Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Children's Day has its day

Help! I'm suffering from serious withdrawal symptoms. I haven't read a book in two weeks and I'm in absolute agony. This is not by choice, simply the result of an impossibly hectic schedule. I'm touring through France with a TV team filming a cooking series, and the only reading I seem to manage between the long hours of travelling-cooking-eating and the short hours of sleeping is from magazines and on internet. Which doesn't really count as 'reading'- not for a book junkie like me.

A little ray of light in this bookless darkness, though, is that my friend and fellow South African author Michiel Heyns's coming-of-age novel The Children's Day has just been nominated for the Prix Femina in France. Jours d'enfance, translated by Fran├žoise Adelstain, is one of eleven finalists in the foreign section of what has been called 'the most gracefully slim, the most distinguished, the most pleasantly courteous' of French literary prizes. Graceful and courteous, maybe, but definitely not lightweight - not with internationally renowned names such as Edna O'Brien from Ireland, Shirley Hazzard from Australia and Bernardo Carvalho from Brazil among the finalists.

The selectors could also be praised for the geographic scope of their list, with authors hailing from Ireland to Iceland, Sweden to South Corea, United States to Venezuela. The winner will be announced in November - as is customary for most of the big literary prizes in France - which gives you enough time to read The Children's Day - in its original English version, in French, or even in Afrikaans - if you haven't done so yet.

And believe me, it is a delightful read, humorous and ironic and sad and serious, set in the sixties in South Africa, in a boys' boarding school in Bloemfontein, during the dark days of Apartheid. What I loved about the book is that it deals with so much more than the rather obvious moral problems of Apartheid politics; it also shows the class differences among whites - all more or less equally rascist - and the sometimes ridiculous discrimination between 'liberal' English and 'conservative' Afrikaner.

The protagonist, Simon, is the adolescent son of an English father and an Afrikaans mother, getting the best possible education in a good English school, while Fanie is working-class Afrikaner, attending a technical school where he will be taught a practical craft and not much more. Or maybe much more than Simon - depending on how you look at things. Sexual hypocrisy turns out to be just one of the moral pitfalls of sixties South Africa.

I haven't read the other finalists' novels, so I can't judge whether Jours d'enfance should win the Prix Femina or not - but all these translated novels are already winners just for appearing on such a distinguished international list.

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