Michiel HeynsSouth AfricaWriting2012

Dana advised us when we arrived (I quote from imperfect memory): “Don’t be too hard on yourselves. You’re all workaholics, otherwise you wouldn’t be here; so permit yourself some freedom.” In the weeks to come I was grateful for this advice, for I think it’s possible to be so conscientious that one misses out on the full Civitella experience, which at its best is a combination of steady but not obsessive work, exploration (of places, pictures, ideas), and interaction with other people; all of which, one hopes, will feed into whatever it is that emerges – sooner or later. I found that I could start writing productively only once I relaxed and accepted that all that wonderful freedom need not necessarily and immediately translate into a thousand words a day. I know that I have been enriched immensely by the Civitella experience: I trust that it will manifest in my work eventually. 

Working Title: Traveling Man

I was born on 1 September 1963, somewhere between Hutchinson and De Aar in the Great Karoo. It’s impossible to be more precise than that, since at the time I was travelling at 90 kilometres an hour on the southbound Trans-Karoo Express. (South African trains are slow, even the so-called ‘express’ ones.)

How I came to be a non-paying passenger on the Trans-Karoo Express says a lot about my mother. We were living in what was then Pietersburg in the Northern Transvaal (and is now Polokwane in Limpopo Province.) My father was a bank manager, which is on the one hand a very stable kind of profession and on the other a very unsettled one, in that one is forever being ‘relocated’, just when one’s children (that is, me and my five brothers) have managed to get accepted at their new school.

My mother, in this respect as in others, was a good wife, as good wifery was understood in those days – that is, she may have had her own preferences, but she went without demur where my father’s profession took her. It was one of the paradoxes of their marriage that my father chose a profession as sedentary as possible, to accord with his aversion to movement, and ended up relocating every five years or so; whereas my mother, who was a wanderer at heart, was confined to home by her six children. (I was not surprised to discover that ‘confinement’ used to be the polite term for childbearing.)

She bore this burden as she bore her children, with equanimity and stoicism. She did, though, have her standards, and her standards dictated that she was not to be brought to bed in Pietersburg. Or so she said; it is possible that she was simply looking for an excuse to travel before yet another squalling infant demanded her presence and attention. She claims to have been motivated by concern for my future: ‘Imagine having to go through life filling in Pietersburg every time you’re asked your place of birth,’ she said. ‘It’s bad enough being called Nortjé.’

In pursuit, then, of a respectable place of birth for her fifth son, my mother decided that I would be born in her own place of birth, Cape Town, where her mother was still living at the time. Had she known the story of Oedipus, she would have known that what is preordained cannot be averted by human action, and I have had to go through life filling in Hutchinson as my place of birth. (Somebody calculated that at the moment of birth the train had been closer to Hutchinson than to De Aar, though De Aar is where my mother and I were put off the train into a waiting ambulance). Whether this is better or worse than Pietersburg I cannot tell. Nobody to whom I have had to declare my place of birth has registered mirth or alarm at seeing the name Hutchinson, and for all I know Pietersburg might have been greeted with the same equanimity. I’ll never know.

When I pointed out to my mother, considerably after the event, that it had been highly irresponsible of her to travel in her condition, she rejoined that it was my insistence on arriving three weeks early that had turned a perfectly prudent train trip into a nightmare for all, not least for the train conductor who found himself delivering a baby with very little help from the two hysterical women who shared my mother’s compartment, a mother and her daughter from Klerksdorp. The conductor happened to live in De Aar, and his wife was at the station to accompany my mother, now comatose from exhaustion and loss of blood, to the hospital. In gratitude I was called after the conductor, but because my mother hadn’t enquired after his first name, his surname – Naudé – became my first name, chiming unfortunately with my surname. For the fact that I have gone through life as Naudé Nortjé I have not forgiven Mr Conductor Naudé, though my mother assured me I owe my life to him. ‘And be grateful’ she added, ‘that those two women didn’t deliver you. They were called Kotzé.’ My own theory is that my parents had run out of names when I came along, a hypothesis lent credibility by the fact that they named my younger brother Euphasius, clearly an act of desperation. I have no idea where they found the name, though I discovered later, on one of my journeys, that there is a Basilica of Euphasius in Porec, in Croatia. I sent Phasie, as we called him, a postcard, as a kind of certificate of authenticity.