‘En wat jy weet is wat jy nie weet nie’: Strange, hypnotic Van Niekerk

Die Sneeuslaper by Marlene van Niekerk, Human & Rousseau, 2010

Die sneeuslaper

“I did not come to solve anything.
I came here to sing and for you
to sing with me”. (Pablo Neruda, “Let the Rail Splitter Awake”)

“I’d rather taste blood, yours or mine flowing
From a sudden slash, than cut all day
With blunt scissors on dotted lines
Like the teacher told”. (Adrienne Rich, “On Edges”)

The Loss LibraryMarlene van Niekerk is one of the most exciting and original writers working in South Africa today. Her most recent work, Die Sneeuslaper, was published in a Dutch translation in the Netherlands in 2009, and the Afrikaans version appeared in 2010. I hope that this collection will also find an English translator, as it deserves a wider national and international audience. Die Sneeuslaper was awarded the University of Johannesburg prize for the best fictional work published in Afrikaans in 2010 – the same award Van Niekerk won for her monumental achievement, Agaat, in 2004. According to the citation, the judging panel praised the work as “’n aangrypende verhaalbundel wat op eerlike, kritiese wyse rekenskap probeer gee van wat dit verg om in die 21ste eeu ’n stukkie outentisiteit as mens en as kunstenaar te win”. As a meditation on the act of writing and storytelling, this collection can be considered alongside J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello (2003) and more recently Ivan Vladislavić’s The Loss Library (2011).

Die Sneeuslaper marks the critically acclaimed writer’s first return to the short story form since Die vrou wat haar verkyker vergeet het (1992). In the title story of that early collection, the protagonist embarks on a writer’s retreat, hoping to experience some kind of mystical epiphany, a transcendental moment – or Russell Hoban’s “moment under the moment” – whose meaning cannot, and yet must, be conveyed in words. She longs to find meaning beyond that suggested by her Protestant theology and the dominant literary paradigms of the time:

Maar nou het sy méér as net duidelikheid begeer: genade en visie, dít was wat sy verlang het; die geheime toegang tot daardie kleinste, pittigste, kraalogige détail van die werklikheid.... Dit was ’n toegang waarvan sy uit die literatuur geweet het dat ’n mens eers self ’n transformasie moes ondergaan voordat jy die wagwoord gegee, en die brug vir jou neergelaat word. (38)

The catalyst for her particular transformation is that she forgets to pack her binoculars. Unable to enjoy bird watching from afar, the distance that would be virtually collapsed by the magnifying properties of the binoculars must be crossed physically. Bewitched and transfixed by the clouds of birds around a tree outside her house, the writer embarks on an obsessive and ultimately self-destructive experiment to discover “die intiemste, mees godverbode kennis van voëls” (50). The story concludes as the convalescent writer, rescued from her temporary abode in the tree, begins to write a story she entitles “Die vrou wat haar verkyker vergeet het”.

AgaatThat story acts as a prelude to the four interlinked stories in this latest collection in which voyeurism and the process of becoming other to oneself in order to write recur as themes. Die Sneeuslaper considers the transformations and self-sacrifices an artist must undergo in order to access “die geheime toegang”; the Orphic journey that must be undertaken to, what Maurice Blanchot terms, “the other night”. This interest in creativity is apparent in Van Niekerk’s novels too. Both the grotesque Lambert Benade, who paints a “never-ending painting” on his bedroom wall (in Triomf), and Agaat, who creates elaborately detailed embroidery relating the story of her life on Grootmoedersdrift (in Agaat) are endowed with shaman-like qualities1. Furthermore, Wiid, the terminally ill bureaucrat, realises the value of beauty, metaphor and figurative language at the conclusion of Memorandum: A Story with Paintings (text by Marlene van Niekerk, paintings by Adriaan van Zyl). Die Sneeuslaper also contains other sly intertextual nods to these earlier works.

