REVIEW: Jonathan Amid
Released in 2009 to critical acclaim, Karin Brynard’s Plaasmoord, now translated ably into English by Maya Fowler and Isobel Dixon, laid bare just how farm murders have infiltrated our nation’s psyche – particularly the collective unconscious of the Afrikaner minority, their ties to the land intimately connected to a sense of being and being at home.
Brynard, renowned journalist and political correspondent for Rapport for many years, was canny enough to construct a white knuckle crime-thriller that stood out for marrying acute social diagnosis and socio-political commentary with a deep understanding of the need for suspense and tension and the exploitation of reader fears and anxieties.
An assured debut – intriguing from its inception, punchy, gritty, by turns gruesome, sensitive, dense and ever evocative, covering much from stock theft to muti murders, and everything in between – it was Brynard’s background in journalism, one shared by fellow Afrikaans krimi writers Deon Meyer, Chris Karsten and Rudie van Rensburg, that allowed her to get to the heart of the story she was telling.
And it’s far less political than some readers might expect.
Although I was anxious over the way that Brynard’s emotive brand of storytelling would play out in translated form, the end result is a worthy, well-weighted grappling with language and meaning, capturing on balance the unsettling tone and menace of the original, the unctuous dialogue and the crackling different dialects, while the translated text evinces its own gut-punch poetics.
Weeping Waters is an excellent title for this translation, a lead-off into the way that the novel functions is carried ahead by a large and finely drawn ensemble cast, of whom I can only mention a few here. Among the most memorable and well-drawn of these translated figures – a translation of characters that are by definition variations of the Afrikaner, thus allowing for a process of deep cultural translation in the work being done by the writing from Afrikaans into English – are the central figure of artist Freddie Swarts, coming into the Huilwater farm after the death of her father.
Freddie is the central absence that hovers over the action, the brutally slain adoptive mother of a young girl of colour who is also killed. The translated title sets up a change from the more politically discursive and incendiary Plaasmoord, literally “farm murder”, into the more measured but no less resonant Weeping Waters. What this change achieves in relation to the death at the novel’s heart – both a metonymic kind of death and a tragic culling of individual life and livelihood – is to focus a jaundiced eye on the way that space functions in relation to both real people that populate our country, and fictional subjects that help us to understand these actual living beings in the real world.
The extended metaphor of weeping – of lamentation, of trauma bottled up but also released – extends from the Huilwater farm and Freddie herself to her troubled relationship with her sister Saar. Brynard sidesteps an (exclusive) focus on farm murder discourse, and reveals how murder both political and intensely personal.
In bitter conflict with Freddie about the affairs of her ailing father and his estate before his death, Saar becomes one of the novel’s most central figures, her loss and pain over the death of her father and sister flowing directly into the way that we see the main suspect in the eyes of the community and police. Dam, or Adam, is a direct descendant from the bloodline of historical figure Adam Kok, the Griqua leader who by all accounts had a fascinating relationship to Empire and missionaries in South Africa.
Dam is painted in lush strokes and with a terrific eye for interiority and motivation by the translation (much like in the original text), and through the unpacking of the complex relationship between Dam and Freddie – who drew remarkably lucid but disturbing visions of her impending death before it happened – we are able to see just how skilled Brynard is at setting up wave upon wave of paranoia, mistrust and fraught intimacy.
If Freddie’s relationship with her immediate community allows Brynard to dig deeply into issues around land, the erosion of community ties, right-wing obsessions, rural ways of life amid growing political discontent, Brynard’s narrative is always grounded in the reader’s identification with the everyman investigator Inspector Albertus Beeslaar, the novel’s flawed but compassionate figure of detection who must grapple with both the transition from the evils of the city and a personal life in crisis and the darkness of men’s (and women’s) hearts in the rural idyll.
Ultimately, what Weeping Waters gets spot on is the introduction of another compelling leading man, an indisputably goodman, who can allow readers in English to traverse the diverse social strata that make South Africa such a fertile ground for its skilled writers.
- This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2014.