If you don't know the taal
stay out of the kombuis
Michael Chapman on Kannemeyer on
[Litnet, 50. 18 Feb. 2005: 1-3]
Christopher Heywood's A History of
South African Literature (CUP, 2004) - misleadingly announced on the blurb
as the ‘first critical study of its subject' - has elicited from several
Afrikaans critics ‘vies' reviews. I know
the vies review having had its venom spat at my own literary history - it
predates Heywood's - Southern African
Literatures (1996; 2003).
What Heywood and I share - according to Kannemeyer in a sustained
invective (surely a pensioner should not get his blood so on the boil, but
enjoy coffee at the sidewalk cafe, chat up the waitrons) - is that Heywood and
Chapman know too little Afrikaans, too little of the sacrosanct enclave
Afrikaans Literatuur (with a capital L)
to till the hallowed earth (review in Die
Burger). To make the kleinste fout
in the life of an icon brings down thunder.
Yet Kannemeyer's 2-volume Geskiedenis
van die Afrikaanse Literatuur (1978;
1983) and Heywood's study enjoy greater commonalities than
differences. Differences seem
obvious: Kannemeyer confines his
attention to the Afrikaans output;
Heywood attempts - the term is blasphemous in our linguistic and
cultural laagers - an ‘integrated' literary history. This too was my sin! But when we clarify a category error, we
understand what Heywood and Kannemeyer share:
both shy from history. Neither
book has what a history, as opposed to a survey, requires: an interpretative narrative shaped, imposed
even, by the literary historian.
Kannemeyer makes no attempt to locate Afrikaans expression within the
wider context of the society of which it is indelibly a part; Heywood makes a facile attempt in which texts
are simply marshalled that or this side of Sharpeville. Kannemeyer avoids the challenges of the
text/context problematic; Heywood
sacrifices specificity for an idiosyncratic explanatory model: Hamite versus anti-Hamite, in which in
seeking from the local a world dimension, several conclusions are really
It is stated that Schreiner, for example, places San/Bushman wisdom at
the centre of her mental landscape as she incorporates into her Story of an African Farm
a panoply of
universal learning and allusion. But the
story of the white bird of truth (adopted without acknowledgement from
San/Bushman and other folk stories) is related by a dandified stranger
no connection to the Africa of the farm.
The interlude is one of many that do not cohere in a colony that itself
has no memory (to quote Dan Jacobson) and cannot save the idealistic
the harsh intrusion of industrial labour.
Schreiner - a haphazardly educated colonial subject - found her genius
in a less than literary context. Her
scraps of learning - bundled into different conventions - find an
coherence in the strong personality of Lyndall.
Schreiner's genius is a hit-and-miss affair. It is true, as Heywood
notes, that there is
in our literature a prevalence of ‘creolised' works, if by this Heywood
the cobbling together of different conventions, some without a
artistic design. (The novel in South Africa, for example, continues to
shift in both
brilliant and clumsy ways between realism and romance.) To conclude
that South Africa is a creolised society, however, does not follow:
this is another Heywood eccentricity. We have not yet gone the way of
we should, and all emerge one day not as Afrikaners or Engelse or
but as San/Bushmen: repackaged ancestors
of the original occupants of the southern African veld.
Heywood's book is a scurry through too many works. The possibility of illuminating patterns
suffers from the encyclopaedic determination to say a line or two on almost
everything (Kanneyer's ‘geskiedenis'
suffers from the same fault). Without a
compelling narrative, there are no principles on what to base selection, or how
to arrive at degrees of greater or lesser significance. In addition, Heywood's book is somewhat
devious in appropriating to itself, without due acknowledgement, the insights
and excavatory work of other critics particularly of the last three decades in
this country. I have mentioned the false
claim of the blurb. Lest readers believe
that I am miffed, no, for I am not the first to attempt a study across the
language, culture and race divides.
Manfred Nathan's pioneering attempt is dated 1925; Stephen Gray's Southern African Literature, 1979.
Despite Kannemeyer's ire, there will continue to be raids across the
language barriers of the past. To await
the impossible - the linguistic/cultural/racial polymath - is to seek excuses
for remaining in one's comfort zones. To
argue as Kannemeyer does that literature is primarily a matter of language is
in a sense to state the obvious; so is
the law report primarily about language.
Literature is also about new ideas, insights, challenges to conventional
behaviour; it is about the unexpected
border crossing. (Without the translator
we would have no access to the Bible, to the Greeks; and the Sestigers without the French noveau roman would have been stillborn.)
I offer to JC two references to the hated Southern African Literatures:
one by Johan Degenaar, the other by Andries Stockenstrőm. Degenaar suggests that in the cultural
heterogeneity of South Africa, we should be building not a nation or
nations, but a democracy. Stockenstrőm -
a ‘verraaier'? - observed that the Trek was not inevitably a passage to
freedom, but equally a retreat from the complexities of social exchange: a retreat evident in Kannemeyer's response to
Heywood's quite modest achievement.
Lighten up, JC; contemplate a
rock painting; embrace ubuntu!