Fate Decided Otherwise

In October 2005 I interviewed the Dutch writer Henk van Woerden for the Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad. There in the Amsterdam art gallery Espace, where his novel Ultramarine (Ultramarijn) was being launched and there was an exhibition of his drawings and photos, he told me that he was ‘dog-tired’. He attributed his fatigue to jetlag. He had arrived only a few hours earlier from Ann Arbor, where he was teaching as writer in residence at the University of Michigan. The subject of death did not arise, he did not appear to be ill, and as he lit one cigarette after another with gay abandon had apparently had no ‘warning’.

On 16 November, at the age of 57, Van Woerden died in his sleep in Ann Arbor as the result of cardiac arrest. When he did not turn up for his class, students alerted the campus police. It seems typical of the cosmopolitan perpetual wanderer this writer-painter had become that he should draw his last breath in another country, far from his birthplace of Leiden.

Together with his parents and brother, Henk van Woerden had moved to Cape Town at the age of nine. Blind in one eye, he ascribed ‘a special way of looking’ to this handicap. After high school he studied at the Cape Town Academy of Fine Art and developed into a gifted painter and photographer. The assassination of Prime Minister Verwoerd made the situation unbearable for ANC supporters like Van Woerden. In 1968 he settled in the Netherlands where Protestant stuffiness and the still prevailing 1950s atmosphere ‘drove him nuts’. He went to Italy on an art pilgrimage and subsequently spent two years on Crete in the house of the South African writer Jan Rabie.

His first book, the autobiographical novel Mustn’t Look (Moenie kyk nie) published in 1993, was awarded the coveted Geertjan Lubberhuizen Prize. It was followed by Tikoes in 1996 and A Mouthful of Glass (Een mond vol glas) in 1998. Together these novels make up a unique triptych of South Africa.

A Mouthful of Glass especially, which is about Prime Minister Verwoerd’s murderer (whom Van Woerden visited in prison), made a strong impression both nationally and internationally. In 2001 it received the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award. Van Woerden went on to script and co-direct a television documentary on the life of the South African poet Ingrid Jonker that received the Silver Rose at the Montreux Documentary Festival. A year later his travel novel Notes of an Airborne Cyclist (Notities van een luchtfietser) was less well received.

In Ultramarine, Van Woerden’s first novel to be set not in South Africa but in the Mediterranean region he loved so well, he once again displayed his great talent. In this colourful mythical tale his gift as a writer who paints with language comes into its own. His journalistic flair also stands him in good stead. The principle character in Ultramarine is partly inspired by the Greek bouzouki player Iordánis Tsomídis, whom Van Woerden had interviewed for NRC Handelsblad in 1998.

Henk van Woerden was delighted with all the enthusiastic reviews of Ultramarine, a novel that if one reads between the lines is also his political testament. With his considerable experience of migration he felt compassion for migrants and was indignant about the impossible demands made of newcomers in the Netherlands. ‘An immigrant’s life has been ripped apart, he has as it were to transform his whole personality,’ is what he said in his last interview. ‘The demand for total uncompromising assimilation, the insistence that immigrants should dissociate themselves entirely from their roots, shows no understanding of what is being asked of them.’

In Ann Arbor Van Woerden had begun on a new novel in English. In mid-December this congenial globetrotter was due to finish his stint as writer in residence in Michigan and return to Amsterdam. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to settle down in the Netherlands, he said to me in parting. He might have to try his luck in an English-speaking country. Fate, which plays a dominant role in his last novel, decided otherwise.

By Elsbeth Etty
Translated by Elizabeth Mollison-Meijer

First published in The Low Countries, 2006

An English translation of Een mond vol glas has been widely published: — A Mouthful of Glass: the Man who Killed the Father of Apartheid (Tr. Dan Jacobson). London: Granta Books, 2001 — The Assassin: a Story of Race and Rage in the Land of Apartheid (Tr. Dan Jacobson). New York: Picador, 2002.