the hotel but previously a schoolmate of Jacobs, expresses the dorp’s view of the motive for the murder when he says “jealousy’s what it’s called for short”. How much else can be packed into the meanings of words is a constant and the title itself hangs in the reader’s mind: “Lost ground”, a potent phrase for all South Africans. In an email to his ex-lover, James, in London, Jacobs tries to elaborate on “they”, which depends on the identity of the speaker for its meaning. They, we, “the other them”.

Heyns, through Jacobs, ­provides an amusing running ­commentary on current or recent South African writing, perhaps saying things he could not in his reviews.

In a conversation with a ­fellow hotel guest, Nonyameko ­Mhlabeni, a therapist in town to set up some help group for local women, he denies that he is going to write an ex-pat novel (which “genre” she drily demolishes even though she is reading Diary of a Bad Year—though I suppose that establishes her as a credible commentator). She finishes off thus: “Your novel — will sell reasonably well and be commended in the press. The Brits like being reminded that South Africa is after all as backward as they always suspected before they were obliged, for a short while, to profess admiration.”

Examining his old friend Bennie Nienaber’s bookcase he names a few writers as chosen for their “gauche folksiness”. And to whom could he be referring when he dismisses a novel “about soil erosion”?

Limited usefulness of ­irony

That Lost Ground does read like an ex-pat novel (quoting Nonyameko again: “... momentous return to the mother country and the examination of their own entrails and consciences”) is one of Heyns’s ironic sleights of mind. He has thought long and hard about the limited usefulness of ­irony. It is the default mode of James, a Jamaican actor in ­London, who would “wrinkle his nose” at “any kind of solemnity or pretension”. In great distress at the end of the novel, Jacobs tries to keep his grip by hanging on to “a thin line of irony.”

Heyns sets up a long and careful counterpoint of James and Bennie, who is the acting police station commander, now that the indicted man has gone to another village until his trial comes up.

In almost every way Bennie is very different from James; he grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, poor though white, and neglected, but has made a life for himself in the village, has married, has children. He also has a dog that, in the way of village dogs, walks to work and back with his master, and plays a significant role in the ­unravelling of the murder.

Jacobs discovers that things are not as cut and dried as they seem. And he finds himself reproached by Bennie, who was really angry when Jacobs left the village after matric, being sent overseas to avoid ­conscription. After 20 years in ­London he is ­startled by Bennie’s “unmediated emotion”, his straightforward and irrefutable assessments. They go for several runs together and a wonderful swim, recalling past times, in the town dam.

As the bodies begin to pile up, thriller style, Bennie and Jacobs have a conversation that pitches the reader into shock. Towards the end of it Jacobs says “somehow I was never brave when other people were”.

And Bennie replies: “So you are making up for lost ground?” This evocation of the title, simple as it sounds, has a set of widespread and tenacious roots.

Just above the abyss

Though Jacobs says, early in the novel, that even Proust would have had a hard time with Alfredville in the matter of regaining a sense of a lost time, what is at issue is lost opportunities. Never mind the road not taken, it is the road not even seen; this speaks of loss, lost ground just above the abyss.

For Peter Jacobs, Heyns’s ending is devastating, serious, austere. But somehow, for the reader, he reclaims a vast unvisited territory that was not so much lost, or temporarily mislaid, as previously unnoticed.

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