“HE leaned against the rail of the Cape Town, the ship of his flight.
From below, the engines throbbed, he saw the water turn to foam. Untied. On the quay they were waving. In the group that had come to see him off, his father and mother stood at the front. Blocking his view. He had to leave, get away, he wanted to be gone.”
It is January, 1935. Rob the adventurer, “the soldier of fortune he had dreamed up”, arrives in Cape Town. Without papers or recommendations, “with his textbook English and a great deal of charm, he talked his way into the country”. Thus begins an existential quest that, first, takes him to the goldmines of Jo’burg where his only friend is a black boy. Yoshua symbolically becomes the keeper of the light, a box of matches vital for survival in the mine, until he is consumed by the dark. Later, Rob lives for the day in bare rooms, unlike his Dutch home where each hand-me-down heirloom harboured memories. Realising that objects have meaning, he rejects attachments. His choice is “to be everywhere, but nowhere at home”. He observes life from afar, “from behind barricades of his own making”. It is this independence that allows him to volunteer for the Dutch East Indies army, ironically following in his father’s footsteps. He spends the war in a Japanese prisoner of war camp on the River Kwai railroad where he teams up with an alter ego, Guus.
However, Guus, who left his family because of what the future promised, is the mirror image who “confronted him with his flight and his ramshackle ideals”. To survive, they share details of their pasts and hone their observations of camp existence. They look out for each other, “front and back covered, an armoured eye in the face of blistering violence”. This symbiosis is ruined when, in transit to Japan, Guus jumps to his death when their ship is struck by a torpedo. Out of Guus’s shadow, Rob sees the horror of Nagasaki and joins work parties at the site until the liberators arrive.
1950. Cape Town. Apartheid in the air. Jobless, listless and crippled by memory, he hits the lowest point of his “adventure” when he becomes an encyclopaedia salesman. Withered within and, we discover, dying, he is saved from failure by a telegram calling him to his mother’s deathbed. He arrives too late.
Nevertheless, he finds some ease through Guus’s father and, while sitting at the dining table of memory with the old man, he wonders at his friend’s thoughts as he died: “When you’re dying, you don’t think, you are, you are to the very last instant.”
The image is potent. The effect significant. Holland is erased. His quest done. He has discovered the secret of existence, how to be, and he yearns for Cape Town. “For tremendous Cape Town.”
Man On The Move is the second work of publisher, poet, novelist and literary critic Jan Geurt Gaarlandt, alias Otto de Kat, to be translated into English. And what a translation by Sam Garrett. De Kat has stated that if he were to write the novella in English, this would be the product. The writing is spare. Dialogue limited to the essential. Simile plays no part. A refreshing clarity of vision.
De Kat has written a powerful novella which straddles the boundary between prose and poetry in his use of word, rhythm and image.
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