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Crime Beat

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Dirk Jordaan Gets Afrikaans Crime Fiction in his Sights

In his first contribution to Crime Beat, Dirk Jordaan, journalist and crime novelist (whose debut, Die Jakkalssomer, was short-listed for the literary magazine Boeke-Insig’s Big Novel Award 2007), gives an overview of the Afrikaans crime fiction scene. Jordaan will be editing the Afrikaans section of Crime Beat.

Afrikaans crime fiction took decades to reach young adulthood. Initially, during the middle part of the previous century, cheaply printed novels featured steak-loving, hat-wearing detectives – like the heroes created by Karl Kielblock – investigating single murders in small towns. But they were more pulp fiction than noir.

During the height of the apartheid era, crime fiction all but disappeared and, surprisingly, did not even feature as literary escapism – in contrast to romance writing, which flourished. However, there were two notable exceptions in the topical writings of Chris Moolman and two novels in the 1990s by Harry Kalmer (X-Ray Visagie en die Vingers van God and Kniediep), both of which were misunderstood by most critics yet built up cult followings.

Everything changed in post-apartheid South Africa when Deon Meyer’s pioneering writing transformed Afrikaans crime fiction. His novels were on a par with international crime fiction as far as plot sophistication and literary prowess were concerned. For the first time, crime novels featured at the top of Afrikaans best-seller lists. One of them, Orion (translated as Dead at Daybreak), was successfully transposed by Meyer into a television series, which broadened his fan base and that of Afrikaans crime fiction even further.

Meyer’s are the only Afrikaans crime novels to be translated into a host of foreign languages and he is one of the few South African proponents of this genre to have tasted international success, although some among the new crop of crime fiction authors are rapidly following in his wake.

On the local scene, it did not take long for other Afrikaans writers to step through the newly opened door.

Francois Bloemhof, a prolific writer of mostly youth fiction, was the first to take up the challenge, most notably with Spinnerak and Jagseisoen. Followed by, among others, retired headmaster Piet Steyn (Snoeiskêr) and ex-diplomat Quintus van der Merwe (Die blou van ons hemel).

Although crime fiction is, unfortunately, only a small part of the buoyant Afrikaans market, it is growing steadily. To such an extent that the language and cultural organisation ATKV has included it as a separate category in its annual Woordveertjie Awards. Crime novels have lately also featured on the shortlists of highbrow literary awards. For example, two of Meyer’s books have been shortlisted for the M-Net Award and his 2007 novel, Onsigbaar (Blood Safari) was a finalist for the University of Johannesburg’s Literary Award.

Afrikaans crime fiction has capitalised on the new society by touching on topical issues, such as post-apartheid political insecurities, political crimes committed during the transitional phase, the high murder rate and the proliferation of narcotics. Interestingly, although books on serial killers were published, for example by Meyer and Bloemhof, crimes of deviancy have largely taken a back seat compared with novels about social and politically motivated crimes.

Themes that have been extensively explored, are the effects of the abolition of the death penalty, vigilantism, the acceptance of and cooperation between members in a transformed police force, and the post-traumatic effects of a drawn-out guerrilla war. For example, characters are often ex-members of the apartheid security forces or ex-freedom fighters who have come to rely on their old skills to disturb or readjust the moral balance.

This vibrant new society, and a sprawling, beautiful country, is giving Afrikaans crime novelists ample to write about.

Tomorrow Dirk Jordaan’s first Afrikaans post features two interviews with Deon Meyer


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