Ryk Hattingh: A tribute to my friend

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It took a long time for Ryk Hattingh and me to become friends here in Auckland, partially because of distance, and I think it was because of Zirk van den Berg that we finally did. I considered us the Three Émigré Musketeers, and it was a seriously pissed off Zirk who told me about Ryk’s heart attack and subsequent death yesterday.

What cemented our friendship (and he seems to have had legions of these) was our work. I wrote a review of Huilboek on Facebook, and Ryk agreed to read a draft of Son. Two days later, he called me and there was a momentary silence that I have tried to get used to, but I was wrong. He had started reading the book, and had then called his assistant to say he wasn’t coming in to work at his cobbler’s shop that day. I was flattered – no, honoured – beyond belief. He had reservations about the final chapter (he had a point) of Son, just like I had stated minor reservations about Huilboek.

After that, the three of us would get together, and on one of those occasions he gave me his audaciously titled novel, Markus vermoed ’n verhaal [Marcus suspects a novel]. A bunch of characters hang around trying to work out whose story should be told. South Africa is still trying to work that one out. Markus was written in 1987.

That night, he also gave me a novel called The melancholy of resistance by László Krasznahorkai. For a long time, I didn’t read it because it consisted of ultra-long sentences and chapters with no paragraphs, but the penny finally dropped and I started reading one of the best and funniest books I’ve ever read.

We also got together as couples, and I thought it was utterly charming that this man, who had clearly wound up a few people in his life, was still as in love with his wife, Martene, as if they were rosy teenagers. I also know that he was deeply fond of Zirk and sang his latest novella’s praises.

And, so, a pattern started emerging. Ryk would call me on the odd Sunday night and talk. Early on, he was drunk and would ask me aching questions like why his father hit him for no reason. He, Ryk, was not a bad man, he said, close to tears. Then he went clean and raved about Chekhov and the Mittel-Europeans and how he didn’t feel the need to become a Kiwi writer, and that I really should read more, “for fuck’s sake, Neil!”

We also shared lotto tickets, and he said he never watched the results on Saturday night because he waited for the paper on Sunday morning, just to postpone the disappointment. He told us he’d worked out that he’d blown about $27 000 (just under R260 000) on the lotto in New Zealand.

About two weeks ago, when I thought, in the words of Leonard Cohen, I just can’t go on (but would), Ryk called. I told him how shit I felt, and asked him how things were with him. No, he was feeling fine! I still don’t know why he called that night, but I do feel like he was a kind of angel of mercy from that Cohen song. It wasn’t a Sunday night.

And that beard, suddenly – what was he doing, I asked while we watched a game of rugby. He shrugged it off, but it gave him a kind of dignity, a kind of gravitas, literary and otherwise.

The last time we spoke, I called to invite them to dinner. He said Martene was under the academic cosh, and he was going to South Africa because he’d been nominated for a prize. That’s because you’re going to win it, I said. Other writers are also being flown in, he said soberly, or perhaps hardened by years of another kind of disappointment.

That he won was the best news I’d heard in a very long time; that he died is the very worst. I wanted to see him wrestle his way beyond the past, because I think he was busy with just that. He told me he was thinking of writing for the theatre again. He also told me in that last conversation that every time he bought a lotto ticket, he still thought it was the one.

I know that, like his friend Tienie in his wonderfully funny and prescient short story Vlugvoos (sick and tired of flying, and fleeing), he wanted to make it to about 70, so that he could lay his very ill mother to rest and see his three beloved children grow a little more. I can just hear him saying something like, “Ek vra net vir 10 jaar, Neil,” in that tough but warm voice and language of his.

Ryk Hattingh was fearless and melancholy and caring and mad and good and contrary and generous, and had more originality in his little finger than most people have in a lifetime. Totsiens, my china.

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