Skip to content
Give readers a window on the world. Click to donate.
from the January 2008 issue

The Last Farm Novel?: An Interview with Michiel Heyns

I met Michiel Heyns—author, translator, and professor of English at Stellenbosch University from 1987 until 2003—last year when he was here in the U.S. as a visiting professor at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma. He's a tall, large-framed man who easily dissolves into crinkles of laughter, quickly revealing a gentle spirit beneath the somewhat imposing exterior. He's an ideal dinner companion—charming, erudite, gracious, and full of wit. And though our subject was serious, our conversation was punctuated by bursts of merriment.

Four years ago, Heyns took early retirement from his university position to focus on his writing career. He is the author of three novels, The Children's Day, The Reluctant Passenger, and The Typewriter's Tale (all published by Jonathan Ball), and a fourth, Bodies Politic, to be published early in 2008.

We met, however, through a slightly different channel. A London agent had sent me a novel last winter, just on the brink of its publication in South Africa, that I sped through in one extraordinarily long weekend sitting. Heyns had paired up with Marlene van Niekerk to translate her most recent novel, Agaat, and in the process created the kind of masterpiece about which those in the world of translation usually only dream. (One thinks of other renowned author/translator pairs—C.K. Scott Moncrieff on Proust, Edith Grossman on Cervantes' Don Quixote, Robert Fagles on Homer, and the praise that Gabriel Garcia Marquez bestowed on Gregory Rabassa's translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude: "Rabassa's One Hundred Years of Solitude improved the original.") In what appears to be a seamless melding, two master forgers of prose have come together to produce an extraordinary work for the English-speaking world.

Agaat, winner in 2007 of South Africa's top award, the Sunday Times Fiction prize, the first translated work ever to win, is both a gripping story and, as we discuss in our conversation below, technically a supremely difficult work. It uses four voices, four tenses, and multiple registers to capture the sweep of South Africa's complex and famously tumultuous recent history. It's an extraordinary achievement on the part of both author and translator, and I was very eager to learn more about the book and the translation process that produced it from Heyns direct.


Dedi Felman: I thought we'd start off by talking first about Marlene [van Niekerk]'s work and the magnificent masterpiece of translation that you've wrought with Agaat. And it is an epic of translation [fingering the rather bulky South-African published copy that Heyns has carried to the interview]; how many pages is this?

Michiel Heyns: (Laughter) It's 700, about 695 pages.

The Afrikaans may have been a bit longer, in fact. Isn't that a rule of thumb that a translation is usually 10% under the original? That's what the publisher told me. I couldn't swear that the Afrikaans is longer, but I somehow remember 700 plus pages.

DF: Can you first introduce our readers, because the book is not yet available in the US, although maybe it will be by the time we publish this . . .

MH: We hope so . . . (laughter)

DF: Introduce us to the story, and maybe a little bit to Marlene herself?

MH: This is obviously the long-awaited follow-up to Marlene's first novel, Triomf, which was published here and very well received; it is being filmed at the moment in Afrikaans, by a Zimbabwean director living in Paris.

The interesting thing about Agaat, apart from the fact that it was long awaited—it was almost ten years after Triomf—is that it is also such a change in register.

Triomf is raunchy, it's very urban, the people are frankly trashy, they are the left-behinds of apartheid. They were the voting fodder. They feel disenfranchised, well, they're not exactly disenfranchised, people are still competing for their votes, but by and large that's all they are really good for. It's a very urban novel with a very deliberately unelevated idiom—it's very crude, extremely crude.

And then came Agaat, which is a farm novel. The family, the people are what I suppose can be regarded as a kind of Afrikaner aristocracy. They are people who went to university, they are landowners.

Milla, the main character, is a fifth-generation, I think it's fifth-generation, owner of this farm—a farm that's been passed down through the female line—called Grootmoedersdrift. Grandmother's Drift, Grandmother's Crossing. And so she certainly feels, and her mother feels, that they are a kind of aristocracy. And what Marlene is plugging into here is a very strong tradition of the farm novel in Afrikaans, a tradition that goes back to C. M. van den Heever, who wrote these very grueling stories called Droogte which is "Drought," Laat vrugte which is "Late Fruit"—stories that are very much rooted in the naked earth, and tend to be about very strong, dour, survivors.