Die Sneeuslaper is rich and astonishing and proves to be an enchanting reading adventure. The stories are sure to be fertile ground for literary academics in the future. That is not to suggest that Die Sneeuslaper is merely a cerebral exercise or demonstration of philosophical posturing and playing with theoretical concepts of authorship. Perhaps a similar concept in the hands of a less capable author might amount to merely that. Van Niekerk is a virtuoso writer and the stories are humorous, often delivered with a tongue-in-check narrative voice, yet remain intensely affecting. The dominant mood is one of loss, as Jacob Kippelstein, asks in “Die Slagwerker”: “Wat is ons anders vir mekaar as bewaarders van melankoliese geure?” (95). All the characters express the desire for someone to abide with, the hymn echoed in Agaat and Memorandum.

Die Sneeuslaper is the first of Van Niekerk’s works in which the majority of the action, so to speak, is set in Amsterdam and not in South Africa. This represents a marked change for a writer known for her evocative descriptions of South African locale and the particular ways in which that highly politicised space is embodied. Perhaps this shift in locale marks a desire to escape being pigeonholed as a “South African writer”2 or, situated at one remove from South Africa, allows greater room for manoeuvre, for reflection, and to break free of the dominant, potentially claustrophobic, South African literary paradigms. This is not to say that it is an a-political novel, but rather that it is concerned with the politics of the intimate, the ethics of creativity, compassion and hospitality. Moreover, at this distance, it becomes possible to consider what it means to write in post-apartheid South Africa.

The four stories in this collection are structured as lectures, elegies or interviews; they include extracts from letters, transcriptions of tape recordings, descriptions of photographs and musical harmonies. They are peopled with doppelgangers and echoing refrains. Each story in this collection disrupts the narrative reliability of the others. As with her other works, Van Niekerk explores the limits of form, structure, language and the new possibilities for writing opened up by such experimentation. Willem Oldemarkt, the writer in “Die Slagwerker”, desires to write a story that “sal die armoire van gewone mensetaal tot splinters verpulwer” (53) while Peter Schreuder, the photographer in the final story, longs for “die verlossing van alles uit hulle buitelyne” (186). The struggle to reconcile “desire and technique” (10) recurs in different versions in all four stories, although the consensus appears to be that “tasting blood” is preferable to cutting along the “dotted lines / like the teacher told” (to quote Adrienne Rich).

The collection is primarily interested in the birth of stories and whether, and under what conditions, the act of writing and reading can act as a comfort and an escape from the mundane. The stories all follow a dialectic structure, a negotiation over the meaning of fiction, in which the reader too must participate. To boldly simplify a text that resists simplification, the core debates in each story centre on the difference between fiction and philosophy; Kairos and Kronos; facts and dreams and the role of literature and photography in times of political upheaval.

The first story, “Die swanefluisteraar”, is the inaugural lecture Van Niekerk delivered at Stellenbosch University in 2008. In the lecture, “Van Niekerk”3 shares extracts from a series of letters supposedly4 received from an ex-student of hers, Kasper Olwagen, nicknamed “Mr Xenos”.

Alone, alienated and suffering from writer’s block, on a young writer’s residency in Amsterdam, Kasper becomes obsessed with a mysterious “swanefluisteraar” whom he “befriends” and – in a fulfilment of the drunken wish of the dying Wiid in Memorandum – houses but who subsequently disappears. In his search for his friend, the city acts as an objective correlative for his loss. It is thus in his descriptions of the cityscape that he reaches a kind of apotheosis as a writer. The heartbreaking absence of a friend thus changes Kasper’s relation to space and ultimately transforms his own identity.

