Van Heerden offers a lyrical but underpowered interpretation of his country’s history as a young woman visits an isolated village that’s trapped in the past.
Relying on allegory and a labored magic realism, van Heerden (Ancestral Voices, 1992) tells a story both of the old South Africa and the new one, vital and optimistic about the future. Among the characters in the village of Yearsonend are ghostly ones from the past like Captain Gird, an English painter of South African wildlife in the early 19th century; his bushman guide, Slingshot X!am; the gold-obsessed General Taljaard, who has fought in all his country’s wars; and Granny Siela Pedi, who, after capture by Boer soldiers, fell in love with their leader, Field Cornet Pistorius. The flesh and blood inhabitants include a mute and blind Italian stonecutter, Mario Salviati, who came to the village during WWII; Jonty Jack Bergh, a sculptor; and Ingi Friedlander, a museum curator who is the daughter of Jews fleeing the Holocaust. Ingi has come to Yearsonend to persuade Jonty Jack to sell to her museum his famous statue, the Staggering Merman. Meanwhile, the villagers, spinners of myths and old tales, dream obsessively of finding the gold that Field Cornet Pistorius and the ostrich-feather Magnate Meerlust Bergh buried in 1902. Jonty’s father, Big Karel, who disappeared when his plan to bring water over the mountain seemed to have failed, may have discovered the gold and entrusted the knowledge to Salviati. As Ingi visits haunted houses like the Feather Palace, where Jonty’s mixed-race grandparents Meerlust and Indonesian Irene once lived, she befriends the aging Salviati, talks art with Jonty, and prepares to leave empty-handed. But first she watches the town’s gold mania reach fever pitch as Jonty blasts open a mountain cave where he believes father’s body lies and where the villagers believe the gold is hidden: a cathartic action that finally cuts the crippling ties to the past.
Ambitious but diffuse.