Helena Gunter’s skinny two-part work, with its dull brown cover featuring a faded-looking abstract drawing, looks harmless enough. What it is, in fact, is a cat o’ nine tails in the shape of a book. It is in Afrikaans, written about Afrikaners of a certain generation, but if there were ever a soul-scouring Afrikaans literary work that should be read in English as well as all the other world languages, it is this one. Remember the uproar caused by the publication of Stick Out Your Tongue, by MA Jian? People were freaking out about the scandalous and negative portrayal of Tibetans. Well, this book has caused a stir in the South African publishing industry – for similar reasons.
(Go here for the Afrikaans version of this review.)
It is called Tweespoor, and my best translation of that title is “Double Track”, with the implications of the book having two parts, as well as going back on your own footsteps, a double railway track, and the double-tracking when a performer sings or plays along with their own prerecorded performance. This is a book about two people having problems with the past – serious problems.
Part 1 – “Tilla”
Part 1 consists of four linked short stories – Diefstal (meaning “Theft”), Kapokeiers (Bantam Eggs), Padkos (Road Trip Food), Ons Diamant (Our Diamond) – about a girl called “Tilla”, who grows up on a farm in the Cape Province in South Africa, in the 1960s and 70s. Ostensibly, Tilla’s world is pastoral and idyllic, but it soon emerges that her parents fight, that her mother is cruel, and that her father is having a nervous breakdown. And it emerges that the father of a school friend is a pædophile.
In part 1 the ugly facts of Tilla’s childhood slowly emerge. While you read you feel a creeping sensation of revulsion. These words, expressions, objects, names and places of that time, that are so familiar, and evoke such tranquility for the most part, take on a different tone in this context. Gunter turns them into something shamefully retrogressive, and I reached a point of not wanting to read any further.
Gunter’s evocation of the period is impressively detailed. Her writing is, I suspect, like that of the cult American author of short stories, Lucia Berlin, (November 12, 1936 – November 12, 2004), about whom Patricia Lockwood writes in the London Review of Books of Dec. 6, 2018):
“Berlin’s gifts are not the ones you have ever tried or been told to cultivate. The details she chooses are those you have purposefully eliminated, with that hitch in your ear that tells you to keep everything timeless: names of gas stations, laundromat chatter, ringworm cures. Gentian Violet! She maintains the private, freaky sensuality of a child who listens for certain satisfying sounds, sniffs for certain satisfying smells, puts marbles in her mouth, has a pet percolator named Skippy, grows up to write a whole story about macadam…She speaks from the present back into the past, post mortem, not with the distance of the doctor but the closeness of the nurse, who might take the lilies home.” (p.3)
Above: Media from 1960s South Africa, and images of two of the films that “Tilla” said that she had gone to see.
Gunter certainly maintains the private sensuality of childhood – her childhood I suspect, but also in part, mine – and she most definitely excels in speaking from the present back into the past in a forensic manner. Here, she describes the child, Tilla, watching her mother react to her husband’s breakdown, and getting the Black maid to help. It is the first of many moments of realization of the two different tracks (“spore”) that White and Black people in South Africa have followed.
“Dit was Ounên wat die aparte wêrelde waarin die groter geskiedenis hulle afgekamp het, kon ophef asof ’n plaashuis met sy kinderkwale en wit kwinte haar enigste werklikheid was.” (p.54)
“It was Old Nanna who could unify the separate worlds of a farmhouse with its childhood illnesses and white problems, that greater history had separated and circumscribed, as if it were her only reality.”
That is an accurate observation about the typical master-servant relationships of the time. Gunter is my generation of White people born in South Africa – she was born in 1954 in Riversdale in the Cape Province, and grew up on a farm. Like her, I was born in the Cape, have family who are still farmers in that region, and studied Afrikaans Literature. Unlike her, however, I emigrated to Canada. What she writes about is practically taboo in today’s South Africa. You can call it “Post-Colonial Literature” if you want, to dull the edge of the subject. But her writing gets in your face, and what’s worse, into your head. She depicts a situation fraught with racial tension. This is you, she says, this is what you have become.
Gunter depicts what many people – particularly the so-called liberals – say amongst themselves about South Africa post-1994, but discreetly. No one says out loud how dysfunctional and violent the country has become, how disenfranchised the small minority (about 8.4% of the total population) of White people left in the country feel today. It’s just not done to talk about or depict the vast cultural and societal gaps between the racial groups. But in this book, Gunter does.
Part 2 – “Fransina”
In part 2, Angelus Novus Africanus, the subject is “Fransina”, a woman slightly over middle-age who is struggling to make sense of what has happened to the country of her birth. Because she is White and regarded as privileged due to her forefathers having benefited from Apartheid, she is “unwanted” in the “New” South Africa. We meet Fransina when she is standing at a traffic light (like beggars and hawkers do at “robots” in that country), wearing flowered galoshes, a pith helmet piled with flowers and fruit, and a ridiculous padded body suit on which she has written: “Help! Middle-aged White African woman. Literate. Well-meaning. Sorry. Wants to buy back past and re-live.”
“Maar enigeen wat hoop sy gaan met ’n Deense aksent sê: ‘I had a farm in Africa’, moet weer dink. Anders as die Blixen girl, is sy ’n gas in Afrika. Een aan wie die misdade van haar voorvaders besoek word. So leer sy.” (p.69)
”But anyone who hopes that she will say with a Danish accent: ’I had a farm in Africa’, had better think twice. Unlike the Blixen girl, she is a guest in Africa. One on whom the iniquities of her forefathers will be visited. So she learns.”
