Henk van Woerden
Moenie kyk nie
A portrait of an Uprooted Youth in South Africa
The title of the book Moenie kyk nie means ‘don’t look at me’ in South African Dutch. It refers to the novel’s main theme, seeing, in every possible way: the central character is blind in one eye, he doesn’t want to be seen, his brother is not allowed to watch his girlfriend getting undressed, and he doesn’t want to be confronted with the ugly side of South African society, the Apartheid regime - and of course, the blindness of the regime itself.
‘You can’t see with it anyway’, says Mother at the beginning of the first chapter. She is speaking to the young narrator, a boy with one glass eye, who is to travel with his family from Katwijk in Holland to South Africa.
Van Woerden has explained in interviews that his book is wholly autobiographical: he lived in South Africa from the age of ten to twenty-one, as did the novel’s central character. And certainly as we see the way in which the young boy’s unaccustomed gaze absorbs impressions of the countryside and the light skimming over the Cape, we can detect an early indication of his visual artistry.
But Moenie kyk nie is not simply about private joys and sorrows. It is 1957, a time when many Dutch people wanted to try their luck overseas. At the same time that the family is experiencing its own troubles (Mother becomes sick and dies, Father gets a succession of unsuitable women) the looming unrest caused by the increasingly stringent application of Apartheid encroaches more and more on the daily lives of these white people.
The book is also a tribute to Hans, his brother who does not survive to return to the fatherland with the rest of the family. Hans is a child who is difficult to raise, whose reactions are so strongly instinctive and uncontrollable that he later becomes schizophrenic. He is, therefore, the opposite of the more thoughtful and curious narrator who watches all that goes on around him. Together they represent two ways of approaching a totally new environment.
In terse, apparently disconnected chapters - the only way to tackle such a multiplicity of problems - Van Woerden creates a sharp and evocative picture of an uprooted boyhood spent amidst political unrest and disturbing family life.