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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


VAN COLLER, H.P.. The representation of the past in representative Afrikaans prose works: suggestions for a typology. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2011, vol.51, n.4, pp.680-697. ISSN 2224-7912.

Since the nineties of the previous century, the representation of the past has been a salient feature of Afrikaans prose writing. This interest in historical representation has even been called "obsessive" and fluctuates between a parodical stance and a nostalgic rendering of the past. Historical representation is a much debated issue, especially since Hayden White stressed the subjective nature of history and equated historical representation with imaginative literature as a form of narrative. In this study, the writing of history is compared to the process of translation where a translator has to mediate between the source text and source culture on the one hand, and the target text and culture on the other hand. Alienation is the process by which the source text/culture is presented as "strange" and a long way removed from the target reader. Domestication on the other hand is the opposite in which the source text's/culture's strangeness is minimised or even removed. In historical representation, a writer also represents the past as "a foreign country" or presents it as akin or similar to the target culture. Paratext consists of devices and conventions, both within and outside of the book, that form part of the complex mediation between book, authors, publisher, and reader: "titles, forewords, epigraphs, and publishers' jacket copy" (Genette 1997:1). Mutatis mutandis the writer of history also has access to a paratext that comprises documents, sketches, photos, eyewitness-accounts, etc. With reference to Lategan (2011), the similarities between historical representation and fiction are again reiterated as a process involving selection, reduction, and structuring, primarily as a process not of retrieving the past, but rather the process of giving meaning to our recollection of the past. This need arises especially in times of crises when beliefs are tested. This may be an explanation for the enormous increase in historical representations in Afrikaans fiction, for the accrual took place in times of political upheaval and the coming about of a new political dispensation in South Africa. When translating a book, the choice of the source text has often less to do with its status and place in the source culture (and its literary canon) than with the envisaged place and the contribution it can make to the target culture (and its literary canon); "import" is often motivated by selfish needs. In the same way the representation of the past or an event in the past often has less to do with the past, but more with the future, because the narratological rendering of the past is necessary for the understanding of the present and expectation of (or preparation for) the future (cf. Rüsen 1997:29). In a recent article, Van den Berg (2011) equates the representation of trauma (and the "other") to any historical representation due to the fact that any experience of reality relies on a discursive representation, and language being unreliable, is not able to unlock the full meaning of reality. In a scathing attack on political philosophers, Frank Ankersmit (2010) accuses them of totally engrossing themselves in philosophical questions, and at the same time neglecting their duties to act as (moral) guides to readers. Ankersmit is a pragmatic historian who does not believe that one can speak of "the truth" regarding the past, or that one can know everything about the past. That, however, does not diminish the duty of the historian to act as a guide to the past for readers. What is paramount in the representation of the past is not the truth, but that which can be regarded as important: historians should therefore choose their paths to the past and motivate their choices. In the remaining part of the article, a typology that can be of heuristic help to researchers is constructed. This can help to classify a large corpus of works, to describe historical representations in synchronic or diachronic context, and even as a way to test previous readings (and classifications) of historical texts. This typology is an adaptation and refinement of a previously constructed typology. Whilst it was received favourably by researchers (cf. John 1998:30), John also levelled some critique, which is now implemented in the new typology. At one end, the relationship between fact and fiction in historical representation is presented as a whole range of possibilities; at the other the available styles are also presented as a range of stylistic choices. If the need arises for even more detailed classification of texts, this can be solved by adding semantic markers. In conclusion, this proposed typology is utilised to classify a number of important and representative Afrikaans texts that all are narratological representations of the past.

Keywords : Historical representation; literary historiography; a typology for the classification of historical texts; historical representation as a form of translation; alienation; domestication and paratext.

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