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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.