When you start listing al Renée Rautenbach Conradie’s skills and accomplishments, it becomes quite overwhelming, but there’s a common thread that runs through her many activities: an exuberant love of life. She tells DIANE DE BEER more about her debut novel, Met Die Vierkleur in Parys (With the flag of Transvaal in Paris, Protea Boekhuis):
How many people know about the South African participation in the 1900 International Exhibition in Paris? Or who De Villebois-Mareuil (after whom a street in the east of Pretoria is named) was? Or that Paul Kruger and the Boer Republics had crept into the hearts of the ordinary French at the turn of the last century?
In fact says Renée Rautenbach Conradie, when she and her Foreign Affairs husband Leo Conradie spent time first in Marseilles and then in Paris late in the last century and early in this one, they discovered many links between South Africa and France in centuries past.
When they lived in Paris in 2000, many of the exhibitions were repeated to commemorate the 1900 world event. “Exhibitions of Rodin, the USA and Russia whose most memorable contribution was the landmark Pont Alexandre 111, which connects the Champs-Élysées quarter with those of the Invalides and Eiffel Tower,” she explains.
With more research, one of the passions of this long-time journalist, she discovered that we had a memorable pavilion, which included a gold mine and a pioneer’s house (very much like those still seen at the Pioneer’s Museum in Silverton still today) and that this was indeed one of the most visited features at the Show.
She had found her hook for the novel she wanted to write and the serious research began. The Anglo Boer War had always featured in her life as someone from the last generation to hear stories from those who were directly involved – starting with two grandmothers with very different world views: her paternal grandmother from Oudtshoorn looked down on the Voortrekkers and anything beyond the “colony” and her maternal grandmother was six when her mother died next to her in a tent in the Standerton Concentration Camp. Hér grandfather (72) was taken to St Helena where he later died and that same grandmother also experienced the day the sheep were set alight and pigs were mutilated with sables …
Renée also shared this Anglo Boer passion with both her father and her late husband Leo, who collected turn of the century newspapers when they spent time in France. “They included many pictures of Paul Kruger arriving in Marseille as well as etchings and pictures of the Anglo Boer War,” she notes.
Knowing that she wanted to write, a few years ago, she enrolled for a masters in creative writing at the University of Pretoria. It started with short stories but slowly her interest around a story set in 1900 in Paris took hold.
“Paris was at its wildest in 1900. It was the Belle Epoque, the Bohemian lifestyle amongst artists was accepted and the buzzword of the time was avant garde,” she says. “And I have always been fascinated that Pretoria was burdened by the strict mores of the Dutch Reformed and in addition, there was the influence of the Victorians who buttoned everything up to the neck, taking little pleasure in anything!”
It was this dichotomy of different lifestyles (with the accent on hedonistic pleasures versus the restrictive narrow-mindedness) that also had a huge impact on architecture, which captured her imagination as something she wanted to explore.
She elaborates that Art Nouveau was prominent in 1900 with artists like Toulouse-Lautrec and the theme of the Paris Exhibition was Progress. “That was a time of steel and glass which can still be seen in the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais. Unfortunately some of the other structures were pulled down when the Exhibition had run its course.”
It was a time of architectural curves rather than stark lines and her more than four years in this exquisite city gave her a chance to fully appreciate the architecture of Paris. “I also participated in history classes for four years,” she says.
Her main character with a name like Paul Roux and a profession in architecture meant that research became very important. “At that time you received inhouse training and because of the timing, I could incorporate Herbert Baker as his tutor. I could also showcase the influence of French architect Thibault in Cape Town,” she adds.
It also suited her story that Pretoria was extremely busy at the turn of the century (1900), typical of a ‘sudden’ capital city. “The old Department of Works was responsible for the buildings surrounding Church Square. The Beaux Art style was used with the department headed by Sytze Wopke Wierde with many French and Dutch architects,” she says
And all of this dominates Met Die Vierkleur in Parys with the plot centred on the dishy if dishevelled architect Paul Roux who was responsible for the Pioneer House at the South African pavilion. Of course there’s intrigue, a Jewish miss who has to flee Cape Town to escape a meddling mother and makes her way to England and closer to her prospective beau.
That’s the lifeblood but the intrigue is the wheeling and dealing around the exhibition, the time and the two cities and its people on two vastly different continents in a time now very distant and far away. Yet strangely familiar and appealing …
As a veteran journalist writing about a longtime passion, her research is impeccable and something that grabbed me from start to finish. I am not someone who follows a historic lead and will see a foreign name like DeVillebois-Mareuil and wonder but then forget to follow it up. To discover the person’s identity is a real thrill as are many other historical titbits Renée has cunningly woven into her story.
Because she lived in Paris and established her own historical background, she could incorporate the landmarks that are familiar, but with detail that informs, adding to the charm of the city and the story.
As an outsider, her main character appealed to her because “I understand and empathise deeply,” she says. “Especially in Paris. You lose your heart to the city, but the city is a character and you are not really engaged or accepted by the ordinary people. My disdain for affectation also becomes clear.”
As a journalist, she is also much more accustomed to flash writing in a fast-moving world. Yet she discovered when writing a debut novel at a more advanced age, you have a full hard drive with riches to explore. And if her laziness can be circumvented, she hopes to get stuck into another one.
She writes in Afrikaans, and if it is a language you understand, it’s an unusual read. It’s much more than just a love story, in fact, she had to work very hard not to make her historical background dominate – and that she has done masterfully. But it does give an edge to the storytelling which puts the book in a class of its own.
A perfect escape for this time.
A Cape Town launch will also be held in November.