Michiel Heyns, author of Lost Ground, in conversation with Janet van Eeden

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Title: Lost Ground
Author: Michiel Heyns
Publisher: Jonathan Ball
ISBN: 9781868424160

Review by Janet van Eeden

Lost Ground is yet another compelling novel from the pen of Michiel Heyns, who made his debut with one of my favourite books, The Children’s Day. Lost Ground revisits the South African dorp of Heyns’s childhood. This time it’s a fictional place called Alfredville which embodies all the intrigues that make small towns such fascinating microcosms. In this particular dorp there are villagers gossiping about one another, a few outrageous characters making their presence felt, the unflinching prejudice of the past and, for good measure, the murder of a beautiful young woman.

The narrator, Peter Jacobs, is drawn back to the town in which he grew up to investigate the details behind his cousin Desiree’s murder. He’s left an ex-partner, James, behind in London. He hopes to make a new beginning by reviving his freelance writing career with a story which will reflect the racial conflicts which led to the murder of his cousin in the small South African town. His motives are totally mercenary, as he clinically digs into the seeping wounds of the inhabitants of Alfredville while hoping to write something worthy of the New York Times.

Desiree’s husband, the coloured captain of police Hector Williams, has been arrested as the main suspect of his wife’s murder. Their interracial marriage had rocked the foundations of the small town, even though such things are now legal in the new dispensation. Peter sets out to write a story styled along the lines of a real life enactment of Shakespeare’s Othello. The more Peter finds out about the murder, the more he discovers about himself as he has to face his best friend from their school days, Bennie Nienaber. From being selfishly fixated on the outcome of his story alone, Peter is forced to re-examine his life. He discovers that the truth behind his own life story is even more shocking than the details of his cousin’s murder.

Lost Ground is a richly drawn narrative about the very fabric which makes up our culturally diverse country. As a whodunnit it sticks to the conventions of the genre. Most importantly, it is utterly compelling and a real page-turner as the reader is desperate to find out who really killed Desiree.

As an examination of this country’s recent past as well as an illustration of humanity’s infinite capacity for self-deception, he novel is a tour de force. Lost Ground is a deliciously rich addition to Heyns’s oeuvre.    

Q&A with Michiel Heyns

Michiel, this is your fourth novel and it’s a cracking whodunnit, which seems to be a departure for you. Unlike many crime writers flourishing in our country at the moment, you have focused more on the setting of the story and the main protagonist’s journey as a person than on solving a crime per se. In this way it is so much more than a whodunnit. So I wondered whether you started out to write a story about a man revisiting a Karoo town or whether you set out to write about a man solving a crime. Or were, as so often happens to me when a story comes to life, the two aspects intertwined from the very beginning?

In fact, I started off with the idea of a crime: a young woman found murdered at home with the television remote still in her hand (this I got from newspaper reports on the murder of Inge Lotz in Stellenbosch). I started imagining how something like that could happen – somebody murdered by somebody she clearly knew well. The rest followed from that: the man returning to his home town, etc. Exactly how one thing led to another is a mystery to me. I don’t even know why I settled on a Karoo town.

I have my own theories on the significance of the title, Lost Ground, about never being able to go back to the landscape of one’s youth, but could you tell me why you chose this particular title? 

Yes, the lost ground of youth, more literally, as you say, the landscape of one’s youth. Proust’s In Search of Lost Time puts in a self-conscious appearance or two, also in the novel’s epigraph, “The true paradises are the paradises we have lost”. (Murphy made me attribute this quote to Flaubert, for reasons known only to Murphy.) The book’s central relationship, of course, is a chronicle of loss.

I know you grew up in a small town and I couldn’t help wondering how many of your protagonist’s feelings about going back to revisit the past were your own. Inevitably, we as writers draw on our own experiences, but did the story evolve from your revisiting Kimberley where you grew up after you’d left it?

Not consciously, no. And if unconsciously, more likely to be Grahamstown than Kimberley; that is where I knew the person on whom Bennie Nienaber is loosely based, that is where I buzzed around on the back of his Mosquito Garelli.

Your first novel, The Children’s Day, was a memoir of sorts of your childhood in the arid wastelands of the Karoo. It was my favourite read of the year when it was published. I loved the authenticity of this novel too, as the descriptions of small-town life resonate strongly with my own experience of growing up in a Free State “dorp”. This story is also very rooted in the actualities of small-town South African life. I do believe as a writer that in the specifics lie the universal, but I wondered whether you thought the story would appeal to audiences overseas? Do you think about this issue at all when you are writing?  

