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Open letter to Dame Doctor Nadine Gordimer

Dear Dame Doctor,

Please pardon the use of a form of address not normally insisted upon by yourself, but I felt sufficiently unworthy — being of lower status, ethnically speaking — of putting pen to paper that some form of deference, a kind of literary courtesy, was needed.

Indeed, I have no idea whether you are a widow of a knight or baronet, a woman Knight Commander or holder of Grand Cross in the Order of Bath, the Order of the British Empire, the Royal Victorian Order, or the Order of St. Michael and St. George which, as you well know, would have bestowed upon you the title of “Dame”.

No doubt you have already received several doctorates honoris causa from sundry US liberal arts colleges, local and overseas universities, et cetera, so that it would be in order for me to castigate those disrespectful people who call you simply by your first name and insist on the requisite formality.

I would say that I really need to bow twice, as this letter is addressed to you not written on the finest vellum, sealed by the ring of an English potentate, but on something as vulgarly ephemeral as the Internet, amid a lot of utterances in what you have so often termed “the guttural tongue”, that horrible language, Afrikaans.

In fact, you may be shocked to know that I have on occasion used that medium for my own dalliances in literature and philosophy. Again, I hesitate; I tremble to mention the l-word before a personage as august as yourself, a laureate and holder of many honours, lately the Order of the Southern Cross, if I am not mistaken.

Even more problematic for me, however, and here I am afraid that you will feel positively insulted, is that my rather dismal attempt to write a letter in English, the language of masters and a master such as yourself, will cause me to be laughed out of court as it were, from Johannesburg to San Francisco or wherever your works are studied as the finest exemplars of what is known as “South African literature”.

The latter term in current usage specifically excludes, of course, anything written in my language, Afrikaans, a notion that I shall soon be returning to, this time in that lesser language, however, so you need not even give it a thought — it will bypass your consciousness like the birth of a mosquito somewhere, or the existence of a stone somewhere in the veld. Or should I rather say, to borrow from the proud nomenclature of your fellow English, a “rock” in the veld?

“Rocks in the veld”, is that not your vision of us? The lower forms of life, the Boere, Dutchmen, white or coloured trash, that populate your novels and of which a prime example came to my attention this weekend, while browsing through one of those stupid Johannesburg bookshops with their garish exhibits of books stacked like boxes of washing powder.

In one of those adulatory tomes addressed to your English Highness, the pea-brained academics with their obsequious clichés, not to mention their confusion between literary discourse and the pettiest form of politics — their petty anti-apartheid — nauseating stuff that I have long ceased to buy because I fear that its ugliness may somehow affect the other volumes on my shelves; in one of those books there happened to be a reference to a passage in your Conservationist.

In your novel, the De Beers have come to visit the city man, the Engelsman Mehring, on his farm to borrow his bakkie and what follows is a description of the whole family: father, son, daughter-in-law, teenage girl and child, all very backward, diffident, crude, unused to furniture or civilised conversation, for “they are people who won’t dispose themselves about a room until you tell them to” and they “look ... round at the chair seats before placing their backsides, as if they’re afraid of sitting on something or doing some damage.”

For “they” here we can probably read not only the De Beer family, but Afrikanerdom tout court, the “Effwikaanuhs” as our state television currently calls them. We are here in the realm of the STEREOTYPE on the scale of a Nazi gathering with all those Engelse shouting Sieg Heil! or Kill the rocks! or whatever they shout in their moments of inner concord on who exactly happens to be the master race. It gets worse.

The Nazis only compared Jews to rats that are after all mammals and some sympathy between creatures of the same genus may be assumed.

In Gordimer’s view, Afrikaner women are a lot lower down the evolutionary scale than rats; they are more like plants fit only to be raped in an act of genus domination.

