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Monday, 15 February 2010 02:00

Dear Olive

By  Vincent Huck
Dear Olive,

I'm angry! Angry at you! So I decided to write to you, because our relationship is not working. You are denying me access to your world... It is true, I must admit, that only a few months back I didn't know anything about you. But in the mean time, in the few articles about South African authors that I had read, you were never mentioned, how was I supposed to know? I came across your name in a very simple manner and from there started my quest to find the answers to your mysteries. Because, let's face it, you have fed me with mysteries.

It all started during our first encounter, just a few months back, as I was driving through the Karoo, I stopped in Cradock and I had a glance at a tourist guide. It said:

What to see: Olive Schreiner house: a beautiful example of a Karoo house. Olive Schreiner is known for her novel: The Story of an African farm, published in 1883. At that time the book was a scandal because of the ideas it carried, ideas that today still can be considered as radical.

My curiosity was automatically aroused. The word 'radical' always had a tremendous impact on me. Probably because I never understood what it meant. So I run up and down all the streets of your home town in search of your book. It was quite surprising to see that none of Cradock's book shops (three of them) had a copy. Someone suggested I should try at your house, which had been turned into a museum. But it was a Saturday and the museum was closed. Disillusion on my shoulders, I dragged myself back to the car and left town.

The next day, I arrived in Graaff-Reinet and walked into the Reinet house. Your book was the first thing I saw as I entered: It was standing there on a shelf, on the other side of the room. We choose the books we read; sometimes a book chooses us. I walked quickly across the room, the woman seating behind the counter where I was suppose to buy a ticket ran after me. "Mister, mister..." I got to the shelves, grabbed the book, turned around to face her as she was already grabbing my arm to kick me out, and with a finger on the cover I asked "Is this for sale?" She answered with an amused look. "Yes, but you had to buy a ticket first". I bought the ticket, the book, and a bottle of tequila. Graaff Reinet is the only place in the world outside of Mexico where tequila is produced. Did the distillery exist when you were around, Olive?

I resumed my journey and eventually, after a few days, got back to Grahamstown and my university room. I lay on the bed, the book in my hands, happiness in my eyes, and the hope of a radical encounter in my mind. I read... five pages... then the book made a flight across my room, ending in a big crash against the wall under my desk. I threw it there. Because I couldn't understand a word of what was written! Olive, I hope you will forgive my gesture, and my honesty in admitting my crime! But I was irritated... so much expectation dissolved in five pages.

Weeks later, as I was cleaning the room, I found it there still lying on the floor – I must say I'm not the tidiest person ever. I took it and put it on the shelf amongst my other readings. It is still there, I haven't opened it since. Sometimes I look at the cover and I wonder what mysteries it contains. Those who visit me and look at my small collection are always impressed "Story of an African Farm – wow, you're into the classics?" I don't say anything. I just think to myself, "One day I will have to read that thing, no matter what it takes!"

So this morning I thought it was enough, and I decided to pay a visit to what was left of you! I thought that maybe it would give me some keys to understand your language and revive my interest in your novel. I went to NELM and asked to see your letters. I sat on a chair and waited for the librarian to bring me the fat files.

Olive, I must say, I cursed you as I opened the first file! It seemed that you really didn't want me to read anything written by you! Your handwriting – OK, I should't really criticise because mine is terrible – but yours... is pathetic! It looks like lines drawn on a piece of paper by a two-year-old. Your letters are big indistinguishable loops, your words a series of unreadable big loops. Only three words to a line! On one of the letters to your sister, you started to write and when you reached the bottom of the piece of paper instead of taking another one you wrote over what you had already written. Why? Were you insane? And when I got to your brother's letters I almost fainted; his handwriting is even worse. It looks like an electrocardiogram of a heart beating at 500 beats per minute. I couldn't read him either. And I was annoyed: the description of the file said he was commenting your writings.

But I didn't give up on you! I went through all the files trying to find something, one little sign from you, that I could decipher. I laughed very loudly when I saw the picture of your husband posing at your funeral: a foot on your coffin and someone else's baby in his arms. And your pictures! You were pretty when you were young: a long but elegant nose, curly long hair as was in fashion at the time. I think if I had met you at that time I would have fallen for you.

I had almost lost hope when I found a review of your novel by the Richmond VA News Leader. Dated 1924, it said: "The book contains too much allegory. Its religious doubting awakens no response and stirs no emotion. The unusual setting of the story still attracts. Beyond that the novel, when read for the first time, will be interesting chiefly as an exhibit in the oddities of popular taste."

Then there was a letter from Charles Dilke to your editor saying that he had just finished reading the book and that "it delighted (him) more than any book (he) ever read." So I kept on digging. And like a miracle, a little piece of paper, smaller than my hand, fell from the first of a compendium of six files marked 2005.51.19, items removed from brown and gold photograph album relating to Olive Schreiner. The paper had a few lines typed on it:

On the 26th February 1920,

I don't mind death, I am not afraid of it. But what's so terrible is silence. You can't get a word across: not one little word. The everlasting stillness has come between you..... you don't know how I felt old Theo's death (in 1920) the last thing of my childhood's years. He has rest at last, and I am the last of the old brigade. I am glad I wrote to him when Will died:

You are creating more mysteries for me, Olive. Who was that letter for? Who were the members of the old brigade? Where is the end of the letter? If old Theo died in 1920, why would you write that in February of the same year? I was about to ask the librarian... But you know what, Olive? I think I came to realise that I love your mysteries more than I'm would love your truths.

So I closed the files, I said thank you, and left. Outside the rain was coming, the dark clouds were already playing with the University clock tower. The street was silent. I still don't understand your writing, but I understand your fear of silence: it is mine as well.

I'm happy I went to meet you today and I'm happy I'm writing to you now. Because, Olive, you have overcome your fear, you are dead but not silent: your words are still coming across:  ideas that today still can be considered as radical.

I know now that I will read your book. One day it will happen. I won't have to force it; you won't be able to avoid me forever!

Yours sincerely,


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