Review essay seminar: Dana Snyman’s The Long Way Home

UCT lecturer in English Hedley Twidle presents the work of his top three graduate students from a seminar he ran this year on writing professional review essays. In this, the first of a three-part feature, SLiPnet presents Twidle’s introductory thoughts on the review essay as a literary-critical form, followed by UCT graduate student Anneke Rautenbach’s review of Dana Snyman’s book, The Long Way Home.


What is a review? What is an essay? And what is a review essay?

We discussed these questions during a recent seminar on (so-called) literary non-fiction at the University of Cape Town. The idea was to explore more varied, public and perhaps more lucrative modes of writing about literature than the research "paper", or end-of-term "assignment" – both rather insipid terms for the kind of pieces that Honours and Masters students are required to produce.

In bald economic terms, postgraduate study consists in paying someone to read your work (sometimes a couple of external examiners too) and there it ends. But what about getting paid, and so contributing to a wider dialogue, all without sacrificing intelligence, rigour and (if necessary) difficulty? And how much self can one insert into an essayistic response to a text before it becomes self-indulgent?

A review generally supposes that the audience has not the read the book, and considers whether it is worth your (the reader’s) time and money. A review essay is less constrained by the need to judge, operating more at the level of an idea: "The Problem with American Male Novelists", say, or "Pakistan", or "Post-Apartheid Crime Fiction". It may take its cues from the work in question – or (even better) a cluster of related works – but does not necessarily need to remain bound by them, or do them full justice. It is not really concerned whether you have or haven’t read them (in the New York Review of Books, it may even provide a digest of texts that you know you will never read). In any case, the review essay should be worth reading in its own right – but then again, so should a good review. Still, the "essay" component allows it to travel more widely, in a way that is looser and more personal than an academic article.

In the seminar, we drew up a list of words that were to be banned from the review essay: "discourse"; "intervention"; "problematise" (instant fail); "inscribe" (or worse: "reinscribe"); "grand narrative" (should have been retired years ago); "agency" (not very common when I was a student, but now spreading like wildfire); "interrogate" (why are academics always wanting to "interrogate" texts, as if they were in Guantanamo?)

So did this mean that such terms were then compulsory in the "research paper" component of the course, asked one of the wits from Creative Writing? This last phrase is one that I want to interrogate and problematise to the highest degree – it seems to imply that scholarly or academic writing cannot or should not be creative. So what does creativity consist of in scholarship? How can one avoid academic clichés, if you will, whether of diction, tone, subject or structure? How to stave off that sinking feeling when you can already anticipate, three lines in, all the conceptual moves that a dreary "accredited" article is going to make?

The point of is not to take cheap shots at academia – certainly not in a country where anti-intellectualism is so rife. But rather to challenge literary scholars to make their work matter: to make it readable, engaged with the wider social body, critical (in the widest sense of that word), unignorable – and so less likely to be axed by administrators who look for every opportunity to fund the what one campaigner for the Humanities in South Africa calls the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) at the expense of the NAIL disciplines (Narrative, Analysis, Interpretation, Literacy). See John Higgins in Business Day.

Such weighty interventions aside, the extracurricular (or "bonus disc") part of the course explored that wonderful category of texts where the act of literary criticism produces another work in its own right – examples of what David Shields calls "the critical intelligence in the imaginative position". This is a spectrum of engagements with loved/hated literary predecessors that range from the gloriously immature (Geoff Dyer’s, Out of Sheer Rage, in which he writes about failing to write about D.H. Lawrence) and frankly bizarre (Nicholson Baker’s obsessive-compulsive account of his relation to the work of John Updike, U & I) to the wryly serious (Janet Malcolm’s wonderful Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey) to the very serious indeed (W. G. Sebald’s, On the Natural History of Destruction, a mediation on the Allied bombing of Nazi Germany, and its literary repercussions).

