‘A Library to Flee’ hovers between fantasy and reality

09 January 2023 - 10:30 By Margaret von Klemperer
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'A Library to Flee' is not an easy read.
'A Library to Flee' is not an easy read.
Image: Supplied

A Library to Flee
Etienne van Heerden, translated by Henrietta Rose-Innes

It is almost impossible to categorise Etienne van Heerden’s latest novel. It is immensely long – 630 trade paperback-sized pages excluding a glossary and author’s acknowledgments – and is by turns a political satire, a dystopian horror and a morality tale.

The novel, set at the time of the Rhodes and Fees Must Fall protests on campuses, specifically the University of Cape Town, is Dickensian in its scope, with a huge cast of characters. The main two are Thuli Khumalo, a child of the exile years and a leading Fallist, and Ian Brand, a social media lawyer descended from a long line of proud and reactionary Afrikaners, though he feels he has repudiated the past. That is, until a thoughtless and irritable tweet sends him into a maelstrom of hate, trolling and chaos.

In the background are a most peculiar plastic surgeon with a dubious past and a fixation with the back of people’s knees which, in case you didn’t know, are called the popliteal fossae; a mystery man stalking the mean streets with a crossbow; a so-called coloured student, broke and desperate; an anxious white English-speaking liberal academic; an inventor of board games; a sex-obsessed publisher; Thuli’s father, who is a well-connected ANC cadre; extreme right-wingers, and; that almost clichéd figure, a mysterious Chinese man.

It is difficult to describe the plot without giving spoilers, but central to the novel is the theme of artificial intelligence and spyware being built into everything you can imagine — your computer, phone and the smart devices in your home (I would certainly avoid those, having read this book). Never think it’s only your face that can be recognised. Big Brother will be watching more than that.

Both sides of South Africa’s political divide are anxious to be the ones who will control the monitoring process, for different reasons. It’s hard to know who is a hero and who is a villain as the setting moves between Cape Town, China and the Karoo and we shift backwards and forwards in time.

Van Heerden’s writing is never boring but A Library to Flee is not an easy read and hovers, sometimes uneasily, between realism and fantasy, between then and now. While it entertains, it also disturbs, and there are no easy or neat conclusions to tie up any loose ends. The monumental length of the novel requires a level of commitment from the reader that is pretty uncommon in these days of the 280 character tweet.

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