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Boeke | Books > Boekartikels | Articles on books > English

Big Book Chain Chat #72 About writing memoirs and other things


Julian de Wette - 2011-07-20

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 Is apartheid a laughing matter?

Set in 1960s South Africa, Prime Minister Verwoerd's assassination resonates throughout my novel, A Case of Knives, in which fictional Prime Minister Sybrand Schoon is murdered. The butler, Cyprian Molinieux, changed his racial classification from White to Coloured in order to marry a Coloured nanny. His love is unrequited and his subsequent attempts to regain his “European” identity drives him over the edge. He blames Schoon, the Prime Minister, for his predicament.

When one reads a novel about apartheid one is not likely to expect a good rollicking read. I did not say to myself, “Here is this thing called apartheid – I’m going to give it the laughter treatment.” I was simply writing to find my way out of a conundrum left me by my grandfather on the occasion of Hendrik Verwoerd’s assassination in 1966. He told me that the prime minister would not have died had he continued to pay tribute to a witchdoctor.

On the one hand my grandfather was often right and on the other he was a leg-puller.

I began to write this book when I was in my early twenties, and I was fascinated by their relationship. They were an unlikely couple – Khotso and Hendrik Verwoerd. Khotso’s millions and his innumerable wives were often featured in The Golden City Post. When two such opposites meet there is bound to be tension and humour: Verwoerd, the ice-cold, tough politician and Khotso, who peddled palm grease and muti to suit any occasion or remedy any condition. Nor was it a secret that Paul Kruger was Khotso’s favourite totem, and that he had a bit of a thing for Afrikaner politicians and power mongers, and they for him.

I created a fictional persona and provenance for Prime Minister Schoon, but left Khotso, gnome-like with lots of cash for cars and influence to spare, larger than life. However, their relationship was real and remains a measuring stick for the superstitions, misunderstandings and fears that continue to bedevil relationships in our country.

So, this is my answer to the question put to me: Why choose humour as a vehicle in writing A Case of Knives? In 1966 the assassination was like witnessing a head-on collision. After the shock had worn off, I couldn’t properly assimilate what I read and what my grandfather had told me and I had to find a way of describing this dilemma. My story changed over time and I later employed irony instead of tragedy. It seemed to me, from where I was living in America, that the entire South African situation was so preposterous (especially with regard to race and identity) that I decided to use humour. It was also a way to deal with my exile.

In A Case of Knives all the different types of people were known to me. What I had to do was find a context for them to appear in my story. In truth, I had not met either Khotso or Verwoerd, but I knew enough about each to describe them The body of the writing had been completed by 1990. I later introduced the character of the young boy, Enoch, as a device to link the different parts of the story. A sharp-minded teenager, Enoch gains entry to the Schoon household because of his relationship to the head gardener.

I was later both pleased and surprised to come across Felicity Wood’s book The Extraordinary Khotso at the Cape Town Book Fair in 2009 and to find that a lot of my fictional descriptions of Khotso and his home in the Eastern Cape had a grounding in fact. Now there was something to smile about.