The Swan Whisperer by Marlene van Niekerk is the literary equivalent of an impossible space – that is, this 40-page sewn paperback, lush with illustrations by fellow South African, famed artist William Kentridge, contains a tale much larger than its size would suggest. It begins modestly. Subtitled An Inaugural Lecture, van Niekerk opens with a series of questions for her imagined audience:
“What does one teach when one is a teacher of Creative Writing? The true? The good? The beautiful? Should one teach criticism, fantasy, or faith? What is the use of literature? What is its place on the greater canvas of human endeavours? And perhaps I should also ask: Can a story offer consolation?”
Voluminous texts have been penned to examine questions such as these, and yet within the 18 pages that lie ahead once the illustrations have been accounted for, is our esteemed professor at the lectern is planning to explore them all? No, she is going to tell a story, offer a fable within a fable, share an experience that she claims rendered these questions irrelevant for her.
What plays out in this inventive and thoughtful allegorical tale is an exploration of the relationship between language and meaning, meaning and truth, truth and the stories we tell which, in turn, leads back to language. Van Niekerk casts herself in the role of the skeptic. At the outset she is busy with the final revisions on a novel that is almost complete. Around her, the rest of her life and responsibilities have been suspended while she survives on frozen dinners and ignores her untended house and garden. The last thing she is prepared to welcome at this moment is a 67-page letter from a former student who, she discovers, is writing from a hospital bed in Amsterdam. She had recommended him for a student fellowship in the city with the thought that the change of place might finally help this pale, anxious young man finish off his MA and move on. But she is certain without reading beyond the first few paragraphs that there is little hope for him and most certainly nothing in his massive missive for her.
And so it goes. After reading a little further, she tucks his letter into a drawer and forgets about it until an unusual package arrives: a dummy of her new novel in which he has written notes and dates, along with 16 cassette tapes. Gradually she will be drawn into the story he wants – no, needs – to share. Cynically she reads about how her student, Kasper Olwagon, believes he has discovered, quite magically almost, an unusual homeless man who seems to have an uncanny ability to summon swans to himself. He watches the man for a while and ultimately takes this vagrant home. He longs to know how this apparent ‘swan whisperer’ calls to the magnificent birds, but for all of his efforts, Kasper is unable to encourage or help him to speak.
In his long letter, Kasper anticipates his professor’s reaction, but he persists and over time, as she is drawn into the mystery and returns repeatedly to his letter for clues. She reads about his attempts to extract meaning from the murmurings he believes he heard, his desire to translate the language of swans. She hears in his efforts echoes of Afrikaans. Slowly she will begin to understand the meaning of the cryptic note that accompanied his parcel containing the book and tapes. The last words he wrote to her were: “Farewell to the worlds of will and representation!” As readers we are invited to follow the entwined journeys of student and teacher to that place where all of those questions posed at the beginning seem to be archaic, irrelevant. And once those rhetorical questions are left behind, one begins to appreciate the expanse of the impossible space contained in this small book.
The Swan Whisperer is the latest addition to the “Cahier Series”, a joint project of the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris and Sylph Editions. Eminent writers and translators are invited to offer their reflections on writing, on translating, and on the intersection between the two activities. Each volume is accompanied by illustrations. Here, the striking black and white drawings by William Kentridge act almost as a visual soundtrack. His work has a tendency to explode off the page. The images complement the story by exploring the relationship between artists, animals and language. The text is translated from the Afrikaans by Marius Swart and the author.
I have to add that this particular volume held a special appeal for me. This spring I read, for the first time, Marlene van Niekerk’s magnificent novel Agaat. Not only is this a complex, deeply moving story; but the way that language is evoked and brought into play presented a challenge well met by the translator, Michiel Heyns. Not long after this encounter I made my first visit to South Africa and I had the singular pleasure of experiencing William Kentridge’s installation “The Refusal of Time” at the National Gallery in Cape Town. It was, I felt, like a command performance as no one else even ventured into the room beyond a quick glance at the door. Their loss and one of my fondest memories of my stay in the city.
And now I have both artists together in this enchanting and thought provoking book.