This is a reference to the book of Numbers in the Bible, chapter 14, verse 18 (King James version):
“The Lord is longsuffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.”
And so it is with Fransina, who tries everything to “turn on, tune in, and drop out” yet fails to get away from her generations of racist White ancestors. Eventually, the truth hits her:
“Sy het ’n buitelander geword in die plek wat sy gedink het hare was, gediskonnekteer, verlore in wat oorbly van ’n verlede waarvoor sy haar moet skaam. Sy verstaan nie die nuwe sleutels waarin sy moet sing nie. Sy hoort nie meer nie. Nie in dié kasteel nie. Sy moet vertrek. Ver weg gaan.” (pp. 79-80)
“She has become a foreigner in the place that she had thought hers, disconnected, lost in what remains of a past of which she ought to be ashamed. She doesn’t understand the new key in which she must sing. She does not belong any more. Not in this castle. She must leave. Go far away.”
Up to that point, you think that Fransina is just feeling disconnected and dissatisfied, but then something happens, something unfortunately very common in South Africa these days, that is so unmentionable, so awful and sickening, that I seriously wish I had not read those pages (p. 94 onwards, the chapter called, ironically, Plesierrit, meaning “joyride”). I wish I had skipped them. This is the turning point for Fransina. How she reacts is up to you to read and find out, if you can get through it.
I have often asked myself, how does an author describe terrible things so clearly, if they themselves have never experienced it? The answer is, good research, a strong imagination and excellent technical abilities. But in terms of evoking this particular part of history, Gunter personally experienced at least part of it when she was growing up (I sincerely hope not those particular incidents I refer to, above, in the “Joyride” chapter).
As someone born in and of that period, she is impressively precise and on-point with her language use (using varieties of regional dialects of Afrikaans) and immensely cunning in recreating specific situations and character types. Her use of Afrikaans, nuanced and often playful, with puns, alliteration and creative contractions, but in places old-fashioned and with long-lost words, sometimes made me feel as if I were reading Science Fiction, even though Afrikaans is one of my mother tongues.
The reproduction on the book’s cover of the dull, brownish drawing of a pop-eyed figure, is in fact part of a 1920 monoprint by the Swiss-German artist Paul Klee. A clue to understanding the anthology lies in this art work. In the ninth thesis of his 1940 essay Theses on the Philosophy of History, the German critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin, who purchased the print in 1921, interprets it this way (and this is quoted in the book):
“Klee’s painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”
And that is precisely what is happening to Fransina – she has become the African “New Angel” who sees the wreckage of her past, and at the same time she is propelled into a future to which her back is turned. Fransina, in the South Africa of today, is caught up in a different kind of crisis from Tilla in the first four stories. But what the reader must understand is that the South Africa of today grew from the world that Tilla grew up in. The one led to the other. It is a continuum from which, for some, there is no escape.
The character of Fransina is very much like “May”, the wife of “Newland Archer” in Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel, The Age of Innocence:
“And as he had seen her that day, so she had remained; never quite at the same height, yet never far below it: generous, faithful, unwearied; but so lacking in imagination, so incapable of growth, that the world of her youth had fallen into pieces and rebuilt itself without her ever being conscious of the change. This hard bright blindness had kept her immediate horizon apparently unaltered.” (Part, 2, chapter 34)
What drives the “social tragedy” of both The Age of Innocence and Tweespoor is the relative degrees of inability of the protagonists to recognize change and to adapt, so that the world of their youth falls to pieces around them and gets rebuilt without them dealing with it or understanding it.
Try to get to read this
For the shrinking numbers of readers of Afrikaans, I say try to read get a hold of this. I think it is an important, thought-provoking book, but it won’t be popular. You won’t find it on Amazon, though – only on the shelves of a handful of bookstores in South Africa (and wrongly classified as poetry on the publisher’s website).
Reading it has been quite cathartic – not pleasant, but nevertheless a relief. It is daring of Gunter to have tackled the subject, to have given shape to the society, the culture and the ideologies of a group of people who, like “Lord Voldemort”, must not be named these days. At last someone has held up a mirror to me and people like me, to reflect forgotten, pedestrian histories and give voice to unexpressed thoughts and feelings.
About Helena Gunter
Helena Gunter was born on 19 November 1954 in Riversdale in the Cape Province, South Africa. She grew up on the farm Rhenosterfontein, situated near the mouth of the Breede River. She completed a Masters Degree in Creative Writing under the mentorship of author Marlene van Niekerk at the University of Stellenbosch. Her first collection of short stories, Op ’n plaas in Afrika (meaning “On a Farm in Africa”), was published in 2007. She was awarded the Eugène Marais Prize for this collection the following year. Met koffer en kaart (meaning “With Suitcase and Map”), her second collection of short stories, appeared in 2011. She does not have a website or a blog.
About the header: The figures of the Virgin Mary and her Child are from a painting in the Byzantine style, that I own, by the famed South African artist and poet, Father Jacobus van der Riet, of the Orthodox Church at St. Nicholas of Japan in Johannesburg. The icon seemed appropriate considering Gunter’s depiction of a “New African Angel”.