Sarie leaves an indelibly refreshing mark on the South African literary landscape. Meneesha Govender met author, Heinrich Böhmke, to discuss his novel
I find it fascinating how an idea for a story develops in a writer’s mind. In the case of Heinrich Böhmke’s Sarie, I was even more intrigued.
With its short chapters and many, multi-faceted characters, I was often left breathless – jumping from plot to plot, searching for an answer or at least a hint of closure.
Closure does arrive eventually but certainly not in the way I expected.
Böhmke is a labour consultant by profession and prosecutes misconduct cases in the public service.
He also trains investigative reporters throughout Africa. Both jobs often take him away from home at the drop of a hat. Hotel rooms become familiar spaces where ideas and thoughts form and eventually culminate in a novel like Sarie.
For Böhmke it all began with a chronicling of “vivid dreams”.
“I began by writing a character in an attempt to explore these dreams. I sent my chapters to a few friends and they were intrigued by the characters,” he says.
“My friends were my inspiration to continue writing short chapters which they wanted to read. They kept asking for more.
“And before I knew it I had enough material for half a book. It was then that I realised that maybe I could do this, maybe I could write a whole novel.”
And so it began.
At first the story was “a very personal one”, for the writer.
But as he added more characters to the novel, these new characters became filled with social and political concerns that affected him or interested him at the time he was writing that part of the story.
“If I spent the day investigating a government corruption case, then that evening I’d spend time writing in my hotel room,” he says.
“Often, what happened in the day would find its way into my writing and then themes around politics, race and corruption would drive my writing and my characters.”
The short chapters and numerous characters are a result of the multi-faceted nature of society and are to some extent quite disconcerting as you read the novel.
Böhmke’s interest lies in how politics and ideology shape society, so these are themes he explores in this novel.
Five people arrive at an East London hotel on the same day. Everything that happens in the novel happens roughly over half a day.
Jacqui is a down-and-out car guard who is sick and tired of hustling. Her last hustle is going to happen at the hotel and she will be set for life.
Khaya, chief of staff to a premier, hates his boss. But he needs to swing one last tender, not entirely above board, his way and he can move on.
Michael is a psychologist, driven to distraction by racial dynamics throughout his life. He is bent on committing one grand political act that he believes will restore Khoi Khoi land to his people.
Then there is this mysterious girl who thinks she is from the 1800s flitting through the hotel. She is Sarie.
In some way or other she brings these disparate characters together and somehow pulls the different stories together.
“I did have an idea of a drawstring,” Böhmke says.
“All the tasles of each character are flighted on their own missions and are gradually drawn together so that in the end they all directly impact each other’s lives.”
Sarie, an other-worldly character in the novel, stands for more than just an individual character. She symbolises history and the crucial, driving theme of unfinished business in South Africa.
“When you read this book, a lot of it has to do with the theme unfinished business and how it can come back to haunt us,” Böhmke explains.
“In this country there is a huge amount of unfinished business. I believe politics is affecting us more and more in the psychological realm of life.
“Unfinished business is beginning to have psychological effects in political business.”
This theme of unfinished business enables the novel to deal with contemporary issues in South Africa through a character rooted in the 1800s. It is a fascinating dynamic.
From student struggles to corruption, to the gradual descent of ANC as the ruling party, the novel touches on all of these issues through the psyche of its characters.
“Khaya, for example, is a black man who has become cynical about struggle history. His aim now is to chart a way forward without being bogged down by the constraints of that history,” says Böhmke.
But his character also borders on the criminal side of politics and he’s a hustler of the high-profile type.
It is through Khaya’s character that we interrogate the significant theme of a once-great organisation, the ANC, beginning to crumble. It is through him that Böhmke lays bare an implicit criticism of government in the novel.
While there are five main protagonists, this novel is full of other characters, so many that it sometimes becomes difficult remembering who is who.
But there is method to the apparent madness.
Each character has something to offer to the overall themes and narratives in the novel.
The characters are very real, very rooted in their city as well as their country. As a result they speak the language of their city and the book is full of slang and South Africanisms.
“These characters are not going to be eating at exotic restaurants,” says Böhmke. “They’ll eat at a restaurant rooted in South African culture, such as a local Wimpy.”
Böhmke’s characters are, according to him, composites of people he has encountered in his life. But more importantly, “they’re also based on people I’d like to encounter, people at their best in a difficult situation”.
As I chatted with him, I could see how important the concept of “being real” is to the author.
“I wrote a book in which things happen. It’s not a book in which people merely introspect.
“When things happen during a real existential crisis it brings truth to what you think or believe.”
It’s a means of stripping away pretences and letting things be driven by plot.
“I believe that in South Africa today, we need to move away from posers, people who merely pay lip service to important issues,” says Böhmke.
It may be cynical, but there is the sense that hustlers will survive, while thinkers and feelers will always be left on the periphery to wither away. And this is evident through some of the characters in the book.
“We’ve got all sorts of problems in South Africa. But it’s our crankiness and resistance to ‘bullsh****ry’ that sometimes sees us through,” Böhmke says.
Again, the almost criminal, Khaya is most likely to be a survivor in this novel.
Even the closure that comes at the end is about keeping it real. As he wrote this novel, Böhmke never really thought about how it would end. He only made that decision two weeks before completing it.
Here’s the rub: the end is what the reader makes of it. Böhmke has deliberately written a novel where the reader finds his or her own conclusion.
“The ending of Sarie belongs to the reader,” he says.
The writer knew someone would die: the question was who? And for many readers, that character is not the same.
It all depends on the reader’s world view and what he or she brings to the novel as it is being read.
“I did this deliberately because I don’t want to impose too much on the reader. I want people to have the freedom to choose their endings.”
Allowing the reader freedom is very important to him and it is even reflected in the title and cover of his novel.
“I wanted a simple title for the book, just a name.
“I didn’t want to draw people in with a statement. I wanted to draw people in with something aesthetically pleasing.
“Hence the name and photo on the cover of the book go together, you cannot have one without the other.”
An entire day was spent on the beach with photographer Peter McKenzie and model Nicole Hancock to get the perfect picture that would draw the reader in.
This freedom that Böhmke offers is not guaranteed to sit well with readers. Indeed, it has left many feeling disconcerted and unhappy.
But, I believe this is ultimately what makes the novel so successful. It also reflects more realistically our lives in South Africa today.
So much is in flux and so much more is not finished, nothing is certain and there are no neat endings in the real South Africa.
And that is all the closure we can be certain of.
* Sarie is published by Martial.