Alfred Schaffe. Picture: LUKE KUISIS
Alfred Schaffe. Picture: LUKE KUISIS

A startling literary event has quietly taken place that could lay out markers for a whole new mansion in the house of SA literature, one that will display a most eclectic set of styles emanating from various sides of the Atlantic.

Late in December the Nobel prize of Dutch literature was awarded to Stellenbosch-based poet Alfred Schaffer — depending on Covid-19 — the PC Hooft Prize will be handed over virtually or in Amsterdam in May. At 39, Schaffer is one of the youngest winners yet and the first to have debuted after 2000.

The award comes especially for Schaffer’s masterpiece Mens dier ding (Human animal thing), which draws from Thomas Mofolo’s novel Chaka. A boundary-exempt take on the Zulu king and the many versions of his legend, it transforms him into a figure living both in the early 19th century and the decades straddling the end of the millennium.

He is simultaneously a violent, murderous dictator, sensitive young man, urgent lover and impersonator of various roles from contemporary life — a drunkard passed out on a highway, a soccer hero, autobiographical filmmaker, an asylum seeker, a reality show participant, a crime suspect. On set he does his own stunts, sometimes goes off-script and plays pranks by shouting “cut”. He gets cocky with the poet himself, asking what he is doing in a poem.

Picture: SUPPLIED
Picture: SUPPLIED

Schaffer used Mofolo’s novel for his PhD at the University of Cape Town, an inquiry into the treatment of young men in SA literature. Since Shaka is such a vaguely defined historical figure, due to a scarcity of reliable sources, Mofolo developed the more mythical aspects of his story, and this is the baton Schaffer picks up. The Shaka figure is deeply ambivalent  in contemporary SA culture and even politics — he is seen by many as a ruthless dictator, who sowed the seeds of his people’s demise as a kind of Mugabe of his time, versus a necessary figure to flesh out a SA chapter of an African Renaissance.

Schaffer’s Shaka story is more of an allegory of this ambivalence than a direct reflection, but the genius of Mens dier ding, reviewers agree, lies in the dialogue between the poems telling the hybrid Shaka story and a cross-section of “daydreams” counting back from several hundred thousand to zero. One academic said these look like Shaka’s “near-death experiences”, but they could be anybody’s account of the daily battle with reality and its many guises.

Schaffer’s mother is from Aruba, the Dutch colony in the Caribbean, and he was born in the Netherlands, but having moved to SA, as a lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch, he is a settled part of the Afrikaans literary establishment as well. A seminal moment in his life, he has written, was when Antjie Krog took him and a caravan of fellow poets to the impoverished Delft on the Cape Flats early in his career. He was deeply touched by a mother’s harrowing yet eloquent account of her daughter’s rape, and perturbed by the contrast with the Delft in the Netherlands that is synonymous with tableware of a certain age.

The genius of Mens dier ding, reviewers agree, lies in the dialogue between the poems telling the hybrid Shaka story and a cross-section of ‘daydreams’

All the clashes of identity — he says he is neither white nor black — would put one in mind of terms such as intermediality, adaption, simulacrum, says Dutch critic Marieke Winkler, but this is just “silly”, as the collection is simply “fireworks”. Fragmentation of the subject, the I at the centre, has been done to death, but Winkler says in Mens dier ding this is not a sign of failure or lack.    

Another critic, Laurens Ham, calls it “a tragic history of how someone loses self-determination ... his autonomy”. But it is a dynamic process, bringing out the worst from Chaka, as when he murders a lover in her hut while she is reading To Kill a Mocking Bird, “her eyes as clear as a mathematical formula”, but also new shapes, new versions of himself.

It has been a project of decades; Schaffer has said the poetry is a reckoning with his PhD thesis. While he loves SA for its being the opposite of the Netherlands where the press could go on for days about a change in the speed limit, he also believes à la Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence that engaged literature loses its power if it does not have a timeless layering as well. For Schaffer this is provided by a kind of primordiality, containing archetypes and mythologies from elsewhere and everywhere. As leader and moulder of destinies he sees Shaka as akin to the Greek god Apollo.

Brexit has opened a new faultline in the West, and this is bound to add extra complexities in SA, where Afrikaans speakers have a much different connection with the EU than English speakers. But it offers opportunities, rather than risks of fragmentation, for instance a closer relationship with former and current Dutch colonies such as Indonesia and Surinam — with Covid-19 helping to open up a greater digital space across the oceanic divide.

Schaffer’s poetry can become a rich source in this new dimension of Western Cape possibilities.

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