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…