Anyway, Marlene is subverting [this tradition] because the story of Agaat is what is happening now in a new dispensation. Milla is still in charge. Her son has left the farm in disgust, really, of the political system, he is not interested in inheriting the farm. Milla's husband has become a bit of a cipher. He is a very traditional sort of male chauvinist pig, but he is, in fact, emasculated, really, by Milla's power, Milla uses her sexuality . . .

Then of course there is Agaat, who is the—"a little colored," as they would have been called in South Africa—girl whom Milla takes into the house. Milla finds this little girl on her mother's farm, absolutely destitute, desperately ill, with a misshapen little arm. And she takes pity on the child, takes the child into the house, raises her, and teaches her to speak. Agaat can hardly speak when she comes into the house [a fact that echoes Milla's later loss of speech].

And by and large, Milla imagines that she is performing an act of great mercy and charity.

But Marlene is, in Agaat, as in Triomf, very interested in questions of power and, of course, I think she sees Milla's taking up of Agaat as an exercise of power, as a manipulation.

I found a passage in T.S. Eliot [from "Little Gidding"] which I thought expressed very well the sort of central idea of Agaat and Marlene agreed and we reprinted it and what it says is:

And last, the rending pain of re-enactment Of all that you have done, and been; the shame Of motives late revealed, and the awareness Of things ill done and done to others' harm Which once you took for exercise of virtue. [Heyns' emphasis]

I think that very much sums up where we are when the novel starts. Because the novel starts with Milla on her deathbed, slowly, very slowly dying of motor neuron disease (ALS), and her faculties shut down one by one. And for 700 relentless pages we have this dismantling of this body traced then in various ways.

There are four narratives. One is the present tense: the description of Milla's day-to-day communion with Agaat. Because Agaat, now, and the roles have been reversed: whereas Milla taught Agaat to speak, to read, to write, now Agaat has to speak for Milla, she has to read for her, she has to write for her, she now does everything for Milla. And of course Agaat is [now the locus of] power and I think the novel very much swivels on that Foucaultian idea of caring as an exercise of power.

I'm rambling (laughter) so . . . I'll stop there.

DF: The power structures in this novel are very elaborate. Maybe we can go back to that in a minute. I also want to note your important statement that "caring has a power of its own." Let's return to that as well.

Now, you started to say that there are four narrators. Can you go through and explain who those four narrators are? What their tenses are. It's a very complex weaving of voices, of tense . . .

MH: . . . it is voice—and style really, isn't it? The stylistic differences are perhaps the most noticeable.

The first is the main narrative. The present tense. It is in the present tense, which is not strange in Afrikaans because that is the usual narrative tense. But in English, it would have been more obvious that it is the here and now. And that it is what is happening now and in this room between Milla and Agaat. And it registers every move Agaat makes through Milla's consciousness. So it's a hypersensitive account of a sick room and of Agaat's movements.

Then, from that, we move to the most traditional, the flashback in which we are retold in fairly conventional chronological order the story of Milla's marriage. It starts with Milla's engagement to Jak. This is when her mother hands over the farm, and it is when Milla assumes power: she assumes power over Jak and she assumes power over the farm. Jak, of course, thinks that he is assuming power.

Now this section, Marlene has told in the second person. And Marlene debated this for a long time and then decided that the second person was interesting in that it has an almost confessional, even accusatory inflection. . . . Milla is recalling what she herself did as "you did this," then "you did this," and then "you did that."

DF: Accusatory?

MH: Yes. Well, you know: You did that. You did that.

Accusatory is too strong, but it's a sense of . . . a recording of what she has done as if she is pointing a finger at herself.

DF: At herself?

MH: Yes. Perhaps not intentionally, but the style is turning the novel onto Milla. For instance, say in the sex scene between her and Jak. It gives it a kind of an objectivity which first person wouldn't have had. As if someone is standing back, slightly skeptically, and describing Milla's movements from outside.

DF: It's interesting, because . . . it's not the way that I remember that scene. The way I remember it, the sex scene seems so intimate and so real—and so full of life—that it's a direct contrast with the sickbed. As you say, the sickbed voice is a distanced voice, a voice twice removed. It's someone else's consciousness. It's a different person almost.