No, I don’t think about it, because that way madness lies, writing for a hypothetical readership. But after The Children’s Day I got letters from as far afield as Texas and Germany from people saying that their small-town experience had been very much the same. So I suppose a dorp is a dorp everywhere.

I am amazed that you manage to produce so much work while lecturing full-time. You were professor of English at Stellenbosch for some time, but the blurb on the back of your book says you’ve left that position now. Are you hoping to focus on full-time writing or have you taken up another lecturing post? Do you think it would be easier to write full-time or would you miss the mental stimulation which comes inevitably when lecturing young students?

I actually left lecturing some time ago, exactly in order to focus full-time on writing. So that’s the secret of my productivity: quitting the day job. As for the mental stimulation of teaching: well, that is a loss, but nowadays lecturing involves so much more than teaching, much of it entirely unstimulating, that I feel I’ve gained more than I’ve lost.

You have done an excellent job of creating a believable character in your narrator, Pieter Jacobs. At one point I found myself criticising him for his lack of sensitivity towards a bereaved family when he has a meal with his aunt and uncle who’ve just lost their daughter. As I continued reading I became aware that you created his apparent heartlessness so that your denouement could be stronger. His lack of self-awareness is one of his main flaws and he has to break through his narrow perception of the world to see what really happened around him in order to develop as a character. Do you draw up your characters’ personalities before you start writing a novel or does the character reveal himself to you more clearly during the writing process?

Very much the latter. I don’t have any clear notion of a character when I start writing, except in broadest outline. In the case of Peter, I think I did think of him in advance as somewhat self-involved; the details shaped themselves around his various interactions. I didn’t plot, for instance, his responses to his uncle and aunt; that was just what at the time I thought he might have said and done.

Alfredville is a perfect recreation of a small town in the Karoo, or even the equivalent of an Eastern Cape dorp. Did you base it on any specific place or was it a conglomeration of many small towns you’ve visited in this vast country?

It turned out to be the latter. Originally I had in mind Barrydale in the Little Karoo, and I spent a few days there to get the feel of the place (the cover photo is of Barrydale, taken on that trip). But after half an hour in Barrydale I realised that it didn’t have the infrastructure to support my novel: no Clicks, no Pep store, no veterinary surgeon … so I opted for a kind of composite. A friend has told me it’s Montagu, which is more like it. (The one thing of Barrydale’s that I did keep is the school motto.)

Pieter’s sense of alienation as a visitor in his homeland is familiar to all of us who have lived in another country for some time. You say in the novel that once one has lived in a foreign country you will be forever doomed to feel like an outsider in both countries. That resonates with me as I lived in Britain for five years and it took me ages to readjust to being back in South Africa. Have you lived abroad for any length of time? Do you find yourself quintessentially South African or do parts of you hanker for Europe or another country?

I lived in England, as a student, for two years, and then again for a year. That’s different, of course, since a student existence is so artificial anyway, and one’s friends tend to be as unsettled as oneself. So I don’t know whether I could adapt to living abroad. Somewhere I am “quintessentially South African”, but I must confess that there have been times when I’ve hankered, in your term, for, say, France, or parts of England or Italy.

I liked your use of Vincent, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, as a commentator of sorts on the action of the town. He is a qualified lawyer, but has to make his living as a car guard, as so many foreigners from war-torn African countries do at this time. There was one amusing moment when he and Pieter compare notes about the crime which made me smile. Vincent’s “N’est pas?” comments remind me of Hercule Poirot when he does his final summation of a case he’s working on in Agatha Christie novels. Was this a conscious play on the conventions of whodunnits or was this a happy accident?

Pure accident. It’s heartening how often serendipity produces an effect one didn’t aim for. Finuala Dowling, in her review of the novel, gives a wonderful interpretation of the murder weapon, the statue of David wrapped in an antimacassar, which I really did not intend, but accept with pleasure.

You touch on many topical South African political issues such as racism, police corruption and xenophobia, as well as the empowerment of women, amongst others, in passing. Do you think any novel in South Africa could ever avoid these issues? Are we as a nation inevitably political by default?

It would certainly be very difficult to avoid such issues. I did not set out to cover topical South African political issues, but they just obtrude themselves, don’t they? Everything has always already been politicised.

What are you working on at the moment? Do you have another novel up your sleeve or are you taking a break from writing for a while?

I actually have another novel on submission at the moment. I was having a hard time writing Lost Ground, so whenever I got blocked I’d write away at another, totally different, novel. This was a slow process, but it did mean that by the time I completed Lost Ground I had more than half another novel written. But now I am going to take a break, and concentrate on a translation I’m doing.

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