Etienne Leroux (1922-1989)
When Etienne LeRoux heard that Ayatollah Khomeini had declared a Fatwah on Salman Rushdie he exclaimed, “That’s great! Imagine being able to write so well that people want to kill you for it! I wish I could.” No Fatwah was ever declared, but LeRoux was nevertheless much reviled by certain sections of the Afrikaans population.
Seven Days at the Silbersteins is LeRoux’s best-known novel. At the time of its publication he was farming in a small town in the Orange Free State. He would tell that the first anyone in the small farmning community knew of his being a writer was when the newspapers exploded with controversy over Seven Days and his next book Magersfontein, O Magersfontein. Seven Days and the Silbersteins was a skewering of the Afrikaans pastoral genre. In this parody of the farm novel, rural life was not romanticized but made surreal and nightmarish. Henry van Eerden (from Eden) comes to stay with the Silbersteins for a week because he is marrying their daughter. Each night the rights of passage become more bizarre than the next. But the surreal is grounded in political reality and offers a damning send up of Apartheid.
The novel was awarded the Hertzog prize by the journal the Akademie – the highest recognition in Afrikaans literature. The Dutch Reformed Church was up in arms and claimed, as was fashionable at the time, that in addition to being generally immoral the book was also promoting communism.
His next book Magersfontein, O Magersfontein! was a parody of the Boer War story. In it he follows a film crew as they make a movie of the battle of Magersfontein. All figures of the establishment, past and present, are lampooned. LeRoux was to receive his come-uppance. During an election campaign in the Free State in 1977, some women confronted Connie Mulder, then Minister of the Interior. They explained that they had heard of LeRoux’s “dirty” books and demanded to know why they had not been banned. It was later proven that none of them had read the books. But the minister nevertheless took it to the Appeal Board, which summarily banned both books.
The publisher took the case to the Supreme Court who upheld the Appeal Board’s verdict. In 1980 th publisher requested that the Appeal Board appoint a panel of experts and re-examine its decision. On 12 March 1980 a newly appointed Chairman of the Appeal Board announced that the Committee of Experts found that the book should be unbanned. Thus ended a particular chapter in the history of literary censorship, as the ludicrous nature of censorship was exposed dramatically during the Magersfontein saga.
In the ever-present corruption in its most refined forms, the cesspool of violent death in an ever-expanding wasteland… I believe in the autonomy of the arts. Even a demented art form, even a ‘psychopathic mobility to the point of divinity’; even way-out anarchism in all its creative fields, even so-called pornography, contributes to the understanding of the ever-changing image of man.
Although he had only just received the Hertzog prize for Magersfontein, O Magersfontein!, therefore twice being given the highest honor by the Academy, he resigned from the Academy along with other prominent writers Jan Rabie, Elsa Joubert, Abraham H. de Vries, Chris Barnard, F.A. Venter and Leon Rousseau when the coloured writer, Adam Small, was refused entry. This scenario is indicative of the cultural schizophrenia of the Afrikaans literary world. Though the Academy of Arts and Sciences was happy to recognize a book very critical of Apartheid – even while it was banned – it still barred the access of nonwhites. Writers against such discrimination had little choice but to be outsiders of any establishment.
Personally as one who believes in the free speech forum, I am prepared to accommodate in theory any form of dissent. But then I am an idealist in a very pragmatic world, and I cannot give a solution this this particular dilemma of the State.