When I read the name of Marlene van Niekerk, the South African writer, I think at once about that great novel ‘Agaat’. This novel ‘Memorandum’ is of a completely different character.
Right away she threw me into the deep side with ‘Memorandum 3’. Where are number 1 and number 2? When I flipped through the pages I discovered both of them at the end of the book, seeking shelter under the guise of ‘Addendum 1’ and ‘Addendum 2’. (Are you still with me?) The writer of the first, the second and the third Memorandum introduces himself at the beginning of the thirs Memorandum. His name is Johannes Frederikus Wiid, a civil servant in Parow, who spent his life at the local community by working at the townhall as the manager of a department that tried to keep Parow clean and beautiful. He worked there till 2004. Now we have arrived in 2006, April 11 is the exact date. The time is 19.20 hour. Wiid likes to be exact, he is a civil servant after all.
He is writing Memorandum 3 to explain the other two Memoranda, for if he would pass away no one would understand the first two. Memorandum 2 tells the very exact schedule of an operation he has to undergo the very next day. Memorandum 2 gives a background to a conversation he describes in Memorandum 3.
He sits down that evening of April 11, to write about a liver operation he has undergone before, in 2005. He is about to embark on a written journey through that operation, but most of all what happened before and after in his hospital room he shared with two other men. Once he has found a proper setting for his writing he starts, indicating the time throughout his night of writing, switching back and forth from October 2005 to April 2006 and back again.
Back in 2005 he shared a hospital room with two men, one on each side of his bed. These man (he gives them the names X and Y, he himself being the W) seem to know one another. One (X) will loose his feet, the other (Y) will loose his eyesight. There lies Wiid, between the cripple and the blind. These men converse on many topics, especially the spatiality of life. X, a poet, reads a book with the title ‘The Poetics of Space’. Y, a historian of architecture, read about ‘The idea of a Town’. The two men keep on conversing, before and after the operation, and Wiid keeps as mum as possible, while he follows the conversation. He is not able to understand everything these men say, but he makes mental notes.
During the months between his first and his second hospital time Wiid spends many hours at the library, where he tries to find the background of all the remarks made X and Y. All his discoveries are noted in Memorandum 1. At the library the excentric librarian Joop is a never ending source of information for Wiid, who does not disclose his journey into the meaning of the conversations he overheard. But maybe this man Joop might be willing to rework the writings of Wiid into a booklet for display in the library as a memoir of a citizen of Parow.
In his writing Wiid delves into his own life, into the meaning of his existence, into the lives of these two men, the lame and the cripple. These two men seem to be more alive than Wiid, who worries and is thinking about a death in a hospital bed. The lame and the cripple have lively conversations about the origin of cities (and life?) about poetry, the classics.
Van Niekerk has written a novel that deserves close reading, understanding life from a hospital bed and from a writing desk.
Marlene van Niekerk – Memorandum – Human & Rousseau 2007