But, of course, yes, in the sex scene there's distance as well. And it's a helpful distance because it helps you (the reader) not to take sides. And that's why I stopped you when you said "accusatory," because I thought that Marlene was trying to set it up so that you're not just sympathetic with Milla, but perhaps also with Jak. And, weirdly, I ended up sympathetic with Jak (Milla's male chauvinist husband) precisely because of that voice. Maybe more sympathetic than I should have been? (Laughter)

MH: Well, I think Marlene would be pleased. No, because Marlene is actually very hard on Milla, harder than I am, in the sense that she's very interested in Milla's manipulation of power, to the extent almost of wanting to nullify the good intentions that there were, you know. Those good intentions were thoroughly mixed, of course. But, anyway, so Marlene is not very sympathetic to Milla. She's not very sympathetic to Jak either. But she does see him as a victim of Milla, and that, in a way, he's reacting to his own powerlessness. And he's reacting in the only way he knows how, which is violently and very unpleasantly.

DF: OK, so now let's go back to the two voices.

MH: Yes, so the two voices. Then the third voice is the diaries. These diaries start when Milla adopts Agaat. When Agaat is taken into the house, Milla decides she must keep a record of this. But, just to confuse us, these diaries are re-read, read back to us in reverse order. Another aspect of T.S. Eliot that Marlene likes is "in the end is my beginning" because the novel does exactly that, it eats its own tail. And it retraces events. So when we get to the end of the novel, Milla's death, it is also recounting the tale of the beginning, which is Milla's adopting of Agaat.

DF: So when we get to her death, we are right at the beginning with the adoption of Agaat.

MH: Yes.

DF: And why does Milla decide to record her doings at the time of the adoption of Agaat?

MH: She sees it as a kind of covenant with God. She has undertaken it, and she writes a solemn little bit, "And on this day . . . I, Milla, undertook this, and may God help me in this." It is all very pious. And for that reason, perhaps, she thinks she must keep a record of every day, of Agaat's development. So we have a very detailed account of how Agaat starts to talk, and Milla's pleasure in teaching Agaat, and Agaat's pleasure in things. And that would be hard to see as merely an exercise of power on Milla's part. And Milla shares, in fact, her knowledge of the land, so that Agaat, by the end of the novel, is as well informed on the plants, the animals, farming techniques as Milla herself was. And Milla learned all these things from her father.

DF: And, as you say, this is a matrilineal descent to begin with, and there is this sense that she is grooming Agaat for that, even though Milla has a son.

MH: And so she is passing on, and of course, also what one is more aware of in the Afrikaans than in the English, is that Marlene is passing on a whole cultural possession, in terms of songs, poems . . . And it is also Marlene writing down a lot of things that might get lost. Old words. Myths.

DF: I don't think you talked about this, but historically, the starting point and ending date of the novel are significant . . .

MH: Yes, they are significant. I think Milla and Jak got married right after the accession to power of the National Party, in 1948. Then Agaat was adopted in the early sixties, so she is an apartheid child. And she is very much brought up in accordance with the tenets of apartheid.

Agaat's great bitterness is that when she is brought into the house, Milla doesn't have any children of her own and Agaat's brought up almost as Milla and Jak's child. Then Milla gets pregnant with Jakkie, and Agaat is put into the backyard and made into a servant. So having been brought up as a member of the family, all of a sudden she is this servant. In fact, she becomes a nothing in that the other servants don't accept her. They think she's privileged; she has a better room than they do. But nor is she accepted into the house because she's not actually part of the family. So she's left in between. And she's very bitter about it.

DF: But we haven't got to the fourth narrative yet.

MH: Right. The third is the diaries . . .

So the fourth. The fourth is: Marlene talks of the lyrical passages, they are stream of consciousness, tracing all the various stages of the disease. I think that's how Marlene saw it. But they are strange washes of memory and associations, in terms of the body that is slowly breaking down.

It's often not very easy to see what is happening there, and one has to, when one has read the whole novel, one has to go back, and you see that Marlene has woven into those passages themes from the rest of the novel that she has also very carefully traced. For example, Milla first becomes aware that she is ill is when she drops something. She discovers suddenly that she can't hold things anymore. And then, she uses a wheelchair, and then she can no longer use a wheelchair.

And so there is that breaking down. In poetic terms. Very strongly metaphorical. Very strongly associative. Those are the italicized passages.


DF: So, for you, when you are translating, these four different voices, four different tenses: What are you thinking about when you are switching between voices? Are you consciously thinking about trying to make these voices different? Or are you just following the pattern of the words?

MH: I'm following the pattern of the words and because the writing is so strong, if I stay close enough to that, the voices will be different. And, also, I think sentence by sentence. I've read the whole novel. I know the setup. I know the various tensions and styles. But then I go through it in a narrowly focused way.

