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Fred de Vries

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Profile: Willemien Brümmer

Halfway the interview we have an argument. I tell Willemien Brümmer that my least favourite story of her acclaimed debut Die dag toe ek my hare losgemaak het is the last one. It’s about impending madness and someone dying. It’s full of grating intermezzos, meant to give the narrative more drama. But since you already know what’s coming, it doesn’t work. Get on with it! Moreover, compared to the other eleven spooky stories, it’s quite schmaltzy

“The last one?! Really? Why?” she exclaims. And when I tell her why, she shakes her head in disbelief and argues: “You’re the first who says he doesn’t like the story. My two favourites are the title story and that one! For me that story was necessary, and one of the hardest to write. It has a character dying and a character based on somebody I know very well. It can be read at many different levels.”

Madness is the main theme that connects Brümmer’s collection of short stories based on someone called Mia coming of age. Madness runs through Mia’s family. It’s a genetic thing, and Mia, a vulnerable girl who cannot keep boyfriends, is scared that she also carries the dreaded gene.

After Brümmer had walked into the Cape Town restaurant where we meet for the interview I couldn’t help but look for similarities between Mia and Willemien. The first thing that struck me was her long, thin fingers, double jointed, just like Mia’s. Additionally there’s an awkwardness; an almost cramped grimace when she tries to convey something that’s really important to her and she can’t find the right words. She often resorts to Afrikaans.

Brümmer loves walking the thin line between fiction and reality. She knows people will start looking for references to her great grandfather C.J. Langenhoven, the Afrikaans author who in 1918 wrote the words to Die Stem.

“He’s this cultural icon among Afrikaners,” she says. “They really like him, for what he did for Afrikaans. I’m very interested in Langenhoven as well, but for very different reasons. I’m interested in my family history and the very dark side of Langenhoven. He’s a perfect example of what people do when they’re bipolar.

“Langenhoven would have these patterns where he would work and work really hard. He’d write a book in one go, on a manic hype. He wouldn’t sleep, just drink cup after cup of coffee. And when he was finished he’d literary crash and start drinking, so bad that he went to the liquor stores and said: please place a prohibition on Langenhoven. And when he came down to Cape Town – he was a parliamentarian – the people who’d come and fetch him from the train would be called die draers, the carriers, because he’d be so drunk that he literary couldn’t walk. That was the kind of life he lived.”

With a touch of mischief she adds that as a teenager in Hoërschool Groote-Schuur she, despite her shyness, refused to stand up when they played the national anthem. “Because I felt in those days (the late eighties) you couldn’t sing Ons sal lewe ons sal sterwe ons vir jou Suid-Afrika.”

 

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