“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”
DIANE DE BEER
When starting to write what was going to become a memoir, Nataniël first googled the meaning of the word and liked what appeared.
A memoir, he gleaned, is a book based on what you remember and what you feel. He doesn’t have ANY memories from before he was five – and that had me thinking too.
So memoir it would be, rather than an autobiography. For him it is all about making sense of his young world. “I didn’t write this book because of a need to share my life or about being famous,” he notes. “It’s about how I tried to figure out my life.”
That’s how it started…
“It’s a story of a young boy’s absolute fear of the ordinary,” he elaborates. “I needed to discover how it worked – families, friends, schools, towns, countries … everything.”
To him it felt as if everything was already in place when he arrived on this planet and only now, after a lifetime of research, does he feel more equipped … to live.
“The ‘70s was one of the worst times to land on the planet,” he concedes. To him it seemed as if the world was trending with bad fashion and zealotry.
“For those who know me, it will read like a memoir and for those who don’t, I hope it will be an incredible story.”
That’s also the reason the book will be published simultaneously in both Afrikaans and English. “It’s aimed at those readers who understand how big the inner life of a child is. It’s much bigger than the universe,” he notes. And that was really what fast-tracked him to tell this story.
It was the first time he was putting pen to paper not to be funny. Most of his other books were first written as sketches for the stage, which inevitably had to be funny. “It’s freeing,” he says of his memoir-writing experience. And nice to be old enough not to be intimidated by the whole gig, the process.
Nataniël has been writing all his life. From his stage scripts to magazine columns, which arguably should have made this another caper. But that’s not how this works, most authors will tell you. Even Nataniël, a man for whom creativity seems to come easily, found it hard going. Next time, he says, he will escape somewhere just to write, not try to do it in-between the rest of his life.
But he doesn’t feel he is asking for any literary feedback or judgement. The only thing he didn’t stick to are the real names in all instances. “I changed some,” he says and according to his explanation, he changed the names of people he didn’t want to glorify. “I have always been very specific with selecting names when writing anyway,” he says.
That’s true. Think of his shows. There’s Sabella, Romany Dippenaar, Mr Fazakas, Hildatjie … go to any of his stage stories, open any page.
Once you start reading this one, you will realise that in his young life, he gave titles to everything – from streets to houses to trees and more. “The show has always been in my head,” he notes. People who knew him as a child will get that. “The book is about me functioning in the world.”
And if one goes by his shows, which have been thinly disguised life stories, his was never an easy fit. Ordinary is how he would describe it, while others might point to his non-conformity which has always been a problem, even in today’s world.
Please just don’t stick out was his solitary desire. “Ordinary,” underlines Nataniël, is what he was looking for. Creativity has always been second nature to him which immediately obliterated his longing to disappear in the crowd – at that young age.
This is not about him and his neighbours though, he says. It’s not about his life, it’s about how he navigated that life.
Talking about the Afrikaans and English version, he wrote the Afrikaans and his translator, Iolandi Pool, did the English version. But, says Nataniël, it is not strictly speaking a translation. “She understood how I would have written it in English,” is how he best explains it.
“English is much more poetic and musical,” he explains. “Afrikaans is staccato and rhythmic.” If he had written the English version, it would have resulted in a very distant cousin of Jane Austen, is how he tells it. But he needed someone who got his distinct voice. They needed to capture that – and Pool certainly did that.
Reading it first in Nataniël’s own words and then the translation, the differences are fascinating. It’s exactly the same story but to get the voice strong enough in both versions took some vision – and the two worked very closely together with much toing and froing between them. The English almost has an old-fashioned feel, comes from this country but without moving into strictly speaking South Africanisms, which would have been the easier option. There’s a certain elegance in the telling.
“I live in Afrikaans and I read in English,” he says. “My Afrikaans is vocal and my English is written.” The challenge for him and Pool was not to become Herman Charles Bosman. For example, rather than use stoep they used porch. But writing in both languages was important.
“I wanted this to be a universal story and I wanted something of my own to give to foreign friends.”
“Those who want insight will get that, for others it will be entertaining and intriguing,” he believes. “It’s about someone who refuses to follow any rules.”
It’s memories of a childhood more than anything else, which he describes as “50% horror and 50 % complete fantasy amongst his paper dolls and rugby balls. It is the best shape on which to practise make-up,” he vows. “It’s the same shape as my face!”
“My childhood was the perfect storm of fear and fearlessness,” with the horror beginning as soon as he stepped into the world. Back home he could create his own fantasy world. “I couldn’t understand what was wrong with the rest of the world. How could or should we obey, if it wasn’t deserved?
What I really loved about the book was that, like anything Nataniël does, he isn’t following a recipe. He tells his story as only he would. Through the years I have watched many talented artists trying to copy his successful “recipe”. You can’t. It’s about his identity, who he is, how he operates in the world and how he likes to show and tell. All of that is quite unique and what gives him his cachet in whatever he wants to do.
And it could almost be anything, because he has such a determined and decisive attitude about who he is, what he wants and what he won’t do.
That’s the right time to write your memoir and to share your life with the world. And thank goodness it could be done in English too so that his magical stories could spread wider than an Afrikaans only audience.
His wisdom is witty and wacky and takes you into a world that is weird and wonderful. I have watched him on stage for almost his whole career and was still surprised by how he chose to tell us about his young life.
I should know by now that Nataniël always does it his unique way – and his success relies on that individuality.
As with his stage stories, it is his voice and language that captures your heart, that makes you listen and laugh and perhaps in what was the saddest moment in the book, have you screaming in laughter and pain.
If you understand the language, read it in Afrikaans. Yet, for English readers, the experience will be as rich and intense as they follow one young boy’s determination to find his way. I loved having the choice of reading both.
Look At Me – recollections of a childhood/Kyk Na My – herhinneringe aan ‘n kindertyd (Human&Rousseau) should be read widely as we pay attention to the world as seen through the eyes of a child.