I go through the translation at least three times. First, a very quick translation, I hardly look up any words, I just write; and then, second, I come back and check against the text; and then a third time, again, this time without the Afrikaans text, seeing how it reads and whether it can stand on its own. And then a final reading.

So what I'm thinking about in the first round is how one translates this word in this context. As for the larger context, that I look at later when I come back.

DF: So you go through then a final revision process and that's where you are ensuring that the voices have a certain continuity, and in this round you are checking not against the text but against yourself?

MH: Yes. I do. That's difficult. Because you want to go back to the text all the time. You say, OK, I'm done and then you ask yourself, what does this mean? I was sitting on the train today reading this and thinking, hell, I want to revise this. (Laughter). And I think obviously if I had read it another time without looking at the text I would have made a lot of changes. But you reach a point where you say, OK, this for the time being is where I am. And, it's not the last word.

DF: And, of course, the translator's feeling here is similar to the author's feeling of constantly wanting to revise. Where is the ending point?

MH: Yes, and this is where Marlene was great to work with because she didn't—I think some authors could have driven one mad in that they would have felt all the time, this could be better, this could be better. Marlene trusted me, some people may feel she trusted me too far. And she read critically, and suggested lots of changes. But she wasn't fussy. She didn't try to rewrite the novel that I was translating.

DF: I was struck—I'm leaping ahead of ourselves—but I was struck by something that Marlene said in an interview that she did with you about your own work. "When one reads your work one soon falls under the spell of the well-chiseled Heyns sentences, wittily elegant in the qualifications, the oppositions, the exclusions, the symmetries that they propose." And what struck me reading that quote was that that was exactly the impression I had of her writing—and that's the kind of thing that makes one wonder about the convergences involved in translation. The grasp of the language is what impressed me most about your own translation of Marlene—and of course with translation there's always the question of how much was her and how much was you.

MH: Marlene is an absolute master of Afrikaans. Afrikaans is in part an offshoot of Dutch, which she speaks fluently, so she can dredge up Afrikaans words, words that are not in common use. She plays on a very large organ, to use her term for it. And I tried to do justice to that.

Having said that, our styles are very different. When Marlene talks of my "well-chiseled sentences" she is probably thinking in the first place of The Typewriter's Tale, which is very self-consciously Jamesian. That kind of structure. Her structures are extremely well chiseled but they are well chiseled in a very different sense. Of course, her style is much more varied than mine, but I think her style is also much more colloquial than mine. But, of course, that's probably saying more about The Typewriter's Tale than Agaat.

Let me put it this way, I admire Marlene's style tremendously but it's not my style. And I know that Marlene admires my style, but it's not her style. And I think that if she were to have written The Typewriter's Tale she would have cut half of it, because in the Jamesian manner, the sentences are very long and very circumlocutory. Marlene's style is much more trenchant.

DF: Although, I also feel obliged to interject that Marlene has written a very long book. So she is clearly no stranger to length herself, though yes, in the frame of the individual sentence she is concise. Her length thus is not the same as your length.

MH: And she does say, against herself, "I'm always telling my students to 'cut, cut'." [Laughter.] And they say, "but look at Agaat." And in fact, Agaat is very extensively cut. It could have been twice as long.


DF: You were saying that Marlene is an absolute master in Afrikaans. It's interesting because you yourself are fluent—amazingly fluent—in English. Yet you are also fluent in Afrikaans. In fact, Afrikaans is what you grew up with.

MH: Yes, Afrikaans is my first language. I feel more articulate in English than Afrikaans. Perhaps because I've had more practice in having to construct sentences on the hoof, as it were. When I lectured, I never wrote out my lectures, I used to stand, and improvised it to a large extent, which I never had to do in Afrikaans, because I never lectured in Afrikaans. I'm more confident in English, I think, than Afrikaans.

DF: When did you make the decision to write in English? Was it a decision that you made very early on?

MH: The first time I tried to write, when I was at school, I started writing a diary and I wrote it in English. I don't know why. Perhaps at that stage because I needed a certain distance. Writing a diary is an embarrassing thing . . . and writing in another language . . . I'm speculating about my own motives, of course. And then, when I came to university, I was doing English as a subject and I was very much attracted to English literature, and, I don't know, I just started writing in English, and of course, once I started lecturing, my whole professional life was in English. Of late I've gone back to Afrikaans because I'm no longer teaching full time. And because many of my friends are, in fact, Afrikaans, and because I've now done two translations of Marlene's works, and there are other translations. So I'm feeling more in touch with Afrikaans than I have for long time.

