This novel restores Afrikaans as a voice of real importanceby Rachel Holmes / May 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
Book: Islands Author: Dan Sleigh Price: Secker & Warburg, ?17.99
South Africa’s third democratic election is a relevant backdrop for reading Dan Sleigh’s first novel, a panoramic account of the first half century of Dutch settlement at the Cape. By revisiting the genesis myth of the colonial settlement at the tip of Africa, Sleigh grasps a national story the meaning of which reaches beyond the legacy of 20th-century apartheid.
The response among liberal, expat South Africans to the fiction produced in the country over the last decade has often been disappointment. Oppression created better fiction, the argument runs, and post-apartheid art has lost the common language of struggle. So it is salutary to encounter a more expansive attempt to produce a historical novel about South Africa’s peoples that comes from the tradition of Afrikaans writing.
Islands is a novel about the global adventures which produced the linguistic dragnet of Afrikaans, a language founded on the collision of African, Asian and European people at the Cape. Elite Netherlanders spoke and ruled in high Dutch, despising polyglot Afrikaans, the kitchen language of slaves, women, servants, sailors, farmers, and the offspring of their interracial unions. Sleigh tells the stories of these people, the foot soldiers of colonialism, and the relationships they developed with native Africans. Afrikaans was a language created in diversity. It was first written in Arabic, not Roman script. Afrikaans carries its variety deep in its linguistic structure, in its expressiveness, and the poetic cadences of its emotional registers. It is a briny language that has retained the saltiness of the slaves and sailors who first shaped its constructions. These were men and women exposed to adversity and alienation, for whom elaborate cursing was a form of resistance, and who had to tell stories to remember who they were. Dan Sleigh’s novel inherits this tradition.
Afrikaans writers have struggled on two fronts. First, they had to fight to keep their language against the English. From the British takeover of the Cape in 1806, through the Boer wars, to the foundation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, and on to the beginning of apartheid in 1948, the English legislated against the Afrikaners. Faced with linguistic suppression, Afrikaans writers forged a new literary tradition in Africa. Nowhere is this more evident than in the sensuality and depth of Afrikaans writing about the landscape and the sea – in which a national identity is forged out of the toil with nature. By contrast, as JM Coetzee remarked a long time ago, English writing never really dug itself into the landscape.
Then, in the second half of the 20th century, Afrikaner nationalists became the oppressors, and black schoolchildren, beginning with Afrikaans speakers, rebelled against apartheid education policies which imposed an anachronistic high Dutch that was unintelligible to vernacular speakers. Progressive Afrikaans writers had to challenge their own heritage, breaking with their forebears, the architects of apartheid. In his inaugural address in April 1994, Nelson Mandela read a poem by the radical Afrikaans poet Ingrid Jonker. A few years before her suicide, Jonker was prosecuted and her work banned by apartheid’s chief censor, Abraham Jonker – her father.
Sleigh inherits a dual literary tradition. His maternal tongue is Afrikaans, and English his paternal language. Islands, first published in South Africa in 2002, has been translated into English by Andr? Brink, a master craftsman of Afrikaans writing. Brink’s footprint is obvious throughout the novel, in its fine descriptive compressions. Anglo-American readers routinely underestimate the achievements of this tradition. They f?te Coetzee as the great exponent of the English South African novel, often forgetting that he too is Afrikaans. One of the finest post-apartheid novels, Marlene van Niekerk’s Triomf, was also translated from Afrikaans, puzzling many critics in Britain and the US, because of the way its local linguistic and cultural dimensions departed from the expected theme of racial division prescribed by apartheid. Like Triomf, Islands deals with the past in a manner that was banned under apartheid censorship.
Islands creates a new story of the early colonial settlement of South Africa and corrects old myths of colonial history. Sleigh describes the colonial administrator, Jan van Riebeeck, sailing into Table Bay in 1652 with the Dutch East India Company (VOC). In Islands, the Dutch are met not by empty beaches, but by Autshumao, a Khoi leader who speaks English, and his tiny niece Krotoa, fluent in Dutch learned from a passing ship’s cook. Renamed Eva due to her nakedness, Krotoa is taken on by Van Riebeeck as a nursemaid, translator and diplomatic go-between. When she marries a Dutch surgeon, Pieter van Meerhof, their daughter Pieternella is, symbolically, the first child of a marriage between an African and a European. Islands is the epic story of this family, and the lives of seven ordinary men who, in different ways, love Pieternella: “We were soldiers, a herdsman, sailors, a clerk, people with little emotion in our speech and very, very little emotion in our lives, apart from fear and rage.”
All of this is based on fact. Autshumao, Eva, and her Khoi-Dutch children were historical figures wiped from the official record of colonial history now resuscitated by an archivist of impeccable credentials. Sleigh has spent his career in the South African national archives, and is respected for his meticulous history of the Dutch garrisons at the Cape. If you want to know the precise angle of the tuck of the bedsheets in the Cape Town Castle, or exactly what a fart sounded like through the wide-legged breeches of a Dutch sailor, Sleigh is your man.
The islands of his novel’s title are a series of far-flung places – the penal colony on Robben Island, Mauritius, Cape Town, and the low countries – connected only by the expanding trade of the VOC. Ordinary people are caught up in the tides of war and commerce, striving for a sense of belonging. Hunger and material want are the forces that drive most of Sleigh’s characters, but emotional poverty is at the centre of his interest as a novelist.
Islands is a fine novel, deserving of a wide audience, and the attention of a British literary culture still cautious of innovative South African writing. Brink overstates the case when he hails Islands as “the first great South African novel.” But when it does come, that novel is more likely to be written in Afrikaans than in English.