Book Reviews & Essays on Literature

Poetry that mixes mother tongues – and my poem about my Grandma

My very dearly loved Grandma, Martha Magdalena Schreuder, long passed on.

It is very hard to make two different languages rhyme. This struck me again when I was researching the phonetic symbol for a “J” with two lines through its stem, for the review of Howard Jacobson’s novel J. Some sounds and letters exist only in certain phonetic alphabets. The guttural uvular fricative “g” (for instance /χ/ /χut/ as in “goed”), which is a frequent sound in Afrikaans, does not occur in English. The closest is the “ch” sound like in the Scottish Gaelic word “loch”. But it does occur in a handful of other languages including Spanish, Dutch (of course), Persian and Kurdish. (But having said that, below is one of my poems, in English and Afrikaans, about my Grandma. It features this particular uvular fricative “g”.) I have recently been listening to the band Orange Blossom, particularly the song Ommaty from their 2014 album Under the Shade of Violets. The lyrics are sung in Arabic and I must say I find the repetitive /χ/ very pleasant to listen to even though I only have a vague idea what the words mean.  Continue reading

Homage to Hennie Aucamp


Hennie aucamp in his home in Tamboerskloof, Cape Town. On the wall behind him is a highly valuable painting by the famous, deceased South African artist, Adriaan van Zyl. Adriaan’s sister, Dr. Louis Viljoen, lectures in the Department of Afrikaans-Dutch at Stellenbosch University. (Photo: Beeld newspaper archives)

Hennie Aucamp in his home in Tamboerskloof, Cape Town. On the wall behind him is a highly valuable painting by the famous, deceased South African artist, Adriaan van Zyl. Adriaan’s sister, Dr. Louis Viljoen, lectures in the Department of Afrikaans-Dutch at Stellenbosch University.(Photo: Beeld newspaper archives)

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, 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.


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Best wishes for the Season – in the words of Breyten Breytenbach

Best wishes for the festive season and the new year

I cannot express my wishes for my family, friends and colleagues all over the world any better, than by quoting Breyten Breytenbach, the acclaimed South African-born poet and anti-Apartheid activist. His words bring back memories of the essence of the South African hinterland, the platteland – something almost impossible to put into words, much less translate. As he puts it: “…the fragrance of something from far away, coming to life.” The warm evening, the sunset, the stars, the mountain peaks, the songs of the cicadas and the frogs – those are intangible and unforgettable moments. This time of year, with the snow falling heavily outside, makes one more susceptible to memories of times and places past.

This poem is from his poetry/prose work, “A Season in Paradise”, written after his return to South Africa in 1973 after twelve years in exile. In a work that contains criticism and brutality, he also conveys moments of an exile’s deep-rooted love for his land of birth. From 1975 to 1982, he was a political prisoner in South Africa, serving two terms of solitary confinement. Released in 1982, as a result of massive international intervention, he returned to Paris and obtained French citizenship. He currently divides his time between Europe, Africa, and the United States. Breytenbach  wields the Afrikaans language like a master artist his brush – he has no equal, and no-one writes about the South African landscape quite like he does. This is why these lines will always be loved and shared.

Op pad na die Kouga / On the way to the Kouga (pp.61-63)
For Oom Martin
By Breyten Breytenbach / B.B. Lasarus (pseudonym)
From: ’n Seisoen in die Paradys / A Season in Paradise (1976) – Translated by Marthe Bijman

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The Minutiae of Life Mesmerisingly Portrayed by Canadian Nobel Winner

Dear Life, by Alice Munro

Dear Life, by Alice Munro

Dear Life, by Alice Munro

(Penguin Books Canada, 2012)

The significant moments in Alice Munro’s latest collection of short stories tend to creep up behind you and hit you in the back of the head with a brick. You read one – you get to the final lines – you think, “I don’t get it” or “oh good grief, is that what I think it is? – you go back and reread it. Then you find the pivotal moment, the line where the storyline changed, where she started the build-up to the climax, or put in the key to the puzzle. Continue reading