Book review: language takes flight in Marlene van Niekerk’s ‘The Swan Whisperer’

Marlene van Niekerk is a character in her own narrative as she explores concepts of writing, reading and translation in the Man Booker International Prize-shortlisted book.

The Swan Whisperer by Marlene van Niekerk is published by Sylph Editions.
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"Honorable rector," begins Man Booker International Prize-shortlisted Marlene van Niekerk's "lecture", The Swan Whisperer, "what does one teach when one is a teacher of creative writing?"

Instead of analysis, in this slim pamphlet she slips the bounds of the academic format to offer her audience a story: “Perhaps some clarity could be reached by exposing the entire episode to a critical audience such as yourselves.” This entails the South African author becoming a character in her own narrative.

“No desire without technique, and no meaning without rhetoric,” grumbles the irritable “van-Niekerk-as-narrator,” who is a writing tutor at “an institute of higher learning where there is no longer any place for astonishment, fear, or fascination”.

Her teaching approach consists of aphoristic injunctions to shorten, to “stick to the knitting”, to show not tell and, above all, to “write what readers want”.

That is until she receives a series of mysterious letters from an intriguing but troubled ex-student, Kaspar Olwagen, whom she remembers contrary to her “laws”, felt for his writing pen in his breast pocket “as though he first wanted to touch his heart”. As well as letters, Olwagen sends cassettes, another indicator of his analog obsolescence.

The Swan Whisperer offers the delight of not one, but two unreliable narrators. The "van Niekerk" of the book exists on "frozen meals from Nice and Easy," which she eats among a debris of "speeding tickets and bills".

She constantly loses Olwagen’s letters, puts them aside in irritation or absent-mindedness.

“I never replied,” the writing teacher says. “This is the first time I have ever spoken of my neglect.”

Kaspar, says “van Niekerk”, should have been a philosopher, not a writer. He insists on “ideas”. But what she finds most irritating is that, given her teaching, and even the right environment (a luxurious grant to visit “a writer’s paradise” in Amsterdam), her student cannot seem to be able to write.

Of course communicating this to his teacher by letter, he does write and not in everyday language. We couldn’t take Kaspar’s style on its own. The beauty (and there is beauty!) in his high-flown flourishes and romantic concepts must be framed by “van Niekerk’s” down-to-earth scorn or it would be indigestible.

Nevertheless it is in the gap produced between the two writing styles that The Swan Whisperer is able to ask us how we enjoy reading and why.

“Writing and living coincide completely in this letter,” writes Kaspar, who tells how though “overbred, neurotic, afraid of germs, [he] offers accommodation to a grimy maladjusted stranger,” the “Swan Whisperer,” a man who appears to be homeless and whose conversation makes no apparent sense. His strange guest produces a third style of communication: he speaks in the tongues of angels.

But The Swan Whisperer deals not only with literature as a philosophical investigation of language. It is also a deeply political book. "Fiction can no longer console us," protests Kaspar. "The terror of our fatherland robs the narrative imagination of desire and determination ... we have to become brutal collectors of facts."

Van Niekerk is a South African writer in Afrikaans and Dutch as well as English and is acutely aware of the difficulties of depicting a post-apartheid South Africa in any of these languages.

Her query, “What does one teach when one is a teacher of creative writing?” prompts the consequent question: what can, and should, a writer write?

The book is not an answer to the question of the mystery of writing, but a delineation of the mystery itself – a depiction of the space of “translation” in which the reader, with greater, or lesser difficulty, interprets what is written – and that (as it must be for the “van Niekerk” of the story) is achievement enough.

“I wrote in the margin: ‘Delete the ideas!’,” says “van Niekerk”. “[Kaspar] simply could not achieve the narrative resolution of meaning and minutiae.”

The illustrations in this gorgeous Cahier edition make it clear that The Swan Whisperer is a book about its own hors-texte, but this is one book whose pages I cannot bring myself to annotate. And, though they touch me, I will also leave untouched those pages illustrated by artist William Kentridge, which explode in a violence of ink.

Joanna Walsh is the author of Vertigo. She edits fiction at 3:AM magazine and runs @read_women.