Saturday, September 12, 2009

"The Children’s Day"

Michiel Heyns grew up all over South Africa – Thaba Nchu, Kimberley, Grahamstown, Cape Town - and was educated at the Universities of Stellenbosch and Cambridge. He is the author of four novels: The Children’s Day, The Reluctant Passenger, The Typewriter’s Tale, and Bodies Politic. He has translated two works by Marlene van Niekerk, Agaat and Memorandum, and he has recently translated Equatoria by Tom Dreyer, Aflame Books (UK) 2008. He reviews regularly for the Sunday Independent. Heyns was awarded the English Academy's Pringle Prize for reviewing in 2006 and the Sunday Times Fiction prize in 2007 for his translation of Agaat.

He applied the Page 69 Test to The Children’s Day and reported the following:
Page 69 describes one of several emotional crises that the young protagonist-narrator, Simon, undergoes in the course of the novel. It is a representative instance of Simon’s painful encounters with the “cool web of language”, that construct that both defends us from extremes of emotion and dulls our senses to the true intensity of unmediated experience.

Set in Verkeerdespruit (“the wrong creek”) a desolate little town in South Africa in the 1960’s, the novel’s negative theme is lovelessness – as most dramatically embodied in the prevailing politico-religious dispensation, more subtly in interpersonal relations. Conversely, the novel’s positive theme is love, in all its multifarious and puzzling manifestations. Simon’s quandary is learning to distinguish between love and lovelessness, a process in which the various labels offered by society prove to be of little help.

Here, Simon is talking to Betty the Exchange, the town’s chinless but principled switchboard operator, while they are having soft drinks in the town’s only café. They have both, in their different ways, been drawn to one Steve, a big-city biker who has fascinated and horrified Verkeerdespruit in about equal measure. Recently, Steve has abducted Fanie, a young classmate of Simon’s; he was apprehended in a nearby village and sent to prison. Now Simon has to come to terms not only with Steve’s feelings for Fanie, but with the nature of Betty’s feelings for Steve. “Fanie said Steve liked him” Simon tells Betty, the safer word “liked” here standing in for several more troubling alternatives.

“Yes, and I thought Steve liked me,” Betty counters, also availing herself of the safer label. But as the scene progresses, and Betty reveals the true nature of her relationship with Steve, Simon is brought face to face with the puzzle of human affection. Perplexed at Betty’s failure to “tell the police” that Steve had absconded with her savings (“In my world people who stole had to go to jail”) he asks her, “But why not?”

“You won’t understand,” she says, but then does after all try to make him understand:

“Because I loved him.” The straw made a slurping sound as she sucked up the last little bit of her cream soda.

This declaration, for reasons at this stage unclear to him, so upsets Simon that he rushes out of the café. Ironically, in a society riven by injustice and intolerance, “love” presents itself to Simon as an enormity, almost an obscenity.
Read an excerpt from The Children’s Day, and learn more about the author and his work at Michiel Heyns' website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue