Tag Archives: Human and Rousseau

Review: The Troubled Times of Magrieta Prinsloo by Ingrid Winterbach

The Troubled Times of Magrieta PrinslooOpening an Ingrid Winterbach novel fills me with excitement every single time. She is one of my favourite contemporary Afrikaans writers and I am immensely grateful that her work is available in English.

Expect the unexpected is the slogan that runs through my head whenever I am reading Winterbach’s exhilarating and wise narratives. The latest, The Troubled Times of Magrieta Prinsloo, was no exception. From the first page to the very end, the novel astounds. How about this for an opening sentence: “Magrieta Prinsloo, daughter of the biology teacher, tall, firm of calf and buttock, dark hair, right eye inclined to wander slightly outwards when she’s overworked, doctor of zoology, head of laboratory with twelve people under her, in early January, after a run-up of several months, gradually grinds to a halt.” Who could possibly resist reading on?

Magrieta is in trouble. Whether it is her depression or the wrong medication prescribed by her doctor or the unease she is feeling in her marriage, it all becomes too much to bear and, one day, after a spectacular blow-up with her boss, she quits her job at the university. There is no ready excuse and there doesn’t seem to be a way back for her, so she begins working for the Bureau for Continuing Education. Her new boss is peculiar, to say the least, and runs the bureau like “an espionage outfit”, assigning more and more work to his associates while solving Sudoku games all day long in his office. Eventually, he disappears mysteriously, and Magrieta and her colleague Isabel have to pick up the pieces at the bureau.

A man is murdered on a beach at Jameson Bay where Magrieta saw a beached humpback whale. On one of her walks, she encounters a woman who has pitched up a tent in the vineyards behind Magrieta’s house in Stellenbosch. She has no idea what any of this means, but she continues with her work and, after a bad spell in the relationship, Magrieta realises that she does not want to lose her husband. In several public toilets she finds strange whale graffiti drawings that she interprets to be signs left behind for her to find, but why? “You’re lucky…that the universe communicates with you like this behind toilet doors”, Isabel tells her.

Then, one day, while she is searching for clues of her boss’s whereabouts, Magrieta sees a baleen whale leap out of the sea and is transformed by the experience.

Winterbach has a knack for creating the most unusual characters and inventing odd loops for them to jump through, and yet it all seems uncannily familiar in the end. It is impossible not to care for them and not to keep on reading.

A novel about change and the essentials that make our lives fulfilling, The Troubled Times of Magrieta Prinsloo reads beautifully in Michiel Heyns’s translation.

The Troubled Times of Magrieta Prinsloo

by Ingrid Winterbach

translated by Michiel Heyns

Human & Rousseau, 2019

An edited version of this review was published in the Cape Times on 26 July 2019.

Review: The Snow Sleeper by Marlene van Niekerk

btrhdr

The Afrikaans poet and fiction writer Marlene van Niekerk is best known for her ground-breaking novels, Triomf and Agaat. She has many accolades to her name, including being a finalist for the 2015 Man Booker International Award when it still recognised the entire oeuvre of an author, not just an individual title. Van Niekerk’s The Snow Sleeper, at last translated into English, is the kind of book that could have been a worthy winner entirely on its own terms. Locally, the original did receive the prestigious University of Johannesburg Prize for Best Creative Writing in Afrikaans in 2010.

The four interlinked stories which form The Snow Sleeper – “The Swan Whisperer”, “The Percussionist”, “The Friend”, and the titular story – took my breath away. During an inaugural lecture a professor recalls an exasperating relationship – mostly epistolary and one-sided – with a creative writing student who challenges her ideas about creativity and mentorship. At the end of “The Swan Whisperer”, the professor questions her own work within the South African context in ways previously unimaginable: “god only knows who is writing in me.”

Van Niekerk quotes Orhan Pamuk for the epigraph of her book: “A writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him.” That the professor giving the inaugural lecture shares a name with the author of The Snow Sleeper is telling.

In “The Percussionist”, an antiquarian clockmaker specialising in grandfather clocks speaks at the funeral of his writer friend. “He wanted to be remembered for his books, he always said, because nobody would be able to make any sense of his life,” the clockmaker tells the people gathered at the occasion. In his eulogy, he captures the process of observed reality transmuting into fiction, with longing at the very core of the seemingly unfathomable process.

Van Niekerk’s dead writer is the author of the stories which we recognise by their titles as her own. The self-reflective The Snow Sleeper acknowledges the incredible power of storytelling, and its various pitfalls. While any artistic act can be seen as death-defying, in the end loss is inescapable. There is also no shying away from the predatory nature of any creative endeavour. In one of the narratives, a researcher interviewing homeless people for a field study records a story that throws a light at the precarious relationship between an artist and their – often oblivious, sometimes reluctant, and occasionally manipulative – subjects. In one of the most poignant moments of the book the vagrant asks: “What can I do in the end but avenge myself? On behalf of all the wretches who’ve sat as models through the ages so that narcissists on state subsidy can excrete artworks?”

And while undoubtedly also “seducing with false images”, The Snow Sleeper is a brilliant meditation on the eternally intriguing nature of art, life, and the individual whose humanity breathes soul and beauty into it all.

The Snow Sleeper

by Marlene van Niekerk

Human & Rousseau, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 15 March 2019.