South African author, poet, lyricist and playwright Hennie Aucamp died on 20 March 2014, aged 80 years, from a heart attack. Like a loved family member and familiar name on the tongue, he is mourned by the entire literary community in South Africa, and by generations of South African readers.
Hennie to his friends
Hennie, as his friends called him, died quietly, in his sleep, reportedly without a struggle – a good death for a man who had lived a civilised life, who had been kind and intelligent and a wonderfully talented writer. When my mother, Marina le Roux, would mention: “Hennie called”, I automatically knew which Hennie she was referring to. When she said: “Hennie thinks that…”, I knew it was friend Hennie she was talking about – friend Hennie who was also the esteemed Prof. Dr. Aucamp.
It was not only recognition from his peers and students that made him a favourite author whose works kept on being read despite changing fashions in writing. Hennie used Afrikaans the way a master composer uses music. He could write in its tempo, rhythm, cadences, tone. Afrikaans, when he wrote it, was like familiar music. He could capture essential moments in a minor key, subtle, a bit sad, but sweet.
He had built a large and important private library of Afrikaans literature and correspondence with literary friends and authors, and also a large collection of rare and historical recordings of chansons and cabarets from all over the world (as he was known as the Father of South African Cabaret). Fortuitously, most of these were catalogued and gifted to the Document Centre of Stellenbosch University’s JS Gericke Library on Wednesday 5 March 2014, a few weeks before his death, along with the life work of his peer and colleague at the university, Prof. Lina Spies.
Dr. Aucamp and I
Hennie’s writing became the standard against which I measured my own writing while I was studying literature at university, and after that, when I wrote for a living and for my own pleasure. Hennie studied Afrikaans, English, Literature and Drama at Stellenbosch University (MA, cum laude, 1958; D.Ed, cum laude, 1974), and joined his alma mater when he started teaching at the Department of Afrikaans in the Faculty of Education.
He was appointed Head of the Department in 1983, remaining in this position until his retirement in 1994, and was appointed Associate Professor in 1986. I studied his writing as a graduate and post-graduate student of Afrikaans literature, and, at the Faculty of Education in 1986, was privileged to have him as department head. I was just one of many thousands of students who has passed through the doors of that establishment. I wonder if he ever knew how awed we were to have him there.
But apart from his academic career, his literary influence – particularly in cabaret and poetry – was pervasive and continued to be so even after his retirement. Hennie was a prolific writer – his œvre includes 16 short story collections, 8 volumes of poetry, 10 cabarets and plays, 7 works of literary criticism, 2 travel books, 2 compilations of his own works, and 4 commemorative works on other authors… He won every noteworthy South African literary prize – 1974, the W.A. Hofmeyr Prize, 1996, the Recht Malan Prize, 1982, the Hertzog Prize, 2006, the Gustav Preller Prize for Literary Sciences.
Not all Hennie’s work was easy reading. In his later days, he often wrote on the theme of death, loneliness and ageing. Earlier, in the days when homosexuality was still a criminal offence in South Africa, he wrote about it. He was noticeably ahead of his time, and it was not always good for his academic career.
“Hennie had always openly admitted that he is gay. He declared to author Francois Smith that the sexual orientation of fellow human beings is not his primary concern:
“I am interested in the quality of someone’s humanity, in his or her abilities and talents. This tolerance must be earned, and thus it is not common and homophobia still counts, especially when it comes to career advancements. People are not more comfortable with homosexuality now than before: the media and ‘yuppies’ have conjured up a false picture. Humans are basically conditioned to be biased – or shall I say harsher towards [homosexuals] – and think stereotypically [about them].”
It’s about humanity
These days, South Africa has the most liberal and constitutionally guaranteed LGBT laws, but until the late 1990s, being gay and writing about homo-erotica were both unacceptable in mainstream society. His first short story to overtly feature homosexuality was “Steven en Fay”, from ’n Bruidsbed vir Tant Nonnie (A Wedding Bed for Miss Nonnie) (1970), which, homosexual theme notwithstanding, won the Tafelberg Award for Literature.
However, Hennie was not known primarily as a “gay” writer. He was known as an extremely well educated and expert writer who had mastered just about all forms of literature – from lyrics to literary criticism. Versindaba has a good review and analysis of his published work. His last published work was Skulp, (Shell) a collection of poetry, published in 2014 by the Protea Boekhuis. Reviewers noted that it was, as always, refined and masterly.
