BOOK REVIEW / Switch off the lights: Take leave and go - Karel Schoeman: Tr David Schalkwyk Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 14.99

IF A language is a dialect with an army, then Afrikaans achieved this status at the turn of the century, asserting its independence of its Dutch origins and throwing off the stigmatising labels of 'Cape Dutch' and 'the Taal', the Boers' patois. Take Leave and Go maps out the cultural territory of the Afrikaans-speaker as it might be in the near future. Political events move faster than publishers' schedules, and yesterday's fantasy becomes today's reality: the civil unrest and street violence of the book's dream sequences have become more familiar in the time since it first appeared in Afrikaans in 1990.

Adriaan, an Afrikaans poet, sees his circle of friends dwindle as events in South Africa force first one then another to take leave and go - to Belgium, to Holland, to Canada, to detention or prison - and with them the cultural trappings of the language in which he writes. The party to launch Adriaan's latest book of poetry does its best to glitter and sparkle, but it's an uphill struggle as the liveliest members of the group are living abroad, and those who have stayed behind reminisce about absent friends, feel the pointlessness and lethargy that come with the erosion of a cultural base, and the feeling of having missed the boat or the place on the last of the ox-wagons leaving town in a scattered departure that does not even have the heroic quality of an exodus or a Great Trek.

The images that fill Adriaan's mind are those of a Holocaust, a mass evacuation and extermination, where boxes of remnants are left behind along with the randomly fallen bodies. These remains are as pathetic as the faded European relics he guards in the museum where he unenthusiastically does his day-job.

The thought in the novel always moves in this direction, as Adriaan's concentration turns from the external chaos which never really touches him to the mundane preoccupations that set about his ultimately selfish concerns as a writer. He cannot be a poet without Afrikaans, and Afrikaans depends on the Afrikaners' power in South Africa: whatever he may feel about the state of emergency and the army rule prevailing in the novel, he is still on the side of the soldiers: the roadblocks let him through.

It is an achievement on the part of the translator, the mysteriously uncredited David Schalkwyk, that he has managed to bring over this concern into one of Afrikaans's chief competitors without losing the feeling of being rooted to a particular spot outside which the power of the language cannot work, and to do this without using many identifiably South African locutions.

The central incident of the novel, once Adriaan has done with accompanying friends on nostalgic farewell trips, is a visit up country to the retreat of an older poet, Dekker, who has retired from writing and has no interest in participating in the literary life of the city. When Bernard and Adriaan arrive at the village, we are shown - for the first time, 176 pages into the novel - 'a coloured woman' and 'a group of coloured men', as if, up until now, such people have not existed. The oddity of this is compounded by the nice attention to the detail of each glittering artistic figure's racial or national origins, even an Indian boyfriend for the flamboyant Nico, as if the glaring realities of Afrikanerdom (and the reasons, one supposes, for the war) only exist outside cosmopolitan Cape Town. Out in the dorps of the veld, however, the apartheid terminology applies, and it is in this setting that we see the father-figure of the literature Adriaan represents.

The final reaction to the central issue - the possible dissolution of Afrikaans culture, a less threatened and at the same time less vivid culture than, say, the Yiddish culture of Europe between the wars, with which the book draws a parallel - is to ask if anybody cares in particular, if even the participants are upping and leaving.

The only incomer is a German with an interest in Afrikaans poetry (and that marks him as an eccentric) and he is the one who, unexpectedly, provides Adriaan with a reason for wanting to stay. It is the words that remained, and it is this love for the words of Afrikaans itself, even transmitted through English, that gives this novel its moving force, and puts it up beside Schoeman's earlier novel, the remarkable Another Country, set in a South Africa of a century before, when Afrikaans was scarcely acknowledged as a language in its own right.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn