Book review: The echo of a noise: A memoir of then and now by Pieter-Dirk Uys

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The echo of a noise
Pieter-Dirk Uys
Tafelberg Publishers
ISBN: 9780624086925

When Pieter-Dirk Uys appeared on a lonely stage at the 2017 Woordfees in Stellenbosch, dressed in black and discernible only by a white face, white hands and the words “Almost famous” dancing white on his chest, I was in the audience. For over 90 minutes, I was mesmerised. There was raw honesty on stage as Uys’s storytelling mined rich veins of both poignancy and humour. One of my most salient memories of that afternoon is of my mother elbowing me in the ribs because I was laughing too raucously – or, perhaps, too singularly – and people were starting to turn around and stare. My embarrassment was quickly swept away once I told myself that Uys would have found these audience dynamics quite hilarious, and that I was, in fact, responding in exactly the wished-for way. Comfortable in an imagined kinship with the man on stage, defiantly self-conscious now, I laughed even louder.

Two years later, I’ve been asked to review The echo of a noise: A memoir of then and now, the published version of that same production. Marketed as Uys’s latest memoir, its cover projects the same starkness that characterised the stage version, announcing: “Pieter-Dirk Uys unpowdered. No props, no false eyelashes, no high heels.” While I cannot claim to be the same person I was two years ago when I was a member of Uys’s audience, reviewing this book has given me the opportunity to consider, first and foremost, what happens to the same material realised through the different mediums of live stage performance, on the one hand, and written autobiography, on the other.

The echo of a noise contains several short introductory and concluding chapters that frame the monologue at its centre. These deal with the book’s aims – to “entertain and illuminate”, while “reveal[ing] the small signposts” in Uys’s journey that proved especially significant (12) – and provide background information, such as charting his introduction to theatre and introducing his immediate family members. They also touch on the changing political landscapes that continue to frame Uys’s extraordinary career as playwright and entertainer-satirist. The stage monologue itself tells the story of how Pietertjie Uys grew into Pieter-Dirk Uys, progressing from short pants to long pants to dresses, and beyond. Crucial to this journey are the adults who were most important to him: his forbidding Afrikaner father, Johannes Dirk Jacobus Uys; his troubled German mother, Helga Maria Bassel; and, finally, Sannie Abader, the domestic worker who “wasn’t just a maid”, but his “Cape Flats mother”, whom he credits with raising him in Sonskyn, the family home in Pinelands, Cape Town (65).

Much material in The echo of a noise was ostensibly written, in the first instance, to be spoken. And, while the prose isn’t always equally compelling or original, the book’s conversational quality and clever pacing makes for a comfortable read. The memoir’s main characters are beautifully drawn and – with the exception of Abader – fleshed out with great sensitivity. The familiarity evoked thus is heightened by the book’s scrapbook quality. Unlike the staged version, the Tafelberg publication has the benefit of a large selection of photographs from the Uys family archive, reproduced here in black and white. One of these, in particular, stands out: a photograph of Pietertjie’s parents, “a special man and a rare woman enjoying each other with laughter” (99). With it having been taken in the early 1950s, it’s hard not to see this photograph, featuring two hysterically laughing, long-legged lovers, as a powerful portent of their son’s future.

 “I build sandcastles when the tide is out” is how Uys defines what he does (15). He describes these as “unique structures that delight and confuse, and attract attention until the tide turns back, and the castle becomes a lump of wetness, no more than a treasured memory” (15). An apt metaphor to describe the live theatrical performance that is Uys’s bread and butter, it also points to the problems that result when these impermanent structures (in Uys’s words: “from my mouth to your ear”) aspire to the permanence of ink on paper (15). Transported along merrily by Uys’s smooth and lively narrative, I found several instances when I was brought up short, more confused than delighted. Had these particular statements and vignettes been offered in the stream of a dynamic theatrical performance, they might well have landed better, or else been washed away by the incoming tide of communal hilarity. But, without the benefit of an actor’s facial expression, accent, tempo or tone of delivery – in short, the ways in which the body inscribes text – they just sat on the page, concrete and uninterpreted. Rereading them did not help. Instead, it only underlined the fact that throwaway flippancies live differently on paper than they do in the ear.

Examples include calling South Africa the “tip of a dark continent” (170), referring to people as “non-white” (31), and a particularly troubling story about a favourite uncle whose attentions – rubbing his leg against young Pietertjie’s under the dining room table – were tolerated in exchange for a bar of chocolate. There is misogyny, too, in Uys’s commitment to Evita Bezuidenhout: “to diet, so that women in the audience will recognize the woman, while men will forget the man” (31). Elsewhere, he describes his university degree as a manifestation of “retreat mentality” and “probably the most pointless and useless thing I own” (16). Uys’s autodidactic aspirations aside, as the book proceeds, we learn exactly how key his university years were to his development as a theatre-maker. But there is a bigger issue here: given Uys’s professed struggle credentials, his unconsidered display of white privilege – at the time, black students could not be admitted to UCT without government permission – comes across as extremely jarring.

For this particular reader, these issues come to a head where Uys writes – albeit with genuine love and affection – about Sannie Abader. One problem is that she exists only in relation to him, with no acknowledgement of the personal sacrifices she was forced to make. “Mammie always talked about you as her ‘favourite child’,” Abader’s own flesh and blood children recall (162). The tragedy of this seems lost on Uys. Another problem is that, in his eagerness to communicate how special their relationship was, he somewhat overplays his hand. “Sannie wasn’t the maid; she was the Boss” (64), he writes, hyperbole only serving to exaggerate the lie. Similarly, when Abader finally moved into the house, he writes that she “came home” (150). Again, the tragedy is lost on Uys that this happened only so that she could look after his father, a master who “wouldn’t take cheek from a meid” (148).

