A Mouthful of Glass
An intriguing and poetic chronicle of a South African trauma
After two novels set in South Africa – Moenie kyk nie and Tikoes – in A Mouth of Glass Henk van Woerden has written a book midway between an autobiographical travelogue and a biography. His obsession – as he himself calls it – with the murderer of South African premier Hendrik Verwoerd is central to the book.
Verwoerd, who is regarded as the architect of apartheid, was stabbed to death in the parliament building by Dimitrios Tsafendas on 6 September 1966. As gradually becomes clear in the book this murder was not the result of political conspiracy, but was rather carried out for personal motives. Van Woerden suggests that it was the more or less ‘logical’ consequence of Tsafendas’ life story.
Tsafendas was born in Mozambique in 1918, the son of a Greek father and his black maid. Young Dimitrios was brought up by his grandmother in Alexandria, the beginning of an exile which would last his whole life. That life can be seen as an unending quest by Tsafendas to return home – not so much to the land of his birth, but to the bosom of his family which in the meantime had moved to South Africa – and to find his own identity. His mixed origins meant that he was neither black nor white; that he did not – and considering the laws of apartheid, could not – feel completely at home with one or the other. Nor did he feel at home with the coloureds, although he was officially one by birth. Attempts to reunite himself with his family always came to nothing – exit visas, passports, residence permits, were continually denied him, or were only issued for a limited period. This resulted in a nomadic existence – not only in a geographical sense, but also in a psychological sense. Communist sympathies alternated with membership of the Christian Church, for example, and due to his eccentric behaviour he was in and out of mental institutions.
In Van Woerden’s view the murder Tsafendas committed stemmed directly from ‘the South African trauma’. South Africa, a country in which nothing ‘is simple or untouched by the relationship between the races, including insanity?. It is a trauma which also fascinates him, as a white Dutchman who as a young boy emigrated to South Africa with his parents, who later returned to the Netherlands, but was unable to settle anywhere. This explains his obsession with Tsafendas, who in a certain sense is an extension of his own relationship with that country. Van Woerden is also looking for his ‘home’ and he seems to have found it at the end of the book when he eventually meets Tsafendas in the flesh, an old man who had already spent more than thirty years in an institution. It is a sad and moving ending because homecoming here is inevitably coming home to the edge of insanity, an insanity that is part of everyday life in South Africa.