Very different in tone and approach, each of these share a sense of literature as something lived by and through: a quality that can be difficult to smuggle into what counts as part of a "research output". But one should try nonetheless, for as Dyer asks (after disgustedly burning a Longman Critical Reader given to him by someone who hears that he is "working on Lawrence"): "How can you know anything about literature if all you’ve done is read books?"

The review essays presented in this feature, written by members of the seminar, share this quality of liveliness and alertness to a world out there. They preserve (the privilege of the essay) a sense of immediacy and personal response – or rather, responsiveness – that can be lost in the academic article which must pretend that it knows everything. The essay presented in this, the first part of this feature, is by Anneke Rautenbach, who reads Dana Snyman’s The Long Way Home with a little bit of help from Rian Malan (and Freud), enticing us towards a fascinating text (recently translated from Afrikaans) that is, as she puts it, "part travelogue, part autobiography and, as is inevitable in South Africa, part national allegory"; but also "a kind of walkabout in search of a home, a reverse nostalgia in search of a future".


Finding the Afrikaner’s Nkandla

The Long Way Home by Dana Snyman, Tafelberg, 2012.

“Afrikaners must find their own Nkandla,” said Jacob Zuma in an interview with Beeld (February 2011). He was referring, of course, not to a physical location but a psychological home – “where he’s safe and has the freedom and confidence to live and express the things that are important to him. [...] For example,” says Zuma, “I work in Cape Town and Pretoria, but then I want to go to Nkandla [in rural Kwazulu-Natal]. That’s where I belong. I feel at home when I’m there. I can do the indlamu [a traditional dance for men], I can speak isiZulu...”

This is the cut-out of an article Snyman finds among his father’s things after his death. What, he asks himself, could have been his father’s motivation for keeping the article? Did the retired dominee want him to happen upon it, in his effort to prove to his son that even the Zulu president of the new regime believes that in South Africa, the Afrikaners are entitled to a sense of belonging?

The Long Way Home (recently translated from the Afrikaans Hiervandaan) is part travelogue, part autobiography and, as is inevitable in South Africa, part national allegory. Despite Snyman’s insistence that it was a personal project – “This book, like most, was written for selfish reasons. I wanted to explain the country and my place in it to myself” (175) – it also plays a role in continuing the narrative of the Afrikaner: the Afrikaner in the new nation.

By traversing the length of South Africa, Snyman seeks to answer whether this Nkandla, this psychological home, exists at all. From a physical journey comes an intense internal battle with his sense of identity in a country that is becoming increasingly unfamiliar to him.

I see tired old bakkies full of people, strugglers in scuffed shoes, beggars, queues outside government buildings, and I have no idea what these people’s lives are like. It’s making me feel like a stranger in my own country [...] Sometimes I even feel out of place because of who I am: a white Afrikaner with a small-town upbringing. I benefited from apartheid and don’t know how to feel about it. (25)

It’s a sentiment that reverberates with many Afrikaners who straddle the old and new regimes and find themselves to have been complicit, however passively, in the events of the past. Snyman’s story of a journey in his bakkie – armed with some “clothes, a laptop, a camera, notebooks and a can of pepper spray for self defence” (26) – takes us from De Doorns to Kimberley, from Brandfort to Polokwane in a relentless quest to come to terms with the ordinary South African, to discover whether he “still belongs”. From finding out more about how people survive on government grants (R250 a month per child) by following the AllPay days of the small Karoo towns, to chasing after a bank robbery in Pofadder and a tragic farm murder in Lindley, small ironies and absurdities are gently laid before the reader: the bank robber who jumped into a corrugated-iron dam with a bag full of cash, the farmer’s sister-in-law arriving at the farm to feed the murdered family’s dogs. There is space for humour, too, in the ordinary and the bizarre: the mandatory peppermint on each motel bed, the absurdity of the four unexplained fire hydrants in Swartkop, or the switchboard operator who helped a late-night drunk reach Princess Diana at Buckingham Palace.

