Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Mimesis, Memory, Memorandum

Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Mimesis, Memory, Memorandum

Article excerpt


Memorandum: A Story with Paintings (2006b) explores the complex relationship between memory and mimesis. Written in response to Adriaan van Zyl's photographic realism, Marlene van Niekerk's metafiction provokes thought about the affinities between writing and painting.


Memorandum: 'n Verhaal met skilderye (2006a) besin oor die ingewikkelde verhouding tussen herinnering en mimesis. Marlene van Niekerk se metafiksie, wat geskryf is as antwoord op Adriaan van Zyl se fotografiese realisme, Iok gedagtes uit oor die verwantskap tussen die skryf- en die skilderkuns.


Ek was die stilte in die middel.

Memorandum (van Niekerk & van Zyl 2006: 77)

Memory is at the crux of Marlene van Niekerk's Agaat. Lying on her deathbed, with Agaat reading to her from her diaries, Milla observes to herself that "[d]ie begin het jy nooit opgeskyf nie" ("[t]he beginning you never recorded") (van Niekerk 2004: 677; 2006: 653). Acting cryptically through its repetition, that beginning energises the novel. (1) When Agaat forces Milla into recollection through her recitation of the written record, she discloses an operative absence or silence in the story of lives intertwined. The process may not make what is operative speak, or bring it into presence, but it may reveal how the story being told, with the events it brings to memory, covers for another story or set of events, which resists a coming into speech or writing. Like Agaat, van Niekerk's most recent work, the collaborative Memorandum: 'n Verhaal met skilderye (van Niekerk & van Zyl 2006), draws into narration the meditations of one terminally iii in order to record the unrecorded. In so doing it poses profound questions about the making of fiction itself.

The main section of Memorandum is a long memorandum composed in a single night by J.F. Wiid, former director of "Stadsverfraaiing, -reiniging en -instandhouding" ("Parks & Playgrounds, Sanitation and Maintenance") with the Parow municipality (van Niekerk & van Zyl 2006a: 6; 2006b: 6). Suffering from liver cancer, Wiid faces surgery for secondary tumours in his colon at Tygerberg Hospital, where he is to be admitted the following morning. In his memorandum he reconstructs a conversation between two patients, which he overheard during a previous hospital stay. The conversation between X and Y is replete with, to him, obscure and unfamiliar philosophical, historical and ornithological references, and Wiid must rely on his memory to reproduce its exact words phonetically. Aided by a friendly public librarian, J.S. Buytendagh, who, without being made party to their provenance, helps him convert them into meaningful terms that will lead him to further investigations, the exchange between his fellow patients begins to gather coherence. Attached to his memorandum are Wiid's original word list, which he has annotated, a letter to the superintendent of public libraries, and a pair of tables projecting divergent scenarios for his surgery and convalescence. The text also has several footnotes, the fruit of his researches, some of which refer to fictitious Afrikaans translations of Homer and songs by Bach. Van Niekerk's story is interspersed with reproductions of photorealist paintings, most of them of the inside and outside of Tygerberg Hospital, by Adriaan van Zyl.

Unaccustomed to drafting anything other than official minutes and memoranda, Wiid must reinvent himself in order to write. Having spent the entire night at his typewriter, towards dawn J.F. Wiid reaches the realisation that

[a]lles moet bemiddel word, die grote deur die kleine, deur deelname en deur spieeling en vertaling. In die stad deur die sentrum, in die liggaam deur die lewer. Maar 'n deurvloeipyp was my model vir alles, 'n aanvoerleegte waarvan mens die binnekant so oop en glad moes hou as moontlik. Sodat dinge kan vlot, ongehinderd soos 'n boodskap in gewone mensetaal. …

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