Pasts remembered, future identities pursued : postcolonial nostalgia in Etienne van Heerden's novels, Ancestral voices and 30 Nights in Amsterdam.
The aim of this study is to explore the concept and application of nostalgia in two of Etienne van Heerden’s novels in their English translation, Ancestral Voices (1989) and 30 Nights in Amsterdam (2011). I aim to show that, although Van Heerden’s novels have localized content and context — they arise from the parochial tradition of the plaasroman (farm novel) — their wider focus is postcolonial in that the ‘ancestral voices’ implicate Afrikaans identity in a multicultural entanglement, as well as in a global, cosmopolitan identity. By selecting an earlier and a later novel, I suggest a trajectory in Van Heerden’s work in consonance with a post-apartheid movement from an inward-looking, insular culture to a more general sense of former colonies and metropoles as inextricably linked. The fact that Van Heerden’s novels, in translation, enjoy a world readership confirms a local-to-global trajectory, thus emphasizing the postcolonial significance of the author’s work. The concept of nostalgia is viewed by many in the contemporary world as sentimental and biased, based on its focus on positive recall and emotional yearning. In recent years, however, there has been a serious rethink about nostalgia and inquiries are being made into why nostalgic feelings arise, what they mean and what can be learnt from them. It is being recognized that, although it deals with the past, nostalgia has a significant bearing on the present and the future. Accordingly, this study explores how Van Heerden’s nostalgic treatment of the past complements his exploration of the anxieties of the present. Coming to terms with the past — in order to understand the present and imagine a future — is a challenge faced locally, as well as globally. Nostalgia is a concept that allows for the expression of the concerns generated by the rapid social changes in the world, and it is an effective literary device which Van Heerden has applied in his novels. My study adds to a body of work that explores postcolonial writing in translation and its impact on world writing. Such explorations promote inter-cultural understanding and help preclude cultural homogenization.