It is precisely this peculiar combination of pain and pleasure that marks Snyman’s sense of nostalgia. It is a nostalgia that manifests in F.A Venter’s Werfjoernaal, an Afrikaans travelogue from 1968, one that speaks of a simpler time, which Snyman reads on the road:

The story moved me for one reason in particular – the innocence of life in the platteland as Venter describes it. It could just as well have been a description of Danielskuil and its surroundings in the seventies. It’s a bygone farmers’ paradise of church bazaars, Sunday school picnics and jovial auctions. (59)

Interwoven with this story is another: the story of Snyman and his elderly father, a retired minister of the Dutch Reformed Church and one time chaplain-general of the AWB. Father accompanies son on his journey by means of regular phone calls, constantly trying to convince his boy to return home to Ventersdorp. It is through these conversations – in the clash between old-fashioned (though well-meaning) conservatism and progressive curiosity propelled by a sense of displacement – that Snyman’s convictions become clear. In trying to explain his aimless wanderings to his father, he is explaining them to himself. His conflicted relationship with his father (anger and frustration intermeshed with intense love) is also his relationship with his fatherland. And it is this conflicted relationship that brings forth the discomfort he feels about nostalgia, a discomfort about an affectionate longing for a bygone world – the world of his father – that is disappearing around him.

The term “nostalgia” was coined, Snyman explains, by the German doctor Johannes Hofer in 1688 when he observed the mental condition of soldiers fighting in a foreign country, longing for their fatherland. Hofer later noted that it was not just the ailment of soldiers but of anyone who felt they had lost their fatherland – or whose fatherland had become unfamiliar to them. Snyman says, for example, that he has never lived on a farm, but that somewhere inside him he sometimes feels there is one.

The farm in me is all the farms I’ve come across and got to know and learnt to love in my life. The farms in history books – farms where homes were burnt down – also help make up my farm. [...] Is that why we feel a little sad whenever we see the ruin of a farmyard next to the road? Is it because we feel the farm inside of us is also changing? As if the life we’ve known ever since we can remember is disappearing? (69)

But what is the significance of this longing? Observing the past through the lens of nostalgia almost always accentuates the positive and eliminates the negative. Snyman warns against it, and is worried that his writing has come to be associated with such a move. “We’ll have to think carefully about what exactly nostalgia means and how it can stall one’s life,” he commented to Rapport. “We Afrikaners long for the past so much these days that we begin to forget things. It is dangerous.” It is the nostalgia of the Afrikaners, he explains to his father, that is making them feel like strangers in their own country – “our longing for the past is so strong it’s making us believe we’re innocent” (134).

Thus the conundrum for the Afrikaner remains: if nostalgia is to be avoided, what hope is there for the Afrikaner Nkandla, his psychological home – a sense of belonging that allows him the freedom to express what he desires, and to be comfortable? The quest for an Nkandla is a quest for culture – and if we are to accept the Hegelian idea of culture as no more than habit, by definition a repetition, then it is impossible to separate culture from the past.

This leaves the Afrikaner with a sense of displacement, which is typical of post-apartheid South Africa. Some, like Snyman’s father, defensively and vehemently cling to a sense of belonging, a culture, a way of doing things that is characteristic of the past – refusing to be displaced, despite general condemnation. Others were temporarily displaced – but ten years after democracy, wanted to reclaim a share of the country. Rian Malan, in an interview with The Guardian in 2007, commented on this phenomenon with reference to Bok van Blerk’s polemical song, “De la Rey”:

Afrikaners were so vilified in the latter years of apartheid that they just kept their heads down and put up with any shit for the first 10 years of the democratic experiment. Now they were not so sure. The song was being sung in bars and at rugby grounds like a national anthem; 100,000 copies of the CD had been sold. "De la Rey" suggested that the rainbow nation was once again threatening to break up into its constituent colours.

