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AT a time when there is hot debate around whether South African reviewers are being too kind to mediocre South African writing, it is a pleasure to be reviewing a local novel that can stand its ground in any company, anywhere in the world. Etienne van Heerden’s 30 Nights in Amsterdam is very good indeed.
And before I go any further, a word of praise for Michiel Heyns’s translation from Afrikaans. I haven’t read the original version, but the fizzing, crackling, inventive English never feels like a translation and is a huge part of the novel’s power.
The story concerns buttoned-up, nerdy Henk de Melker, a museum curator in Somerset East who shares his office with the grave of a child and writes monographs about unimportant people: being unimportant is their qualification to be written about, in his view.
And then he receives a letter from a lawyer in Amsterdam, telling him that his almost-forgotten Aunt Zan has died and left him her house in that city. But he has to go there, and live there, to claim his inheritance. Cautious and pedantic, he realises that, if nothing else, a visit to Amsterdam will offer him a chance to do research for his latest monograph on Cornelius, the third, almost invisible Van Gogh brother who died in South Africa during the Boer War.
The narration alternates between the third-person chapters telling Henk’s story, and the sparkling first-person tale of Aunt Zan, the epileptic, wayward daughter of Karoo respectability who, in the 1960s, had unusual links to the budding armed struggle. Zan and Henk’s memories don’t always mesh; there is much about Aunt Zan that Henk knows nothing of, and much that he once knew and has suppressed.
It will take his trip to Amsterdam to free his imagination, and offer the dull, grey adult a glimpse of the observant, imaginative and not always attractive child he once was as he finds out the truth about his aunt. And, almost importantly, about himself.
The story is gripping and moving; the themes of exile and belonging are handled with superb skill.
If South Africa produces a better novel than this one this year, I will be surprised.