The article is about Dan Sleigh’s Afrikaans historical novel Eilande, published in 2002. For purposes of this summary, including the quotation used in the article’s English title, reference is made to Andre P. Brink’s translation, published as Islands in 2004.
The article consists of two parts. In the first part it is argued that the novel’s date of publication, only eight years after the birth of the “non-racial democracy”, had the effect of placing the novel within the horizon of expectations (Jauss and Benzinger 1970) of the time, still, in the aftermath of 1994, overwhelmingly under the impression of the achievement of political liberation. Of cardinal importance in this regard is Jauss’s concept of the literary work’s “social function”: The work is seen as “special history in its own unique relationship to general history” (Jauss and Benzinger 1970:31) and is received not only “against the background of other art forms [...] [but] the background of everyday experiences of life” (Jauss and Benzinger 1970:34, my italics). The first part of the article analyses the novel’s South African reception through what it terms a “reception of liberation”, in which two fundamental “impulses” are identified.
The first is André P. Brink. More than any other, it is he who defines the reception of liberation through his enduring status, in literary and academic circles as well as the media, as South Africa’s most famous “anti-apartheid” author. Tellingly, he also foresaw that “much of the new [post-apartheid] writing may well have to do with a recovery and a rewriting, a reimagination of history” (Petzold 2016:87) and drew attention to how “the need to revisit history has [...] characterised the literature of most of the great thresholds of change”, among which he included the end of apartheid (Petzold 2000:45). Islands, greater in scope than any other contemporary historical novel, therefore presents itself as the fulfilment of Brink’s anticipation, who hails it, on the inside flap of his 2004 English translation, as “The Great novel” South Africa has been waiting for, an accolade repeated in even more illustrious terms on the back cover of the Afrikaans edition (Sleigh 2005): “A country that can produce a kaleidoscope like this novel, with its sheer dazzling beauty and deep understanding of humanity, has most triumphantly put its colonial adolescence behind it.” Islands, then, is received by Brink as the quintessential novel illustrating South Africa’s overcoming of its colonial past – in other words, its liberation. This status – hence, the novel’s reception of liberation – would gain even further confirmation (see Twidle 2013:144) through Brink’s highly visible role as the novel’s English translator.
The second impulse is postcolonialism. Here the focus is primarily on the academic reception of Sleigh’s novel. Just as Brink was able to situate Islands within the “recovery of history” that would mark the period of liberation, Louise Viljoen, in her overview of Afrikaans literature written for the Cambridge history of South African literature, relates the novel to a “return to the archive [...] in the light of events like the transition to democratic rule in 1994, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the centenary of the Anglo-Boer War from 1999 to 2002” (Viljoen 2012:463). She furthermore singles out “a renewed interest in the history and culture of the San and Khoikhoi in Afrikaans literature” (2012:463) – the groups, in other words, who had suffered the strongest forms of historical marginalisation – a theme she sees reflected in Islands.
This postcolonial concern with the inclusion of a previously marginalised racial “other” dominates the academic contributions about Islands reviewed in the article. Johan Anker (2009) shows how the novel undermines the historical narrative written from the point of view of the powerful. He regards the novel – particularly in the portrayal of the clerk, De Grevenbroek – as illustrative of postcolonialism’s preoccupation with the act of writing as engagement and resistance (Anker 2009:42), a writing indeed reminiscent of the anti-apartheid writing of previous decades. Heilna du Plooy (2007) brings to the fore the overlap between race and gender in her study of the “liminal” female protagonists Krotoa and Pieternella, deepening the gender focus on Islands already established in a previous study by Dorothea Van Zyl (2003). These examples of the postcolonial academic reception reserved for Islands (notwithstanding the recognition by all that the novel is “ultimately” about the universally human, a point, of course, also made in Brink’s signalling of its “deep understanding of humanity”) can be easily situated within the horizon of expectations of South Africa’s era of post-apartheid political emancipation. The article offers the following explanation for the attraction postcolonialism holds for these readers of Islands, given the times. At the end of a historical era characterised by a conservative Christian patriarchy and in many ways the product of binary oppositions –black against white, African nationalism against Afrikaner nationalism – postcolonialism with its anti-nationalism and emphasis on hybridity and the “interstitial” offers a theoretical refuge. At the same time it is an ideology, “weaponising” ideas for social interests (Berger and Luckmann 1975:18).
The second part of the article sets out the reception of suffering. This alternative reception is seen in relation to certain changes that have occurred in South Africa in the aftermath of political liberation during which Islands was published, resulting, from a social and political point of view, in the altogether more pessimistic horizon of expectations of the present day. The idea of an alternative reception for Islands – unrelated to the post-apartheid era of political liberation – is further motivated on the basis that the novel, as has been shown (see Twidle 2013:125), had in any event been written much earlier than its date of publication, as far back as the 1980s. The post-apartheid reception it enjoyed, emphasising postcolonial inclusivity, resistance, even triumph (Brink), was therefore to some extent coincidental.
The theme of suffering is underscored by the more or less subliminal presence in the novel of the two foremost figures of devotion that are the heritage of Christian symbolism, namely the Madonna and the figure of Christ. This presence is explored within a system of intertextual play between various elements in the text, but which also, ultimately, includes the author.
Upon the publication of his final novel, 1795, in 2016, Sleigh, a career historian and archivist, was at pains to present himself as merely a “visitor” to the world of literature, from which he was now retreating, having completed what he had set out to achieve (see Kotzé-Myburgh 2016). This creates the sense that Sleigh completed a certain mission, of which Islands is the initial – and, possibly, major – embodiment, and which gives added meaning to the relationship between him and his authorial double in the novel, the clerk De Grevenbroek, who in many instances portrays himself as being on a mission.
The clerk is strongly preoccupied with the Madonna: “Who was she, that poor girl without a trace of cheerfulness on her face” (Sleigh 2004:700). The presence of the Madonna in Islands is explored in several instances in the text where her image is evoked, generally through the voice of the clerk, particularly in relation to Pieternella. The article however also considers that the phrase in the prologue “those who carried her in their hearts, from before her birth until after her end” (Sleigh 2004:2) gives credence to the notion that mother and daughter (Krotoa and Pieternella) should, at least from the point of view of the reception of suffering and as bearers of the image of the Madonna, be thought of as a unified female – and indeed maternal (see Samuelson 2005) – embodiment.
The presence of the figure of Christ is explored through an analysis of primarily two recurring images, that of a suffering, tortured body or face, and that of the man lost at sea who is rescued against all odds, offering some kind of redemption in the face of suffering. The former is explored particularly in the character of Lamotius, the fallen governor of Mauritius, who is progressively disfigured, humiliated and tortured, not just physically, but also morally. Once again, the clerk is an important conduit for these insights: “[H]e tried to find Lamotius’s present face in the dark hollow of a monk’s cowl” (Sleigh 2004:735). The latter image, of rescue at sea, is explored in the character of “The Fisherman”, Bart Borms. Here, too, the clerk manages to assert himself when, “dejectedly”, struggling to finalise his text (Sleigh 2004:741), he finally comes to imagine himself as “a drowning man [being lifted] from the sea” (Sleigh 2004:742).
Within a reading amenable to the possible function in the novel of devotional images, the article also considers related symbols, notably the number 12, which occurs with a certain regularity throughout the novel. Two characters, Autshumao, leader of the twelve remaining Goringhaicona (Sleigh 2004:3), and Hans Michiel, who had to escort twelve chained convicts to Amsterdam (Sleigh 2004:294), are reflected on in this regard.
Keywords: Dan Sleigh; Islands; postcolonialism; reception; suffering