BOOKS / Letter from Cape Town: Calvinist angst over the joy of sex

THE WORD in Afrikaans for cunnilingus is cunnilingus. Used in English, it would probably raise a few South African eyebrows. Used in Afrikaans, it's almost guaranteed to provoke an outcry. Take the case of Griet Skryf 'n Sprokie (Griet Writes a Fairytale). This novel stayed on the bestseller lists for most of 1992, and last weekend was awarded the MNET Literary Prize, which is worth 50,000 rand (pounds 10,000) as well as a sizeable slug of cultural prestige.

From the moment it was first published last April, the author, the 34-year-old journalist Marita van der Vyfer, came under attack for the explicit sex, the excessive use of English, and the irreligious tone. Her editor was flooded with irate phone calls; a flurry of letters was published in the press, and Van der Vyfer went into hiding on a vineyard in Stellenbosch.

The biggest Sturm und Drang in a teacup was about the way she deals with female sexuality. 'Sexcapades of the Afrikaner Woman' was the headline in Huisgenoot, the country's biggest-selling weekly magazine. 'Porn in the RSA]' shouted another. Even though it wasn't the first time erotica had been written in the traditionally conservative Dutch Reformed idiom of Afrikaans, it was the first time a woman had dared to do it.

People have compared the author to Erica Jong, albeit misguidedly. Sure, Van der Vyfer makes fun of sex, takes her main character to a therapist and uses a flying metaphor throughout the book, but Fear of Flying, Griet is not. Light and often very funny, the book is more about a woman finding liberation in macho Calvinist South Africa, a country where sexual repression is as ingrained as the racial kind.

Griet Swart, the title character, writes children's stories for a living, She tries, not very successfully, to get over a divorce, a miscarriage and a suicide attempt that was botched by a cockroach in her oven. Her therapist suggests she write down her thoughts, which she does. The reality of past and present, however, intertwines with fable. Griet becomes Gretl. Or Rapunzel. Or Red Riding Hood. 'Griet had to spin fairytales to stay alive,' Van der Vyfer writes. 'Not only to earn her living, but also to cheat death. Like her heroine and role model, Scheherezade.'

The literary merits of the book have been overshadowed: the publicity pushed the no-holds-barred sex. The cover depicts a naked woman in suspenders on a rocking-zebra. Even Van der Vyfer has helped sustain the brouhaha, although her chosen medium was a bit curious for someone whose aim was to take women out of the Boer Age.

She appeared on the cover of Scope, a men's magazine which comes enclosed in plastic and focuses mainly on cars and the top half of nude women (the bottom half is still censored).

If the ploy was to sell Griet, it worked. So far, 42,000 copies have been snapped up. In comparison, the last novel by Andre Brink, An Act of Terror, had an Afrikaans print-run of 10,000.

Brink himself, compliments the book, saying it subverts a male chauvinist tradition. A professor of literature at the University of Cape Town, Brink is no stranger to controversy. Twenty years ago, his book Looking on Darkness caused even more of a storm than Griet. However, back in the heady days of apartheid and intolerance, the government simply banned it.

But censorship has moved with the times. No longer are women's nipples covered by a black star in magazines like Scope. You can buy Karl Marx in the local bookstore. And authors like Van der Vyfer can write novels of self-discovery that authors in Europe and America were writing years ago.

Long overdue though the book is, the most vehement attacks against it, ironically, have been made by the very people it aims to liberate.

'I haven't had one complaint from a man,' says Frik de Jager, the editor. 'Every woman who's phoned me disapproved of the fact that Griet has sex, enjoys it and has no Calvinist angst about what she's done. To them, that is against the ruling mores, and it's just not on.'

Van der Vyfer admits that she based Griet partly on herself. Having gone through a miscarriage, the death of a baby born with brain damage, and a lost husband, she wrote Griet as a kind of therapy. It was an experience to which many younger Afrikaans women can relate. Says one: 'Griet is the first book that has captured the nature of us, The Disenchanted.'

Griet has managed to break all book sales records, English as well, at a time when Afrikaans is meant to be fading away. Popular belief has it that when black majority rule comes, Afrikaans, long seen as the language of the Boer and the oppressor, will go the same way as apartheid. Books like Griet, perhaps, prove the contrary. 'It's up to writers and publishers to produce books in Afrikaans that people want to buy,' says de Jager.

Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

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.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn