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Shortlisted in 2015 for the prestigious international Man Booker Prize, Marlene van Niekerk (b.1954), grew up in the rural Overberg, attended high school in Stellenbosch and read languages, literature and philosophy at the University of Stellenbosch (1973-1978).

“Marlene van Niekerk is the author of two immense masterpieces, Triomf and Agaat, which chart in evocative, sometimes disturbing detail the aches and aggravations of political transition in SA for those who saw themselves as on the losing side, in particular impoverished Afrikaners,” read the Man Booker judges’ citation.

“Van Niekerk’s vision is ambitious, uncompromising and irrefutable. The bold experimentalism of her Afrikaans takes the reader deep inside the contortions of the apartheid psyche and asks whether some historical hurts and hatreds can ever be entirely erased.”

Following her studies, Marlene enjoyed a stint as directing apprentice in the theatres of Mainz and Stuttgart, followed by a further five years of study in philosophy and cultural anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. On her return to South Africa she taught philosophy, Dutch and Afrikaans literature respectively at the Universities of South Africa and the Witwatersrand.

Besides Triomf (1994) and Agaat (2004) her writings include four (unpublished) stage plays: Vrolike Frans, Die kersvaders, Die Duiwel, sy helper en die drieligtekooie, written between 1976 and 1978, a recent piece of political black comedy, Die kortstondige raklewe van Anastasia W. (2010), two collections of poetry, Sprokkelster (1976) and Groenstaar (1983), two collections of short stories, Die vrou wat haar verkyker vergeet het (1992) and Die Sneeuslaper (2010), and a third novel, Memorandum (together with the painter Adriaan van Zyl, 2006). All her work have been translated into English and several other European languages. Her third collection of poems, and her first in three decades, Kaar (2013) was awarded the prestigious South African Hertzog Prize.

She is currently employed at the University of Stellenbosch where she teaches creative writing, interspersed in recent years by temporary teaching periods at the Universities of Utrecht and Leiden in the Netherlands.

Photo credit: Retha Ferguson

 

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Tyto alba

None who has a trap so tightly shut
as the beak of the barn-owl,
none with veil so strictly starched
round the head, whose gaze
so pale, who with such stealth
can swoop to pluck a scamp
from the stalks, and in full
habit with such hissy screeches
perches on the bell-beam
then, silently, witchlike, splits her maw
to crank macramé-knots of mole
from the crypt of her heretic craw.

Die mandjie

Soms is die opruim van ‘n stukkend-ding ondoenlik.
Die kleingelui uit hierdie korf van rottang
op my kombuis se boonste rak, die dieprooi vlek
op sy verslete ribbes stig my tot aandagtigheid,
ek verstrak hier waar ek reik om by te kom,
en seisoene my oorspoel in vlietende vervinniging
onder ‘n onthou- de boom, eers in September
‘n wit, bloeiende bruidagtigheid, dan langsaam amarant
in al haar pitte, haar buitetakke swellend
tot ‘n koepel krismispruime in Desember,
die globules moerswart, toweragtig oorgewasem,
tintinnabuli by ‘n ligte skud vallend
in die gras om te versamel met klein handjies
en te pak in hierdie einste mandjie met slap hingsels.
Ons dra hom, hinkend, elkeen aan ‘n arm,
na die spens waaruit daelank ‘n klok van vrugte-asem
tamp, ‘n parfuum geblaas uit die ongehoorde klank,
die onmoontlike maroen van somer,
uit die stil, onbedaarlik ryping wat verlange
en verwildering in die sinne bring, ontug
beier in die gange van die boerehuis. Ek hóú
dié mandjie wat my woorde erf, die gees
van pruim bly onuitwisbaar in die vlegwerk
aangesweem, ‘n roes nog ruikbaar tot in die diep,
togtige, druppende winter as die konserf
oor die wit kruim op my bord geskep word,
met ‘n herkenbare tint, ‘n identiese timbre.

The basket

At times the tidying away of broken things won’t do.
The small knell sounding from this wicker casket
up on the kitchen’s highest shelf, the deep red
staining of its withered ribs, call me to attentiveness,
so that I stall here where I stretch to reach,
flooded by a rush of seasons, washed up
by an old remembered tree entering September
in bridal white, then slowly turning amaranth
in all her pips, her outer branches swelling
in December to a dome of Christmas plums,
the globules black like little wombs, misted
and bewitched with bloom, tintinnabuli tumbling
at the slightest shake for gathering from the gloom
of grass in tiny hands and packed into this very crate
hanging from two gangly arms. We lug it limping
to the store where all day long it tolls
a bell of fruity breath, a scent that rouses
summer- longings with its merciless maroon,
it’s quiet, steady ripening bewildering the senses,
it’s wantonness intoning in the farmer’s home.
I shall keep this punnet that inherits my poem,
the spirit of plum forever tingeing its worn-out weft,
a frenzy reaching deep into the draughty, dripping winter
when the jam is spooned over the white crumb
on my plate, still bearing the tint, the identical timbre.