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If you donít know the taal

If you don't know the taal  then stay out of the kombuis

Michael Chapman on Kannemeyer on Heywood

[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 bizarre.


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 who has 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 Waldo from 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 experiential 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 means the cobbling together of different conventions, some without a considered 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 Brazil.  Perhaps we should, and all emerge one day not as Afrikaners or Engelse or Xhosas, etc, 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!


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