Monday, May 7, 2012

Seven Days at the Silbersteins

Seven Days at the Silbersteins
By Etienne Leroux

Living in a non-English speaking country is a challenge for a reader. For me, books are often hard to come by and while it's not impossible to get them (there are bookstores in Taipei, three hours by train and Amazon does ship to Taiwan), it can be feast or famine at times. while my Kindle has eased some of the worst famines, I'm certainly not living in a place of unlimited access to books.

Despite the challenge inherent to a reader in Taiwan, there is an interesting side-advantage that I never considered but turns out to be true. Living in a medium-sized city with a small population of English speakers from all over the world has provided me with the chance to read a wide assortment of English literature from countries I would otherwise have ignored (unwittingly, of course). If I still lived in Canada I would be inundated with Canadian and American literature with a smattering of English novels to fill the gaps. Aside from the odd worldwide curiosity, I would hardly get exposed to the depths of Australian literature, or New Zealander, or South African.

As it turns out, I've had the opportunity to read a lot of interesting books from around the world due to the fact that I live in an international expatriate community and Seven Days at the Silbersteins is a prime example of a book I would have never read otherwise.

Seven Days at the Silbersteins is a classic South African novel by Etienne Leroux. Originally published in Afrikaans in 1962, Seven Day at the Silbersteins is a classic in it's original language. I'm not sure if this book is widely available outside Sotuth Africa. This particular English translation was done by Charles Eglington. Needless to say, I imagine this book would be difficult to find in a North American bookstore. Despite such obscurity, Seven Days at the Silbersteins won the Herzog Prize, the highest award in Afrikaans literature.

On the surface it is the story of Henry Van Eeden, a young, well-educated South African who is escorted to the vast Silberstein estate by his uncle, J.J. in order to meet Salome, the young girl he is betrothed to marry. Henry spends seven days at the Silberstein's winery and cattle ranch (called Weldevonden) meeting the family (of which the enigmatic Jock reigns supreme), attending parties populated by eccentric gentry and farmers and, mysteriously enough, not meeting Salome. She is in attendance at all the functions, but Henry remains uncertain as to which guest is his fiancee until the very end. The surface story is the literary equivalent of a Three's Company episode.

But this novel cannot be read on a surface level. Leroux's prose is dense with philosophical and social implications. Written as a time of social awakening in South Africa, the text is a bizarre trip that examines the nature of good versus evil, the essence of salvation, the formlessness of being and the divine among a plethora of other themes. At another level, Seven Days at the Silbersteins is a literary awakening of the Afrikaans voice at a time when South Africa was itself awakening from several decades of crippling apartheid to find themselves increasingly the pariah on the world stage. I get the impression that this novel and its highly liberal ideas when a long way toward softening the Afrikaans stance on race relations in South Africa, but I could be wrong.

The prose is so dense that it takes a linguistic machete to hack through its layers. One of the central themes of the book is the notion of reality vs. illusion and the book often diverges into bizarre twists and turns that are sometimes difficult to understand. Leroux is concerned with the the notion of masks and hidden realities and this not only comes out in the surface narrative but also on various philosophical levels. This obsession with illusion and reality is perfectly manifest in the ongoing interplay between the very real Henry and the illusory Salome, whose presence is entirely definite, but at the same time, entirely indefinite.

While the novel itself is short (only 157 pages) the writing is so dense and layered that it should be read slowly in order to really chew the philosophical fat. Each chapter represents a particular day and each chapter descends deeper into a world where very little is certain and everything seems possible. But don't get me wrong, aside from the deeper themes of the novel Seven Days at the Silbersteins is very much a piece of humor. Watching Henry stumble and bumble about his future in-laws estate, being continuously misunderstood and misinterpreted (often to his advantage) is a lesson in good comedic writing. The pacing is as it should be. Quick on story and long on thought.

If you are into philosophical comedy and/or Afrikaans literature (and I know you are!), this is as good a place to start.

Shout Out

Despite the fact that she has really culled back her posting recently (boo!), I really dig what Erin has to say over at Erin Reads. Excellent blog. Check her out!


Buried In Print said...

I've come to think that it's these skinny books that are destined to linger the longest on my reading pile; a reader's instinct suggests that they will be read more quickly, but I think of so many skinny books that have taken me longer to read than books three times their girth. I found reading your thoughts on this slim volume of interest, even if it's not one that I'm likely to find readily in Canada.

Stephanie said...

Great post. I've just come back home after a month in Argentina, and my reading pile grew dramatically with all sorts of oddities I picked up from the highly limited English language sections from the bookshops I visited. I never thought I'd have so many cozy mysteries and 1970s "skinny" (as you put it) literary novels in my pile!

Stephanie @ Read in a Single Sitting

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