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.