The Long Silence of Mario Salviati by Etienne van Heerden

by Valerie MacEwan

26 February 2003


Reality Reveals Itself

“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”
— Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Seldom do I read books that haunt me with the kind of writing that moves beyond the storyline—when an author takes the reader through a personal journey and forces the audience to participate in the entire creative process—compelling the reader to become a part of the book. Etienne van Heerden creates, in The Long Silence of Mario Salviati, an elegant and moving exploration of deep-seated cultural idiosyncrasies, biases formed through generations of misconceived notions and bigotries so enculturated within a sociological structure that they are not even recognized or acknowledged.

cover art

The Long Silence of Mario Salviati

Etienne van Heerden

(ReganBooks, an imprint of HarperCollins)

Carefully and meticulously, van Heerden chronicles the notion of apartheid and its effect the inhabitants of Yearsonend, a small South African town. The beauty, the genius (and I do not use the word lightly) of his writing comes from the gentle unfolding of the story, and the way he allows the reader to learn facts and draw conclusions alongside with the characters in the book, participating in the development.

Yearsonend and its inhabitants are truly haunted by ghosts who observe and comment upon current events, all the while traveling back and forth from their pre-ethereal forms to their present ghostly apparitions. There’s an angel, one of van Heerden’s most compelling characters, who observes Yearsonend. The angel occasionally picks fights with the residents, especially Mario Salviati, a blind Italian stonemason, wrestling Salviati at night and leaving feathers behind as evidence of the struggle. This is no pop culture angel with a golden halo and cherub face. He picks fleas from his wings and sits in his own droppings.

The dead could never leave Yearsonend: the wind out there was too cold, or the sun too fierce, or the plains too sullen—or perhaps it was the angel who waylaid them and persuaded them to turn back. Maybe it was an experience common to them all—to try to escape, to go, after death, on the journeys that had been forbidden them in life, only to find with the first attempt that the angel was waiting for them on the plains. With wings spread, feathers ruffled and chest puffed out like an angry vulture or a turkey cock, a proud peacock of death, dancing, side-stepping like a blue crane marking out his territory, that wide-winged angel with the blue veins that branched over the muscles and could even be seen through the down on his belly and chest—and the two breathtaking larger wings, beautifully matched, as though carved from marble, one and a half times the height of a man. The angel breathing heavily, warning, threatening: Go back, go back.

The story, in brief, is of a woman, Ingi Friedländer, who is a curator of the National Gallery at Cape Town, South Africa who travels to Yearsonend to try to purchase a masterpiece, a sculpture called the Staggering Merman by eccentric artist Jonty Jack. The sculpture is to be on display as part of the new National Collection, to celebrate the wonders of freedom. “Rainbow art” it is called because the new exhibition pieces will be the artistic creations of those of “color”. Friedländer moves to Yearsonend and becomes part of its dynamic, a member of the community who rediscovers her artistic true self as she is drawn into the town and its secrets. Her character moves the story along, one suspects the town, Yearsonend, would continue indefinitely as it has for hundreds of years, had she not shown up. The plot is extremely intense. The town’s inhabitants are haunted by rumors of untold wealth in gold; a treasure haunted by those who died burying it and the angel, who oversees it. To attempt to create a synopsis in one paragraph would be sheer folly. The story weaves in and out of centuries in what is called “the rich magical-realist tradition of One Hundred Years of Solitude”. It is, indeed, a magical book.

Etienne van Heerden attended the Iowa Writers Workshop, taught there as a writer-in-residence, and has received, among other accolades, the M-Net Book Prize, South Africa’s most high profile award for fiction. An Afrikaans writer, his works have been translated into nine languages. As a reviewer, I hope he has a long and prolific writing career.

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