Prof etienne van heerden. Picture : Naomi Bruwer, LitNet

The act of creative writing is, in part, mysterious. Words seem to flow from an “other” space and, in their finest forms, stories and characters appear to have arrived not only effortlessly, but inevitably. Such is the writing in 30 Nights in Amsterdam and Ancestral Voices by Etienne van Heerden (Penguin).

“The secret of art,” he says, “is to take the (story) and make it stranger. And then to make the strange seem natural.” What he omits, perhaps through modesty, is that it takes the hands of a master such as himself to conjure the “natural” into the compelling, the page-turning, the unforgettable. Susan/Zan de Melker in 30 Nights, the Moolman family in Ancestral Voices, remain with us; they become part of the South African lexicon of fabled, flawed characters who are indelible. They remind us of how difficult it is to be human.

30 Nights in Amsterdam, which won the M-Net Literary Award in 2008, has now been translated into English by Michiel Heyns and Isobel Dixon.

After his international success with Toorberg (the original Afrikaans version of Ancestral Voices) in 1987, Van Heerden found a home in literary academia and is currently Hofmeyr Professor in the School of Languages at UCT, also partnering the university’s MA Creative Writing programme, and founder-editor of the popular LitNet.

His most recent novel, 30 Nights in Amsterdam, is deeply rooted in the Camdeboo area of the Karoo, but is also an evolution into another, more urban, fluent space of Amsterdam (where Van Heerden has worked). It circles back and forth, in time and space, eventually returning to venerate the very ground which gives such grief and joy. As with all pilgrimages, it is transformative in process.

It is also of a family’s struggles and secrets, drawing on two complex characters. The first is Susan de Melker, the “maiden aunt” of a respectable Afrikaans country family. Her unpredictable and provocative behaviour enlivens the lives of many, though not her long-suffering family.

Her affliction is the “foaming”, epilepsy, and her eccentricities might be attributed to that, though, as it turns out, she has many guises: Susantjie, Zan, Xan, and the “anti-apartheid activist” Xusan Dimelaki, doyen of the Amsterdam stage. Or she may be the one (white) person in the town who refuses to toe the conventional “party line”, and who lives her life with a risky courage that will bring her to the brink of self-destruction.

Her repressed nephew, Henk, is alternately fascinated by and fearsome of his aunt’s behaviour, and intrigued with her “glass room”, the space in which she hoards her hundreds of beautiful vases. As an adult, he curates a small Eastern Cape museum, writing short monographs of secondary historical figures with tiny sales. Then he receives surprising and not particularly welcome news: Aunt Susan/Zan has died and he must travel to Amsterdam to receive the terms of her will.

The journey tempts him, as he is writing about yet another shadowy character, Cornelius van Gogh, who lived in South Africa for a time and is buried in Brandfort (factually accurate, says Van Heerden).

The multifaceted character of Susan/Zan/Xan, who defies all social and political norms, is that of a troubled but determined free spirit. She is a kind of shaman, and also the “scapegoat” for the sins of her community.

Van Heerden is plainly irritated that there are some who have seen her as promiscuous, even “nymphomaniacal” (isn’t it odd, says the author, that sexually active men are seen as studs but women are sluts?), which is a grave misreading of his carefully constructed context.

“Usually you see the character in physical terms, but she came as language. She came first, fast. Hers was like a voice dictating to me.” Henk, on the other hand, came slowly, and Van Heerden admits writing him was hard going.

“Yet, my wife says, each of your characters is an absolute facet of yourself,” he adds.

On the contrary. It seems to me that it is through Henk that Susan/Zan is able to embark on her final journey of redemption, for he is her connection by blood and tragedy to her birthland of longing. And through her, Henk is transformed into one who returns from exploration to see his world, to really feel free to understand it, grieve for its sins, and celebrate it for the first time. They are melded.

Ancestral Voices is an earlier, less complex, but utterly absorbing novel of the “Karoo Moolmans”, split between the familie en die skaamfamilie (the legitimate and the “other”, that is, coloured, descendants), who are joined and divided by blood and land, and yet, when a boy falls down a well on the farm, lock together in silence to conceal an act of what might be judged either murder or mercy.

His father, Van Heerden says, told him about a “true story”, perhaps a rural myth, of a boy whose own father had to shoot him when he fell down a hole from which he could not be extracted: “I was always very careful of not playing around wells from then on,” he admits.

30 Nights in Amsterdam, Ancestral Voices and Leap Year have all been released in new English editions by Penguin. Grab this golden opportunity to read them.