Dame Doctor Gordimer, on behalf of all readers in South Africa, I wish to thank you for this vignette, which lifts the curtain on jingoism and English fascism in this country like few have done or dared before. It is positively voor op die wa, if you will pardon my using an expression from your least favourite language:

“The [De Beer = Afrikaans] child will sink, she will drown if she lets go of her mother, yet her clinging is flirtatious, she tries to make him look at her so that she may at once hide her head against the mother’s thigh. She’s a beautiful child as their children often are — where do they get them from? — and she’ll grow up — what do they do to them? — the same sort of vacant turnip as the mother ... To go into those women must be like using the fleshy succulent plants men in the Foreign Legion have to resort to.”
(The Conservationist, p. 48)

I must say it took me a while — I am after all only a dumb Dutchman that will never understand higher forms of literature — to fully grasp the significance of “succulent” in this context — en toe tref dit my soos ’n donderslag — succulents grow in a rockery.

Touché, this is high art indeed. This is the subterranean Lacanian subtext, a jeu de mots of which the Mandarin of the rue Jacob would have been proud. Die mans is rocks en die vroue is vygies en goeters.

Oh my, I am terribly sorry for this irksome habit to let slip these local expressions in a letter to an author of international repute, “powerfully writing in English” and whatever else they print on dustcovers. So let me translate that insight into the subtleties of your text: the men are rocks and the women are vygies and things.

I think those sentences must have earned you another title as Chief Mascot of the Kill a Boer, Kill a Farmer Movement. And deservedly so, for you clearly abhor anything to do with working the soil. Is that an English trait, the word “soil” also meaning “dirty”, so that people — pardon, succulents — with an agrarian heritage are really tainted by so much exposure to dirt? On the other hand, you are not so English yourself, and the tendency of faire plus royal que le roi may be egging you on to heights of English chauvinism that a real Briton or Englishman would find slightly overdone, somewhat outré.

I seem to recall another book by a photographer with whom you were proud to be associated, entitled Some Afrikaners Photographed, which in parts again reminded me of the way Nazis photographed Jews.

However, it is a long time since I looked at those pictures and the only one that really stands out in my mind again has to do with farming, combining writing and farming to be precise. I am referring to the picture of Etienne Leroux, one of our most interesting authors, his 18-44 being one of my favourite books. The snide, supercilious caption to the photograph seemed to point out the absurdity of being both farmer and man of letters, vaguely invoking a larger intertext of the absolutely laughable idea that Afrikaners — excuse me, lower genera — are capable of writing novels anyway.

Ha-ha, let’s snicker some more as you did not so long ago on Classic FM as I was driving home one night, recalling that nice book of photos in the company of Mr. John van Zyl. Dangerous surname that, by the way, if your movement ever gets seriously underway.

It seems to me that your own stature as author is based on a kind of censorship, i.e. that those other South African (or non-South African, according to the Anglocentric definition) authors, such as Etienne Leroux, for example, should not be read outside South Africa by dint of being genetically or culturally inferior or both.

However, while this enormous body of work outside the narrow, Northern Suburbs chit-chat paradigm that is taken for literature in the Anglocentric world of “South African literature”, remains repressed, the era of the anti-apartheid Mills & Boon will hold sway. The danger to you and others is that somehow this corpus of “other literature” gets discovered. The only way to silence the “other authors” whose brilliance, imagination and style will forever eclipse your ponderous platitudes, is to permanently eradicate their language. Or to bring back the camps — the English ones — to delete their bad genes forever.
(You may be interested to know that the SABC has already started literally deleting master tapes of some exquisite Afrikaans children’s programmes from the seventies, a kind of hors d’oeuvre of the Anglo-fascist book burning to come.)

I have lately become intensely interested in these manifestations of jingoism, English master race theory, anti-Afrikaans chauvinism or boerehaat and ethnic stereotyping in the South African context, as it seems to be on the upsurge. To aid my little research project, I humbly ask you to reply to the following two questions, being something of a practitioner yourself:

  • On what theory of biology or genetics do you base your view that Afrikaners are a lower form of (plant) life? (You can get technical with me, as I am doing quite a lot of reading on the subject. Throw in as much DNA analysis and amino-acid chemistry as you like.)
  • On what socio-cultural premises do you think Anglo-Saxon suprematism, of which you are no doubt an exponent, is posited?

You may reply to LitNet or to my personal e-mail address, daniel.r@pixie.co.za

boontoe


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