Kasper’s tragedy binds him to other lonely, heartbroken seekers and the thought of this bond consoles him. The solitary members of this imagined community – of pariahs, survivors, mourners, searchers, those left undone by grief – are the protagonists of Die Sneeuslaper. Upon receiving his final letter, “Van Niekerk” too is transformed into a seeker – searching for the absent Kasper. The speech concludes with “Van Niekerk” describing her latest writing project as that of translating: its aim is to complete Kasper’s poems – perhaps the greatest act of compassion. In this translation process, meaning is considered superfluous, what matters is “die materialiteit van die woorde” (41). Kasper becomes “die een van wie ek alles geleer het wat ’n skrywer moet wéés, wat, let wel, iets anders is as wat ’n skrywer moet skryf” (42).

The second story is structured as an elegy delivered by an antique clock restorer, Jacob Kippelstein (wearing his dead friend’s clothes), for his friend of thirty years, the writer Willem Olwagen. The friends are described as Kronos and Kairos: the former refers to chronological time; the latter refers to an unquantifiable time, time as measured by the soul. The focus of this story is how time is to be filled, or measured. An increasingly drunk and forlorn Kippelstein recalls Willem’s words to him:

... maar vergeet nie, dit is die tyd, die onomkeerbare tyd self wat ons noop om haar in te dam in ’n verhaal, in ’n stuk musiek, in ’n biografie, ’n heilsgeskiedenis, elke stuk met ’n begin en ’n einde, elke kunswerk ’n sluier wat ons hang oor die onuitstaanbaar sinlose deurstroming van minute, eeue, generasies. (69)

Willem cannot finish his story “Die Slagwerker” and recruits Kippelstein to aid him and to join him in a wild, cacophonic dance, beating out a trance-like rhythm, like whirling dervishes, abandoning themselves to music and opening themselves to inspiration. The story concludes with Kippelstein listing the unfinished manuscripts in Willem’s room: “Die sneeuslaper”, “Die swanefluisteraar” and a completed story entitled “Die Klokkemaker” (a story about Kippelstein, the contents of which are never disclosed). Stories for Willem are escapes from, and compensation against, the ordinariness of life; a pause before the return to normality and numbing routine. Rather than the need to solve anything, and ultimately more important than completing his story, is Willem’s need for, as Neruda puts it, “someone to sing with”.

The title story of the collection takes the form of an interview between Helena Oldemarkt (Willem’s sister) and a “swerwer”, the eponymous sneeuslaper. Helena’s questions, designed to gather statistics for a sociological institute, bore the well-read wanderer who mocks the dehumanising approach of his “dokumentrise” (117). Instead, he astonishes her with his strange disingenuous tales which include a hilarious and poetic digression regarding his successful bowel movements on the train from Amsterdam to Sloterdijk, which will remind the reader of Treppie’s scatological ruminations in Triomf. Each morning he sings his morning prayer, like a trickster casting a dark spell:

En wat jy weet is wat jy nie weet nie.
En wat jy besit is wat jy nie het nie.
En waar jy is, is nie waar jy is nie. (120)

Helena’s research into this homeless man is motivated by her desire to understand her father who “was ’n swerwer in sy laaste jare voordat ek hom laat onderbring het. En nou skyn dit, deur ’n rare sameloop, my beurt om verdwaald te wees” (101). Helena is less interested in die sneeuslaper’s stories than in the recollections of her father they prompt: “asof ons musiek met mekaar uitgewissel het, met as baspedaal die herinneringe aan my vader” (129). The trauma of the loss of a father, who failed to recognise his daughter near the end of his life, is the emotional heart of this complex third story.

Helena’s father’s views on storytelling echo the “story within a story” structure of this collection: “Aan ’n blote verhaal is daar geen plesier nie ... dis die glipraam van die aanbod wat tel, en die verskole tersydes .... Niemand moet hulle vir een oomblik waan op vaste grond nie” (125). However, her response is equally relevant to the meaning of these stories and the ways in which they should be read: “My lewe lank was ek half gefassineer, half in opstand teen dié kapsones” (125).

