Prof etienne van heerden. Picture : Naomi Bruwer, LitNet

30 NIGHTS IN AMSTERDAM

Penguin

Etienne van Heerden

Translation by Michiel Heyns

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, 10 000 copies of Etienne van Heerden’s 30 Nights in Amsterdam were printed. This, according to some estimates, equals the demise of roughly 5 000 trees. Was it worth it? Hell, yes.

There’s a debate hoofing its way around the local literary stables about whether South African critics are too critical of local authors. If one thinks about it long enough, the issue of the publication of pedestrian writing will come down to the question of whether it was worth the time, the money, the reading thereof, and yes, the trees. It is the digital age and (print) authors’ carbon footprints are large. We need to be more selective, not less, no matter that it is the local publishing industry.

That there is no excuse for mediocrity is a point well-proven by Van Heerden. This man has written a lot of books – and won a lot of prizes. The Afrikaans original of this book from 2008 scooped a clutch of coveted awards.

And this brings me to the oft-asked question: why does Van Heerden not write in English? The answer is, according to him, simply because “my English isn’t good enough”. I can’t judge the veracity of this, and I would not be able to read the novel in Afrikaans, but I do believe that engaging the translating services of the accomplished Michiel Heyns (an acclaimed author in his own right) was a stroke of genius.

It is this, I would speculate, that may point to a similarity between 30 Nights in Amsterdam’s aura to that of Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk, also translated by Heyns. It’s a delicate filigree that links original and translation, which has guillotined many a good book. 30 Nights in Amsterdam may even be all the better for Heyns’s translation, for all I know, not having read the original.

The narrative begins straightforwardly enough, but the reader will quickly figure out that it is far more intricate than first meets the eye – a clever device which stealthily draws readers in without overwhelming them by overwriting.

But I digress: on with the plot. A somewhat blue-nosed museum curator in Somerset East in the Eastern Cape, Henk Roche de Melker, purposefully writes monographs of relatively unknown people – in this case the youngest of the Van Gogh brothers, Cornelius, who died in this country during the Boer war (true story); whether in battle or by his own hand has never been established.

Van Heerden’s consummate characterisation of De Melker and his crackpot and recalcitrant aunt, Zan, who suffers from grand mal epilepsy, is surely what perfects the tale’s framework.

The first-person Zan (sometimes also Xan and Xusan for her own political reasons) is easily the most complex and entertaining character I have come across in my recent reading history. Not since Piscine from Life of Pi and Oskar from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close have I enjoyed a character more – if you consider the recent past to be the last decade.

De Melker receives a letter from out of the blue informing him that Zan has died in Amsterdam, where she was exiled for subscription to the struggle of the 60s and 70s.

She has named him heir to an estate on one condition: that he travel to Amsterdam to claim it. Henk realises he will be able to better pursue the facts of Cornelius van Gogh’s early life in Amsterdam.

Time flits backward and forward between Henk and Zan: in some novels this can be distracting, but these alternating chapters between Henk and Zan are deliciously anticipatory.

Stream of consciousness and a certain amount of linguistic licence regarding punctuation, and even invention of words like “jubilululating” – which many authors get horribly wrong – succeeds in giving the narrative a certain poetic feel.

Here is such a passage: “I have cast everything from me. My love for Wehmeyer my fear of the men the trammels the fetters the swept-under-the-carpet the discipline the credo and the catechism.”

Henk and Zan’s memories of the time when Henk was growing up differ realistically, and through what Henk ultimately learns in Amsterdam about Zan and the past redefines his character and self-awareness.

Van Heerden has a distinctly idiosyncratic style but never comes across as contrived, or worse, written for only the highbrow, which may have been tempting, considering that Van Heerden has lectured such subjects as theory of literature at UCT and Stellenbosch for over 20 years.

30 Nights in Amsterdam has all the right ingredients – politics, psychology, history, current relevance and a voyage of self-discovery, even if, at 47, De Melker has left it rather late.

Finally, I feel obliged to confess that I haven’t read all of Van Heerden’s work, but 30 Nights in Amsterdam will unquestionably change that.

l Verbaan is a fiction editor and award-winning journalist, now pursuing a qualification in forensic psychology.