UCT Afrikaans author a wee hit in Scotland

23 September 2002
AFRIKAANS writer Professor Etienne van Heerden has returned from an industrious trip to Europe, during which he stopped off at the Edinburgh Arts Festival – the world's largest – to speak on South African literature and to read from his acclaimed new novel, The Long Silence of Mario Salviati.

Van Heerden, who teaches in UCT's Afrikaans and Netherlandic Studies section, is the first South African novelist who doesn't write in English to be invited to perform at and address the event's international book fair. And patrons would have been familiar with the writer and his work well before the August 10–26 event, the book having received plenty of critical acclaim from a number of Scottish papers in the run-up to the main gathering.

The work, originally titled Die swye van Mario Salviati, is Van Heerden's latest to be published in English. Other of his works have already been translated into 12 languages, including Dutch, Greek, Russian, French, German and Hebrew.

The author – "flattered" by the invitation and the many encomiums – feels that novels about South Africa more than deserve their place at an international literature festival. "I think that interesting stories are usually set in small parts of the world," he says.

"And if you can convincingly portray the fibre and texture and the particularities of that place, if you can bring the magic of storytelling to that, a book should travel. It's not really about where your story is set, but about how you tell the story."

Following the "wonderful" Edinburgh festival, he set off for London for the launch of the British edition of the book – published by the Sceptre imprint of Hodder and Stoughton – and to do another reading from the novel and talk on literature in South Africa.

He also visited Holland to work with his Dutch translator and to prepare for the release of the Dutch edition later this year.

And although pleased with the polyglot reworkings of Mario Salviati, he recognises that something gets lost in the translations, despite the many hours that he spends alongside the translators. "It's always quite traumatic. The book becomes another text – a lot of the texture gets lost. And it's never really the same."

But despite these reservations, he's never seriously considered writing a book in English, Van Heerden says. "For me, language is a biological thing. I can only speak with a tongue that I really feel is mine."

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