Yet others, like Snyman, embrace the displacement, despite the pain, and seek to negotiate a new dwelling place, a new Nkandla in a new South Africa. Again, the Germans prove helpful by creating a term that means the opposite of nostalgia: fernweh, a longing to be far – a type of “wanderlust”. How better to describe The Long Way Home than as a kind of walkabout in search of a home, a reverse nostalgia in search of a future: “[T]here’s a time for listening and a time for talking, [...] and a time for hitting the road, for heading into the country (26).

Fittingly, when his father wants him to return to Danielskuil, where he grew up, Snyman changes course at the last minute to travel to the hometown of someone who is as far away from himself as possible: Julius Malema. Fitting, too, is that what finally affords him something approximating an Nkandla, is a little distance – both in the sense of space, and in the sense of perspective. Hence the title: The Long Way Home.

It is after his father’s death that Snyman finally decides to revisit some personal history. His great-great grandfather’s trousers are hanging in the museum at the Church of the Covenant in Pietermaritzburg, his father tells him. Oupa Coenraad, who fought in the so-called Battle of Blood River, was a very large man, who wore very large trousers. “They called him the Strongman of the Great Trek” (99). Standing squarely in front of the trousers, which like an old family member seem to welcome him, he reads the sign in isiZulu. Made clear is the legacy of the Afrikaners as an African tribe, one which honoured and even worshipped its ancestors: Kruger, De la Rey, De Wet – one and with a bloody history, yes, but what part of the South African past is not?

Perhaps the lesson of The Long Way Home is that it is counter-productive to shirk the past: nothing can be achieved if it is avoided. The past should not be dwelled upon, this story seems to say, as in the case of melancholic nostalgia. Rather, it should be embraced and accepted with a view to the future.

My Nkandla is (...) a toast to “tant Koek se hoender-haan” at a wedding. It’s in the calluses on the palm of a hand and in the worn sole of a Grasshopper shoe. It’s in the blanket covering a mirror during a thunderstorm, and in the long unbroken peel of an orange peeled with a pocketknife. (172).

With this embrace of the past, comes inevitable guilt and darkness – but such guilt, too, makes up the Afrikaner’s history and identity. It is through a reworking of the past that the future can be envisioned – in an embrace of nostalgia, as well as an embrace of guilt.

My Nkandla is wounded, it’s in the fingerprint powder on the windows of a car or a house, it’s in the white outlines around a lifeless body on the floor of a house. My Nkandla is burdened with the weight of guilt, of truncheons and guns and Casspirs, and hey, tata, go and live in a separate area, go and swim in another sea. But my Nkandla is remorse and forgiveness too. (172)

In a tribute to his late father, Snyman visits the town where he grew up, Memel. Memel, he says, was his father’s “putu pap and poor-boy flour-bag underpants and stories about going barefoot in the frost on a winter’s morning – stories that had a happy ending when he stood with his cold feet in a heap of warm cow dung” (156). It is thus with conviction that Snyman is able to claim his Nkandla when he responds to a question about where he is from: “I am from here,” he says, “Ek is hiervandaan.” This is where his Nkandla lies – somewhere between the past and the future, between Blood River and Polokwane.

Works cited:

Adams, T. 2007. “The dark heart of the new South Africa”. The Guardian [online] 25 March.

Du Preez, M. 2011. Boeke24. “Op Reis in die Geliefde Land”. Beeld [online] 23 October.

Du Toit, P. Steenkamp, L. 2011. News24. “Afrikaners must find their own Nkandla”. Beeld [online] 17 February.

Freud, S.,1917. Mourning and Melancholia. In: Freud, A., Strachey, A. and Strachey, J. (eds) The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV: On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works, 237-258. London: Hogarth Press

Simpson, D. 2006. 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration, London: University of Chicago Press

Snyman, D. 2012. The Long Way Home. Cape Town: Tafelberg

Victor, M. “Want dis nodig om soms terug te kyk”. Rapport [online] 5 November.





Jan van Niekerk says:

Excellent, thoughtful review by Anneke Rautenbach.
– Fernweh in the UK –