The final story, “Die Vriend”, was delivered in Leiden as the Albert Verwey gedenklesing. Mirroring (but not quite) the structure of the first speech, this “lesing” concerns the relationship between “Van Niekerk” and a photographer she has known since her university days, Peter Schreuder. This final story is most explicitly about friendship, loyalty and the responsibility of artists, as well as the limits of photography and fiction – or, as the original, pompously academic title has it, “Mimesis, poësis, parodie – die verantwoordelikheid van die verbeelding en die grense van fotografie in roerige tye” (157). The speech takes the form of a performance monologue, complete with props and stage directions (“Hervat met ’n lugtige pokerface” (179)).

In her recollections, “Van Niekerk” traces the history of their turbulent relationship, and their changing attitudes to art. Schreuder,

wil dinge [verlos] uit hulle omlynings ... hy wou aan hulle déélneem, in één asem, in één lig.... hy wou die dinge, nee, die gebruiklike persépsie van die dinge, die kyker sélf, die óóg, sy éie oog, bevry uit ’n staat van enantiomorfose. (165-6)

In this sense, he wishes to enter into the relation Martin Buber terms “I-Thou” rather than the “primary word I-It, the word of separation”.

Abandoning his increasingly fraught professional career in South Africa, Schreuder relocates to Amsterdam, trails “die sneeuslaper” and becomes obsessed with a lark mirror – a mechanism developed in order to hypnotise birds with spinning mirrors, in order to make it easier for hunters to hunt them. (The tree experiment in Die Vrou could perhaps be considered an early version of this device.) However he suffers a breakdown and returns to live with “Van Niekerk”, mute and non-responsive under her care. “Van Niekerk” delivers this speech as an apology to her friend and describes how she needs to be reminded “aan die werk, want die nag kom nader” (187).

“Van Niekerk” ends her speech by playing a Bach Cantata and showing the audience the lark mirror. The story concludes with a flourish, as indicated by these stage directions: “Stop [die lewerikspieël] as die sang ophou, pak dit in en maak die kis se deksel toe om presies saam te val met die eindakkoord van die begeleiding” (188). This is the end of a virtuoso performance, at the conclusion of which, the reader can’t help but feel she too has been hypnotised. Left rubbing her eyes, blinking, as if awakening from a strange dream – one she is eager to return to, and to start reading all over again from the beginning.

MemorandumDie Sneeuslaper encourages the reader to see the world differently; to open the windows of the world a little wider and let some fresh air in. The words “frame” and “window” and their synonyms recur frequently in the collection. Willem tells Kippelstein: “Want behalwe deur die vensters van fiksie wat ek vir jou open, het jy geen sig op wat sodanige uitspattinge in die werklike lewe inhou nie” (64). Similarly to Memorandum, the protagonists of these stories frequently need to consult reference books in order to understand conversations they have. The reader too needs to consult other texts in order to understand the references and in this way, the text echoes beyond the page and incites the reader to action; it affirms that reading should not be a passive or lazy activity. There is of course more to be said, but I will leave it up to the readers to delight in discovering the book on their own.



1. See Van Niekerk, Marlene. 2008. “Lambert Benade van Triomf en Agaat Lourier van Grootmoedersdrift: die kind in die agterkamer as die sjamaan van die familie” in My ma se ma se ma se ma: Zuid Afrikaanse families in verhalen (eds. Jansen, Ena, De Jonh-Goossens, Riet & Olivier, Gerrit). Amsterdam: Suid Afrikaanse Instituut.

2. See also Van Niekerk, Marlene. The Fellow Traveller (A True Story). Universiteit Utrecht, Faculteit Geesteswetenschappen. 2008.

3. I have used quotation marks to differentiate the fictional persona of Van Niekerk, who exists as character in the speech, or in the recollections of the author, from the author of Die Sneeuslaper.

4. The lecture relates fictional events, but its intention is also to challenge the usefulness of the strict binary pair of fiction and non-fiction.