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

Simon Rees
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:22

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.

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