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(Literary Review – 1993)
Review of Etienne Van Heerden's 'Ancestral Voices'

Review of Ancestral Voices

By Etienne Van Heerden (Allison & Busby £5.99)

EVEN THE MOST avid enthusiasts of Van Heerden's South African brand of magical realism are going to need their wits about them with Ancestral Voices (in Afrikaans Toorberg). I found myself flicking back to the family tree so often that in the end I made a photocopy and used it as a bookmark.

There are five generations of Moolmans in the Familie, and a further six in the Skaamfamilie (the Family of Shame), the 'coloured' Riet family who sprang from the loins of the disgraced Floris Moolman (see tree). Some, like FounderAbel Moolman and OldAbel Moolman, are long dead and gone. Others - Abel Moolman, for example, the farmer, or CrossAbel Moolman, his furious motor-cycling son - are definitely alive and kicking. Yet others, AlsoAbel Moolman, say, or LittleAbel Moolman, have never made it to this complex rural world, stillborn in the womb of the beautiful black-eyed Ella Coetzer Moolman, she who was loved by De La Rey Moolman (the dreamer who lost his soul in Cape Town) but ended up being won by Abel Moolman (the farmer who stayed behind).

Just to make things easier, Death, usually a convenient cut-off point in fiction, has no dominion over the Moolmans. The magical Toorberg farm is full of Moolman ghosts, ghosts who are as capable of a lengthy flashback or reminiscence as any of the living Moolmans.

The novel finds its focus in the sad demise of the last of the Moolmans, little Noah du Pisani (illegitimate son of the rootless water-finder Dowser du Pisani and the mad but extraordinarily beautiful CrazyTilly Moolman), who falls down a borehole and dies. Was he pushed, or did he stumble? And when he lay there, his little cries winging up to the ears of the assembled living (and dead, for the spooks are of course all present and correct) Moolmans at the top of the hole, was he put out of his misery by a single shot from Abel Moolman's rifle? And if so, how many of the other Moolmans knew?

These are the questions put by the investigating magistrate, Abraham van der Ligt, who has one arm and intersperses the narrative with detailed explanatory letters home to his beloved wife. (Whether she is dead or alive I'd better not tell you, as that would spoil the ending.)

One by one the members of the Familie and the Skaamfamilie (deceased and undeceased) give their accounts, until finally we have a clear picture of the strange sequence of events that took place on the fateful day.

The only problem is - do we care? The death of a little boy, particularly an unwanted illegitimate little boy, is clearly tragic, but as we are never really allowed to get to know him in life, our sympathies for him as he lies dying are purely abstract. The same is true of our relationship with the other characters: their lives and histories are described in a manner which is often evocative and beautifully observed but - perhaps there are just too many of them - their predicaments and points of view remain curiously uncompelling.

For the English reader, Ancestral Voices provides further difficulties, difficulties which have nothing to do with Van Heerden's expertise as a writer in Afrikaans. I have travelled a fair amount in Southern Africa and have visited Afrikaner farmsteads as lovely and mysterious as the fictional Toorberg. I have no need to look in my accompanying glossary to discover that, say, a koeksister is not another crazed member of me Moolman clan, but a 'plaited pastry deep fried and drenched in syrup'. More crucially, I don't need to be told that the Skaamfamilie is 'coloured', while the Familie is white. But for the uninitiated, it isn't until page 35, when Katie Danster says to the magistrate, 'We don't often have white people here, Your Worship', that this fact, so important to the narrative, so obvious (because of names and circumstances) to the South African reader, is made clear. And this is just one of numerous examples of potential cross-cultural confusion.

Fans of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, those acquainted with South African rural life, and those with time and energy on their hands may well enjoy Ancestral Voices - but I certainly wouldn't recommend it for the aeroplane or the beach.
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