The ever-present past

17 September 2013 - 08:56 By Fiona Snyckers
MASTER PLOTTER: Etienne van Heerden's seminal book, 'In Stede van die Liefde', has been translated into English.
MASTER PLOTTER: Etienne van Heerden's seminal book, 'In Stede van die Liefde', has been translated into English.

Etienne van Heerden uses the image of rusted bully beef cans strewn across the veld on the site of a Boer War encampment to illustrate the sinister power wielded by the past and its effect on the present. Like history itself, the cans lie jagged and half-hidden, waiting to slice open the unwary.

"For human beings there is no escaping our belonging," warns one of Van Heerden's characters. "It sits like radar in our heads."

The release of the author's seminal 2005 novel In Stede van die Liefde in English for the first time is something to celebrate. Translated by Leon de Kock, In Love's Place allows English-speaking readers access to one of the first major works to interrogate the post-apartheid rainbow nation.

We may feel now as though the scales fell from our eyes a long time ago, but in 2005 the process of disillusionment was painfully under way. Analysts were beginning to understand just how much trauma the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had swept under the carpet. Far from healing old wounds, it has apparently allowed them to fester for years.

As usual, Van Heerden paints in finest detail on a very broad canvas. His dramatis personae, like those of the historian Charles van Onselen, range across the disenfranchised underclass, from prostitutes, drug dealers and hawkers to dog fighters, gangsters and human traffickers. His protagonist, Christian Lemmer, straddles the old and the new South Africas.

He moves between Cape Town's underworld and the high-flying business of international art dealing. This split existence does not sit comfortably with him. He is at war with his body in the wake of a heart bypass, and with his past. There are secrets locked in his memory, like the truth behind the athletics trophies he won as a schoolboy, and what really happened during the time he served in the apartheid army. Ostensibly a liberal, fighting to preserve South Africa's artistic heritage, he finds himself ill at ease in a post-apartheid world.

As always in Van Heerden's fiction, the magnetic north of the Great Karoo draws the narrative into its dusty embrace.

Almost half the story is centred on the Lord Milner Hotel in Matjiesfontein and the motley collection of locals and ex-pats who gather there.

Gossip in Matjiesfontein is described as acquiring a momentum of its own: "The stories are running. The tale spreading, swarming. The story gaining its own whirring locust wings."

Van Heerden's narrative, too, acquires new vigour as it moves into this defamiliarised Karoo landscape. His use of language acquires a plasticity with which the English translation can barely keep pace.

History is no benign bystander here either as World War 2 prods its way into the present. The eventual eruption of hundreds of human bones dating from the days of slavery underscores the impossibility of keeping the past buried. Human trafficking turns out to be as much alive in 2005 as it was in the 1700s.

The layers of plot overlap one another as tightly as artichoke leaves. But in the hands of a master plotter, they never get tangled or confused. In Love's Place is, above all, an engrossing read. As you begin to sense the strands that link the characters together, you will turn the pages faster to find out how their destinies intersect.

Snyckers' latest book, 'Team Trinity', her third novel featuring Trinity Luhabe, was published earlier this year by Modjaji Books. 'In Love's Place', published by Penguin Books, is available at Exclusive Books, R221