DF: So does that tempt you to want to write a novel in Afrikaans?

MH: You know, I am tempted. But I'm only tempted so far. You know my first novel has been translated into Afrikaans and they asked me if I wanted to translate it myself. And I said no. I didn't think I could. Also, many people asked me why my first novel hadn't been written in Afrikaans. The novel is set in the Free State, it's very autobiographical, it's mainly about Afrikaans speaking people; it would have made a lot of sense to write it in Afrikaans, but I couldn't. I mean it sounded false to me when I tried to write in Afrikaans.

Just because my style . . . call it corrupted, call it contaminated, call it influenced by English. And interestingly, the translation, which I think is a good translation, has vindicated me. Now don't quote me on that. But I don't think it works that well in Afrikaans. And it should, because it's such an Afrikaans story.

DF: Wait, it's a very Afrikaans story, but the translation vindicates your decision to write in English? (Laughter)

MH: What I'm saying is that the translation into the language that many people say it should have been written in in the first place, suggests that NO, it was an English novel and there's something uncomfortable about the translation into Afrikaans.

Where it should have been a coming home, as it were, for the novel, there is sense in the Afrikaans translation of something not quite fitting. That's my sense. But I'm the author and probably have too much invested in my version of it.

But, Marlene, for instance, feels about my translation of Agaat, she says: it's as if I were thinking in English. I don't feel that way about the Afrikaans translation of The Children's Tale—that it's as if I'm thinking in Afrikaans.

I was given the translation and given the freedom to change, of The Children's Tale, but I didn't feel I could really . . .

DF: Can one easily wear the cap of both author and translator without literally rewriting the novel for yourself? One thinks of Kundera . . .

MH: I believe that that is what Andre Brink does. I believe he doesn't actually translate his work, so much as he writes both versions simultaneously. And now he has the freedom to do it.


DF: I wanted to go back to Agaat and the question of the various power structures in the novel. It is such a dense web. There's Agaat's relationship to Milla, there's Agaat's relationship to KleinJak, there is Milla's relationship with KleinJak, there is both of their relationships with Jak. There's Milla's relationship with her family. She starts out in the opening scenes as very independent and rebellious—an interestingly independent woman even as we meet her in her completely dependent later stages.

With such a complex setup, I wondered whether the point is not to create any kind of structure at all but just merely to trace the shifts between the characters. It's complicated by the flashbacks, and the back and forth of the chronology, but that it's the shifting of the relationships that are the point rather than any particular structure of power.

MH: I think you are absolutely right because those power relationships shift all the time. At times, Milla is very much under the domination of Jak. But in the larger context, she is probably the stronger character. The moment she becomes pregnant she is stronger than Jak, because she is now producing the heir. So through bringing forth their manchild she is stronger than her husband, but of course in terms of the mores of the time she is under the authority of her husband. Yes, so you're right that it shifts—and with Milla and Agaat, almost from second to second. Even when Milla is completely powerless and lying there she can still project a certain kind of power. Which Agaat can choose to ignore and yet at times, has to heed. I think that's what makes those present tense passages so very strong. It is always a struggle. It's not just someone lying flat on her back being dominated by someone else. It's a game that is renegotiated all the time. So I think you're absolutely right that it's not a rigid structure.

DF: Clearly there's a parallel to the shifts in the form of the novel as a whole, because you are constantly shifting back and forth in time. Is there a parallel to that in the language?

MH: I hadn't thought of the language itself as embodying those shifts.

DF: The idea struck me because of that fourth voice . . . That fourth voice is where she is taking language and that negotiation of structure to the extreme . . .

MH: Yes, I think it's true that that's where the language is liberated and deprived of those structures of tense and reference that one would normally have. It's a suspension of a lot of structure. Certainly Marlene is trying to give the impression of a more subconscious awareness floating through. But very much in terms of sense impressions, Marlene writes very much for the senses, sound, smell, touch, all those are very much part of her recollections as floating associations.

DF: The publisher's description of the novel starts by noting the main character's paralysis of voice due to the advanced stage of her disease, yet one leaves the novel with a powerful sense of Milla and Agaat's voices. Does the literal paralysis of the speech of the "heroine" amplify her voice? How is this achieved?

MH: The four narratives help. As one narrative slows down, the other one is picking up momentum. We are moving toward the moment of revelation: we know that we will find out how Milla came across Agaat as the present-tense narrative unwinds, and we know that Milla will die. And these two narratives are seeking each other all the time.

