Loss, estrangement and literary murder


Loss, estrangement and literary murder

GERDA TALJAARD has read Michiel Heyns's latest book about a merciless world where the gentleness of Jesus cannot hold a candle to the tyranny of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. Where the internet has turned humans into monsters, and dogs show more humanity than humans.


EACH MORTAL THING is award-winning author Michiel Heyns's 10th novel. Like his previous works, this book also deals with the complexity of being human, because man is simultaneously evil and fragile. It examines man's need for intimacy and fellow feeling, even if the desire to reach out to others often has life-changing consequences.

London is experiencing a heatwave. Terence Winshaw, a literary scholar and exiled South African, finds himself on a train moving at a snail's pace due to technical difficulties. He is on his way to Heathrow to welcome Natasha de Villiers, a young South African writer who has been nominated for a literary prize.

Along the way, Terence is rendered reflective by a “stubby" church tower on the horizon. Its desolate decay reminds him of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins's mesmerising sonnet As Kingfishers Catch Fire, about the human condition of displacement and impermanence, among other things.

This poem serves as an epigraph to Heyns' novel and determines the book's philosophical vein. The title of the novel is also taken from the sonnet. It prepares the reader for the main character's constant search for goodwill in a merciless world where sweet Jesus' gentleness cannot hold a candle to the tyranny of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.

Dogs more humane than humans

Terence and the other characters — Simon, Jenny, Natasha, Selena, Clarissa, Sonja and Andy — philosophise about the point of human existence. Is there still room for empathy and compassion on a planet where the internet has turned humans into monsters, and where dogs show more humanity than most humans?

This does not mean Heyns's novel is inordinately morbid. His signature (gallows) humour provides enjoyable comic relief, often in the main character's many quips. In fact, Terence's girlfriend, Jenny, accuses him of erecting a barrier between himself and harsh reality with his witty remarks and quotes; like Hamlet, she says, he hides behind “the charm of words".

The contemplative nature of the novel is enhanced by several quotes from Hamlet, and there are  numerous other intertextual references, including  TS Eliot's The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, WB Yeats' Lapis Lazuli, Franz Schubert's Winterreise, F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and the mythological painting A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph, by Italian artist Piero di Cosimo.

The last reference, in particular, is significant and recurrent. The nymph whose death is mourned by the satyr embodies, among other things, Natasha's “literary murder" by a “little shit" of a reviewer who suggests she committed plagiarism, with the effect that she is “stoned" by the literary establishment in London.

Natasha and the nymph

To Terence, Natasha, like the nymph in the painting, represents an innocent sincerity in “... a world of lying politicians and murderous mothers". She is the antidote to modern man's greed and self-obsession, and to Londoners' chilling aloofness that Terence experiences on a daily basis. He describes her as “... honest as a Karoo morning ..." and laments the fact that he is accused of plagiarism.

The satyr in the painting represents Terence, since he feels a “goatish tenderness" towards Natasha, a mixture of “love and desire", which later develops into full-fledged lust, as befits a real satyr.

Natasha identifies with the nymph, describing the painting as follows:

It gets sadder the more I look at it. The satyr is touching her so tenderly, as if he can’t believe that she’s dead ... and my heart breaks for the grieving satyr, but I suppose I identify with the poor dead nymph ... And yet she is at peace. Perhaps she loved the satyr, and perhaps he didn’t realise it, until now ... Perhaps he even caused her death without meaning to.

The last line in the above quote turns out to be prophetic. Di Cosimo's painting eventually becomes a metaphor for loss when Terence visits London's National Gallery again to look at it: “... it was above all a depiction of loss".

Some art historians believe Di Cosimo's painting depicts an episode from Ovid's Metamorphosis. This would make sense in the context of Heyns's novel — this classic work suggests, among other things, that the author wants to gain immortality through his writing. But “all mortal things" are subject to impermanence. This brings us back to the Hopkins poem that introduces Heyns's novel — “everything is transient, yes, but everything must ripen and catch alight" in honour of God's grandeur. Or put another way by Andy, Terence's sniper friend: “The world is what it is, I reckon, and we have to live in it it's best we can."

At street level

Later, it is Andy who is associated with the scene in the painting when he is attacked on the street, and like the nymph he lies bleeding on the ground with his faithful dog at his feet. Andy makes Terence look at life “differently", literally at street level, but with the consolation that “someone" takes care of him in the midst of all the injustice and delinquency. Terence also realises that Andy, who has nothing, turns out to be happier than him and all his privileged friends.

Ultimately, Heyns's novel acquires a universal meaning: that we are fallible and impermanent, but that in spite of this we are able to create “immortal" beauty; and that this beauty is often born out of pain. Also that we are equally capable of aesthetics and violence, kindness and cruelty.

Most of the characters in Each Mortal Thing are strangers in London — Simon, Terence and Natasha are South Africans, Jenny is an American,  Andy is from Tyneside. Terence ponders not only his alienness in London, but also on Earth. The line from Schubert's Winterreise that appears repeatedly in Heyns's text confirms this: “Fremd bin ich eingezogen, Fremd zieh' ich wieder aus". (As a stranger I have arrived, as a stranger I will leave again.)

Heyns's novel makes the reader think about identity, sexuality, the price of engagement, displacement, benevolence and the value of unconditional friendship.

The strength of this book lies especially in the strong characterization. The most interesting characters are Andy and Sonja, and it's a shame the reader doesn't learn more about the latter - I'd love to know how she “sorted out" the “little shit" of a reviewer.

One wonders if the controversy (also on Vrye Weekblad) surrounding Willem Anker's Buys and the English version, Red Dog, ties in with the section on plagiarism in Heyns's novel. After all, no text exists in isolation, and Heyns was the translator of Anker's text. But perhaps this external factor is irrelevant to the sweeping theme of man's folly and his inability to be kind. Or maybe not.

♦ VWB ♦

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