Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Debate: Novels have to engage with politcs, says Heyns

Award-winning novelist Michiel Heyns, who has recently published Invisible Furies (Jonathan Ball), speaks to Mary Corrigall about Lost Ground, his previous novel.

You dismissed an interviewer’s observation that Lost Ground is a “state of the nation” novel, suggesting that every SA novel delivers pronouncements on it. Are the worth of novels still measured against the depths to which they plunge into socio-political conditions? I hope I didn’t “dismiss” the observation! But, yes, given the nature of the novel, most, if not all novels, would offer some kind of reflection (not “pronouncement”), direct or indirect, on the socio-political conditions underlying its production. The second part of your question is more difficult, but I’ll stick my neck out and say that yes, I think that novels are still gauged as “important” or not, depending on their engagement with those conditions.

Could political commentary be better served in a crime novel?No, I don’t think so, unless we were to say that crime is the main component of our political situation. I know it sometimes feels that way, but I wouldn’t want to proceed on that assumption.

Writers often address the canon from which their writing is rooted, how do you think Lost Ground responds to the political novel (or other genres)? I did not think of Lost Ground as emerging from that particular canon, no. If I had in mind any particular forerunner, it was Shakespeare’s Othello – yes, a political work, I suppose, and also a story of a crime, though I didn’t think of it in just those terms.

In writing Lost Ground, what did you discover about political/social conditions that hadn’t been so obvious to you before?Constructing a plot means, among other things, figuring out the relations between different characters. In constructing the fictional town of Alfredville, I was forced to recognise how interwoven the different parts of the community are – any community. I realised this in the abstract; but writing the novel brought it home very graphically. I had to dramatise, that is, imagine, very different perspectives on the same situation.

Ashraf Jamal has suggested that this imperative to describe the socio-political conditions in SA has limited the vocabulary of fiction – do you agree? If we accept that there is this imperative, it would probably be a limiting one. And my answer to the first question suggests I do think there is some such pressure (“imperative” may be too strong a word, as is “compelled”). But if the presentation of socio-political conditions is a natural part of the process of novel-writing, then it needn’t be limiting; it’s just part of what goes into most novels.- published June 24, 2012.

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