DF: In a critical reading of "The Hedgehog," by the Dutch poet Ida Gerhardt, van Niekirk warned against the illusory aesthetic communion with the object one is contemplating. As the reviewer of van Niekirk in the Washington Post put it, "identity is not empathy." Does this resonate with you in regards to Agaat?

MH: In quite a strong sense that would be true of Milla's appropriation of Agaat and the recreation of Agaat in terms of a white Christian nationalist concept of identity. Agaat is baptized in the Dutch Reformed church, admittedly not while there are white people in the church, there was apartheid in the church. And while Milla is enforcing this white identity, she is at the same time trying to sustain the ideology of apartheid. She wants a little brown girl who is a copy of a little white girl, except who doesn't make any of the claims that a white girl might want to make. It's far more of an imposition of an identity than empathizing. She wipes out Agaat; she tries to wipe out Agaat's personality. There are painful scenes where she is training Agaat. It's like training a dog.

DF: Yes, and going back to "identity is not empathy," Marlene is very successful in not letting you ever feel comfortable that you are identifying with a character. You're never quite sure how Agaat is taking something—Agaat can be impenetrable.

MH: Yes, and Agaat uses her silence as a weapon. And Milla becomes absolutely furious and beats her in order to get her to speak. And then, of course when Milla is speechless literally, Agaat can decide when to say and when not to say and she can control her own silences, but no less cryptically than earlier. Agaat plays games with Milla while Milla is dying.

DF: Given the epic sweep of history in the novel, I saw this as a novel not of "New South African Writing" but, in many ways, as an attempt to bring closure to a generation of South African writing, a generation of writers that played off the farm novel. Is that fair?

MH: Closure is too strong. I think Marlene would like to see it as a continuing conversation with those forms. I think she's made it very difficult for someone to write a conventional farm novel after this. She's changing the tradition by contributing to it, but at the same time the tradition is informing what she's writing. And this makes further writing possible to a tradition that has been changed through Marlene's intervention in it.

And I think because Afrikaans literature is such a relatively small body of work that this will be a powerful addition to that body.

DF: What has the critical reaction been in South Africa to Agaat?

MH: It's been mixed. In the beginning, there were some very powerful reviews, in Afrikaans, of course. Very appreciative. People saying that this has changed the face of Afrikaans writing. But then also a certain timidity and a lot of people not feeling quite sure that it's OK to say that they liked it. Marlene is a controversial figure in Afrikaans circles. She's not part of the people who see themselves as warriors for a revitalization of Afrikaans. She has very little time for those kind of more politically inspired movements. So she's not popular in those circles. And some people were a bit cagey. But some people were extremely enthusiastic and it has now won every major prize. It won the Hertzog prize, which is the biggest Afrikaans prize, and she won the University of Johannesburg prize, which is also a very big one. And we'll know on the 2nd of May whether it's been shortlisted for the Sunday Times prize because for the first time this year the Sunday Times prize is open to translations so it's just been entered, and that's the biggest literary prize. [ED Note: The novel was not only shortlisted but went on to win the Sunday Times prize.] So I don't want to speak on Marlene's behalf, but I think Marlene feels that in South Africa people haven't taken the kind of care in reading the novel as, for instance, in Holland. The Dutch reviews were amazing. They were long reviews, they were analytical. And they weren't scared to say that this is a great novel. Some of the Afrikaans reviews were very tepid. So yes, I'd say mixed. The English, there was that review in the Sunday Times by Leon de Kock of the translation which is very, very positive.


DF: What is going on in the current South African literary scene?

MH: I wish I could give you a very convinced answer on that because I'm not so sure. Clearly a lot of writers feel we can no longer write about apartheid, we must move on, at the same time, a lot of writers feel that we cannot disregard the past. So you still have a lot of novels that deal with that situation. And, of course, you have a lot of expat novels because so many people moved out of the country. And they write novels about people coming back to South Africa. And we who didn't leave are a bit impatient with these novels. And usually the main character is someone who comes back to South Africa because their mother is dying and then they confront the past again, that sort of thing. That is a genre that seems a bit overpopulated at the moment.

DF: And a final question that I must ask: are there writers that we should keep an eye out for? Writers who are still unrecognized?

MH: Etienne van Heerden . . . he is, after Marlene, the most noteworthy. Karel Schoeman . . . I've just started translating a novel, Equatoria, by Tom Dreyer, that will be published in the UK.

Read more from the January 2008 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.