He had a particular knack for classical forms of poetry such as the sonnet. He would write about ugly subjects in beautiful language and forms, for instance, in his sonnet, “Stad op Hitte” (City on Heat) – forgive my imperfect translation:
STAD OP HITTE, by Hennie Aucamp
“Rook peul om die berg; rol na die baai
– die Kaap stig brand: sy somersport –
en sou vandag sedoos kom waai
kan Kaapstad weer ’n ashoop word.
Ook binnevuur verteer sy mense:
met hoere driediep langs die paaie;
etnies geld opnuut weer grense:
die swart verdryf die bleker naaie.
Seks raak ontdaan van romantiek
– dis instoot sonder voorbehoud –
word ’n genoot noodlottig siek
laat dit sy laksman salig koud.
O, waar sal ons vlug uit die stad wat brand,
die hittigste stad in ’n hittige land?
CITY ON HEAT (translation by M. Bijman)
Smoke roils round the mountain to the bay
– The Cape is aflame: its summer style –
and if today the southeastern blows this way
Cape Town can be an ashen pile.
Its people devoured by an inner blaze:
whores stand three-deep in plain sight;
race is the frontier again these days:
the black again repels the white.
Sex is romance-less, clinical, dissected
– it’s pushing in, without appealing –
and if a partner gets infected
the survivor is coldly unfeeling.
Oh, where shall we flee from this burning place,
the hottest city of a fiery race?”
My favourite of all his books is Die Hartseerwals: Verhale en Sketse (The Sadness Waltz: Stories and Sketches) (1965) – his first collection of short stories, but like a first love, to me the most memorable one. My favourite short story is ’n Baksel in die Môre: Boerestories uit die Stormberge (A Batch of Baking in the Morning: Farm Stories from the Storm Mountains) (1973). Here is an extract for Afrikaans readers.
“Op die nekke hou Org Viljoen sy perd in en kyk af op sy plaas se werf. Hy sien hoe sy vrou oor die werf na die bakoond loop. Bossierook peul by die bed van die oond uit; ou Martha stook vir ’n baksel brood. Sy vrou praat met Martha en stap dan terug kombuis toe; stadig want haar lyf is groot…
Org neem vleis en brood na die kamer toe. Malie lê moeg en gelukkig teen die kussings. Sy’t haar beste naghemp aan, die een met die gehekelde frilletjies om die moue en hals. Sy beduie dat Org nie moet raas nie, en wys na die wiegie. Org kyk na die bondeltjie wat so toegewikkel lê dat jy skaars die pers, verkreukelde gesiggie kan sien. Die kind sê nog nie baie vir hom nie. Sy vrou is vir hom van die grootste belang. Hy gaan sit by Malie op die bed. Met sy knipmes sny hy klein stukkies vleis van die ribbetjes af en voer haar of sy ’n voëltjie is. So tussen die vleis deur kry sy ’n happie brood. Malie knik tevrede. ‘Die brood is goed,’ fluister sy.
Org glimlag dankbaar. Hy eet self ’n stukkie brood. Die vaak pak Malie. Sy’t geen verweer daarteen nie, dit neem haar in en trek haar in, tot in die vingerpunte toe. ’n Stukkie brood val uit haar hand: sy slaap. Org tel die brood van die kombers af op. Aandagtig sit hy na haar en kyk. Hy knip sy oë. ‘Die Goedheid Gods’, dink hy, ‘waarvan ons sawends sing, die ken ek nou.’”
The last lines are so lovely: “Pensively he sits and watches her. He shuts his eyes. ‘The goodness of the Lord’, he thinks, that we sing about at evening prayer, I know it now.”
One student will remember him
This short story inspired me, as a young student, to take photos of my own grandmother, baking bread on the farm, and write an article that was published in a South African arts magazine.
When you drive to Namaqualand in South Africa, on the Van Rhynskloof Pass, you come to the edge of the mountain range separating that region from the coast. You can stop and look out over the endless expanse and see the patchwork quilt of farms below, much like Org Viljoen did in the story, and as my Grandpa Lambert used to do when he rode his horse to go court my Grandma Martha on the farm “Klipvlei”.
He grew up on a farm in the Stormberge (Storm Mountains) in South Africa, I can image that Hennie must’ve driven that route many times to have woven it into his story in the collection he co-authored with Margaret Bakkes. Likewise, he wove the collective memories of many generations of Afrikaans speakers into his stories. For this, especially, we will miss him and remember him.
Some more reading
I might stand corrected, but Hennie Aucamp’s writing has not been translated often into English. I mean, seriously, how would you? There is House Visits : A Collection of Short Stories by Hennie Aucamp, translated by Ian Ferguson (Tafelberg Publishers, Cape Town, 1983). But I guess for those who don’t know Afrikaans, his books will remain an inaccessible pleasure.