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Learn how to "drink the wind"

Etienne van Heerden (2011) translated from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns.

30 Nights in Amsterdam with two maps (Karoo and Amsterdam). Rosebank, Johannesburg, Penguin Books, Softcover edition, 453 pages, P190. ISBN 978-0-1430-2677-8. Available at Exclusive Books.

30 Nights in Amsterdam is a great read. It is a many-layered novel about the struggle and its consequences in South Africa spanning from the 1960s to 2000s and focused on the seemingly sleepy central Karoo town of Graff-Reinet. It introduces two characters, little Henkie and his Aunt Zan, who once you have embraced them by reading their stories, you will never forget. Their intertwined tales slowly merge into an adventure story, a subtle thriller, which will captivate you.

Henk Andreas de Melker is 47, a mild-mannered, quiet man, who has found his niche as a curator at a small museum in Somerset East, where the Little Fish River flows and he spends his almost celibate (almost because he has a craving for smaller, younger, Chinese skin, a longing rarely consummated) life researching and writing obscure historical monographs on obtuse subjects that are displayed and sold in the museum. A letter arrives from Amsterdam from Advocat Grotius, informing him that he must come to Amsterdam where he has been declared the "heir-in-the-first-instance" by Xusan Sophie de Melker, who has given him 30 days to decide if he wishes to accept her legacy as stipulated in her will - a fine house on Amstel Street and all that goes with it.

Henk's Aunt had gone into exile in 1969. He had not really thought about her for decades. He has been working on a new monograph, his 14th, on the life of Cornelius van Gogh, the brother of the famous artist Vincent - both died young, but little is known about "Cor" who had migrated to South Africa and died there, buried in an unmarked grave. He is said to have had one of Vincent's paintings with him - if found it would be worth a fortune.When young his Aunt Xusan had given little Henkie a present of a book on van Gogh and his paintings, saying, "This Vincent also had seizures, just like me" (page 186).

Susan, (a.k.a Xusan, Zan and !Xan) is a De Melker from Graff-Reinet. If you travel to Graff-Reinet you will find that the local museum has a major exhibit on the life of the founder of the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) Robert Sobukwe. Zan was an underground member of the Sobukwe Cell in Graff-Reinet. As a young white Afrikaans woman, this was only possible because her family and those in power tolerated her extreme eccentricities, because she was afflicted with Grand Mal.  Zan was notorious for wandering outside the prison's barred windows and displaying herself to the African and coloured inmates. She was also known to wander into the Location. The Sobukwe Cell had three other colourful characters: Bra Zolani, a Xhosa; Cecil Dimaggio, half-American, a would-be filmmaker in his cream-coloured suits who drove a white Cadillac convertible; and Hammerhead Galata their enforcer. There had been a fifth, but the cell had necklaced Carl Wehmeyer at a place they called Galgenbosch in the High Karoo, because they believed he had wronged them. This caused infinite grief to Zan because Carl was her first love.  Zan also has a way of thinking and talking that is musical and consists of running words together, creating new words, and sometimes rhyming. This put other people off who could not follow what she is saying.

Her Afrikaans father, who had bouts of mental illness, and her English mother, lived way out of Graff-Reinet on a farm. Zan is in town in care of Granny Olivier, the guardian of the  Substantiality (her desk from which she runs The Trust) who is of Huguenot descent. Zan is also kept there to be near the doctor whose ready syringe can knock her out when the foaming begins, and the Dominee can be on hand to provide Christian oversight. Zan calls her seizures "raptures" as "only real artists knew it. It's like when Mozart becomes enraptured with the Coronation Mass, or when Vincent van Gogh creates his yellow caf - it is the colour of all things before Eve took the apple from Adam" (page 20). In Amsterdam Zan joins a demonstration against apartheid that leads to a seizure; "Her body purges everything now; everything that's been dammed up foams out - the terrible history, the nature of things, the sorrow of what it means to be human" (page 416). 

Little Henkie is in Graff-Reinet in the house at 82 Somerset Street because he must go to school. He grew up keenly aware of his Aunt Zan's affliction, what she called "the Eighth Colour", her "three-act raptures". He was drawn to her in secret, fascinated by it, gentle and observant as she lay in her room supposedly asleep. "It was clear that Aunt Zan was the medium for the entire clan to shed its burdens. It was their way of voiding themselves periodically of their pent-up fears, their anxieties and their iniquities. Yes, there was plenty for all those in his family - that confused, inbred, stroppy tribe in Africa who were Henk's people" (page 16). "As a boy he dwelt in the heart of a canny matriarchy" (page 17). This also included the female servants who took care of him. Henk was fascinated by two collections in the house. First, Zan had a room of glass vases and bottles of all shapes and colours; second the family heirlooms, Napoleon's plates taken from St Helena Island, now worth a fortune.

Yet when four plates are removed to support the Sobukwe Cell nothing is done about it. As a young boy Little Henkie fathomed himself a bit of a nature sleuth - one that was disciplined, systematic and careful. But his capture of a button spider and hiding it in one of Aunt Zan's bottles led to catastrophe for her. Was the little scientist trying to murder his aunt?

The chapters alternate, at times escalate, between Henk and Zan. They slowly intertwine and connect. Henk fears, at 47, that his fate is also the foaming, the Eighth Colour, "He'd known what lay in waiting for people with his genes, people who couldn't control their creativity. The De Melkers were known for it. A barmy lot. The madhouse.Grand mal" (page 115).

When Henk, in 2007, goes to Amsterdam for 30 days as stipulated in Aunt Zan's will, he discovers that the "heir-in-the-second-instance", Manuel D'Oliveira, was a first violinist and concert master for the Luanda Symphony, who for 20 years of exile has made his living with two others, squatting during the day and busking with a bass viol at night on the Leidseplein for six hours. This trio, the busker, the dipper (also a putpocket) and the collector compose a "three-headed triad", but it will take Henk a long time to understand who they are and what they meant to Zan. When he goes from his room to meet Advocat Grotius at Aunt Zan's house, "It's like a mountain, the mountain of the past that he has to climb" (page 209). It is in Amsterdam that the memories of his past life flood back and he must reassess them and their meanings.  From Amsterdam Henk begins to change and achieve a perspective on his homeland. "The colony as asylum, he thinks. As circus. As self-mutilating republic of anxiety. A garden of weeds, all of us.  If ever he had to exchange South Africa for a domicile on the banks of the Amstel, it would be for this reason: the realisation that his country is exploding asunder like a family whose members can't control their hurt" (page 207).

Two other stars of this novel are the Karoo and Amsterdam. In a long six-page acknowledgement the author explains his various sources of inspiration. On the Karoo one was  The Plains of Camdeboo (1993) (Mmegi, May 25 2007); for Amsterdam, a variety of sources including Nederland Tegen Apartheid (1994); and for the movement in South Africa A Working Life, Cruel Beyond Belief (1989), Operation Q-108 (1969) and How Can A Man Die Better: The Life Of Robert Sobukwe (1990).  How Etienne van Heerden used all these sources and his creative determination to write 30 Nights in Amsterdam is his secret, but the result is overwhelmingly for our benefit. It has been sensitively translated by Michiel Heyns, an import author in his own right. Van Heerden is the Hofmeyr Professor in the School of Language and Literature at the University of Cape Town. Do read it and learn how to "drink the wind".
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Editor's Comment
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