That this is Abader’s home only metaphorically is underlined by yet another vignette: on 27 April 1994, the day of South Africa’s first democratic election, she makes Uys wait outside the kitchen while she gets ready. “I couldn’t believe it!” he writes. “Standing outside the closed door, asking permission to go into my kitchen” (154). After they have cast their votes, Uys takes “the two new citizens”, Abader and her best friend, Leen – who, we learn in passing, voted for the National Party – “back to their respective kitchens” (156). He doesn’t write it, but he might as well have added: and everything remained the same.

This book represents an important milestone in Uys’s career. “Now, I don’t mind if people don’t care for the noise I make,” he writes. Now in his seventies, he says the “disease to please is cured” (172). What is so interesting about Uys’s bid for honesty in this memoir is that it reveals exactly how difficult it is for white Afrikaners like Uys (and me) to escape our times. The echo of a noise also contains letters written from the Verwoerd administration to the 16-year-old Jongheer Pieter Uys, thanking him for “the nice letter he wrote to congratulate her [Mrs Verwoerd] and her husband on the first anniversary of the Republic of South Africa” (69). A few years later, Uys would have a stint in the “white and Afrikaans” South African navy. “I never put my foot on a ship,” he writes, “but I had a helluva time!” (109). With light-hearted and uninterrogated statements such as these, a passage from Leonard Thompson’s A history of South Africa comes to mind:

Their language was unique, and most Afrikaners experienced little but the Nationalist world perspective from cradle to grave: at home, in Afrikaans-language schools and universities, in Dutch Reformed churches, in social groups, on radio and television, and in books and newspapers.[1]

Uys was one of the lucky ones. Attending film school in London in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was finally confronted with images of unjust violence at home. He describes his reaction as follows: “‘No! Never! It can’t be true! Lies! Communist propaganda!’ I told people. ‘I lived there!’ I knew nothing. How could we have allowed that to happen? We decent, Christian people?” (127). Having returned from London in 1973, Uys fell in with the crowd of Cape Town’s Space Theatre, the likes of Athol Fugard, Brian Astbury and Yvonne Bryceland. He wrote and performed in a series of plays heavily censored by the Film and Publication Board (current name). Finally, finding himself in a financial conundrum in 1981 – “with my plays banned, there was no income” – Uys landed on the idea of staging short satirical sketches – “political revue” – and the rest, as they say, is history (137).

As good as he was at exposing the absurdity and obscenity of the apartheid mind, Pieter-Dirk seems to have gotten away with a lot. He recalls, for example, security policemen asking for Evita Bezuidenhout’s autograph in the mid-1980s. Besides those letters from Mrs Verwoerd and her secretary, The echo of a noise also contains a photograph of Pieter-Dirk Uys and Piet Koornhof beaming next to each other in 1985, the year of the first state of emergency since 1960, during which the government used their military muscle to clamp down decisively on political dissent.

Asked the question, “If you were so successful in fighting apartheid, how come you’re still alive?” Uys responds as follows: “Shocking question, simple answer: I am white” (145). But, after reading this book, I wonder. It seems to me that Pieter-Dirk Uys is still alive, above all else, because he is still funny. His profession is as old as the hills. Like the royal court jesters of bygone eras, his position as joker carries a measure of immunity from persecution. Yet, within that specific context, humour has been known for its powerful subversive uses. Concluding that laughter can be enlisted as an effective weapon of social protest, Marjolein ’t Hart writes as follows: “Criticism expressed in a joking manner is more difficult to refute by ‘rational’ arguments. Authority and power can melt, as the invitation to laugh with one another appeals to all-human feelings and breaks down ‘official’ barriers.”[2]

In Pieter-Dirk Uys’s case, that little “with” seems to have been crucial to the endeavour. As he writes: “Maybe those in politics and the media who encouraged me to keep going wanted more than simply to laugh at jokes; they wanted to react to the absurdity and the obscenity of apartheid” (144). This must have included at least Piet Koornhof and the security police. It would be prudent, then, to remember the other theories that exist around humour and social protest – that humour can function as a harmless safety valve within oppressed societies, hampering political change. And, of course, that the ridicule of a court jester was tolerated in some courts simply because it was a way for the monarch to demonstrate unruffled and, therefore, absolute power.[3]

Born in 1985 during that same state of emergency, I have the dubious luxury of looking at the troubled years of apartheid not knowing what kind of person I would have been, had I lived through them. Reading The echo of a noise, I realise that nobody can entirely escape the imprint of the time they live in, even if they heed those small signposts along the way. Pieter-Dirk Uys, this book confirms, developed a successful and courageous strategy for living and working in apartheid South Africa. But it also points to the tragedy of such a dogged and successful survival: the small but conscious compromises and adaptations required to maintain some sanity while growing up in a Kafkaesque reality, and those terrifying, unconscious slips into and embracing of that reality, which even Uys’s undisputed brilliance as a performer could not prevent.

[1] Leonard Thompson, A history of South Africa, 4th ed (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2014), 198.

[2] Marjolein ’t Hart, “Humour and social protest: An introduction”, International Review of Social History 52, no S15 (2007): 8.

[3] See Hart, “Humour and social protest”, 6–8.

 

Weerklink van ’n wanklank: ’n onderhoud met Pieter-Dirk Uys

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