BOOK REVIEW: One ‘chopstick’ and a world patched with prejudice
Die Wereld Van Charlie OengEtienne van HeerdenTafelberg
How is Brexit going to affect SA? There seems to be little interest in this question, and that may be because the expectation is … not very much.
The Brits appear to think it will be business as usual and have sent trade missions with that message, although what they really think is evident from the appellation the Conservatives have given to their new foreign outreach campaign: Empire 2.0.
Where shall we stand towards Europe?
At first blush the answer may be that we would look through the same Anglicised prism as before at the land of frogs and Lederhosen, pasta and waltzes, Picasso and superior soccer. Their many languages are the problem …
Except they are not, and less so in the Western Cape. Franschhoek may not be French anymore, but in the years since 1994, an old saying has gathered a little more truth: die Kaap is weer Hollands.
A new relationship between Dutch-speaking countries and Afrikaans speakers has grown in leaps and bounds. Musicians such as Gert Vlok Nel and Koos Kombuis are "groot", especially in Flanders, and South African-born Marlene Dumas is a major international artist. But it is in literature that the new linkages are most evident.
Brexit may be a catalyst in the wish fulfillment of many South Africans thirsting for a new world order. In that dispensation, another power will be a fait accompli — China.
Afrikaans novelist Etienne van Heerden has managed to put a foot on both of these new poles in his latest novel.
Chinese culture has spread across the world for centuries and Amsterdam, which is like a second home to Van Heerden, is no exception. There he chanced upon histories of the Chinese in the Netherlands and an enigmatic book about war techniques. Out of this, he created Charlie Oeng, who writes his surname in the western alphabet as Ng, but which residents of the Karoo town where he lands up distorted to Oeng.
The name and title emblematise a world of lives and societies mangled by history and prejudice, setting up the novel as a statement on postcoloniality on a global scale.
The first reason to read the book is for the wonderful complexity of the plot and the richness of detail. The other main character, publisher Tian Kilian, is making a final attempt to pin down the truth about the murder of his parents and what Oeng had to do with it.
Van Heerden displays a thriller writer’s dexterity in drip-feeding facts about the case, all the while throwing in the stories of other bit players who play their part in recreating Oeng’s world of pain and ecstasy, love and loss and above all whiteness as the colour of the blind.
He indulges in magical realism but reins himself in so there is minimal irritation with the small, horny dragons running around, paintings that come alive when Oeng’s accomplice Witkant touches them, and Ouma Ogies, who can see into the future.
Like some of Van Heerden’s protagonists in other novels, Kilian looks back to his early life in the 1960s, providing the ideal all-observant mechanism of the child who sees what grown-ups have learnt to ignore.
Like the works of many writers of Van Heerden’s generation, the novel is also an exploration of guilt and responsibility for crimes and oppression in which one did not have a direct hand
The horrors of the time, the casual cruelties of racism and the unsubtleties of police repression are symbolised in an almost anthropomorphic Skreeu that erupts every now and then in the nearby dry riverbed, which is slowly devouring the town.
Like the works of many writers of Van Heerden’s generation, the novel is also an exploration of guilt and responsibility for crimes and oppression in which one did not have a direct hand.
Oeng gets other names in the land where he chooses to settle as a bone and hide merchant: soutchinees, chopsticks, hangchinees, dreinchinees en hurkchinees and Konfoes (Confucius).
Speak of racial crimes and the immediate image is either one from apartheid’s archives or slavery, but through the ages, the humiliation suffered by Chinese migrant workers all over the world has been just as strong a driver of history.
Charlie’s life takes him from the Amsterdam triads to Hong Kong, where he becomes an extra on the set of a movie in which only other Chinese people are able to see that he is the most ubiquitous character, playing everything from a riksha boy to a chef.
The publisher Kilian, who has decided to try to write a novel to assuage his guilt, is confronted with his propensity to "culturally appropriate" Oeng’s story for his own ends.
Van Heerden successfully avoids the pitfalls of caricature. Oeng personifies universal failings such as the evils of unresolved hatred and vengefulness, but also a passion for life and beauty.
And he is surrounded by a cast of unique characters not amenable to stereotype, such as the albino informer who faithfully records the weights of all the marginalised residents of the location, and the descendant of Vincent van Gogh who is a champion of the discarded multitudes.
On another level, the novel is a treatment of the vagaries of creativity. Oeng is a repressed artist and his powers of fantasy propel him on his life’s path. But his guiding light is a set of ancient Chinese proverbs on war that the writer explains in a note that he had picked it up in an Amsterdam market.
Some are quite fanciful, but remain signs towards a world of sophistication in creativity that can be seen as superior. It shows that the battles of postcoloniality may have many unexpected dimensions rather than just the black-white narrative in which the world remains trapped.
This novel should be translated sooner rather than later so it can contribute to the debate it promises.