THE LONG SILENCE OF MARIO SALVIATI
Release date: 02/01/2003
Van Heerden applies the palette of magic realism to a remote South African village in the Great Karoo, where a beautiful South African art curator undertakes a quest to procure a mystical statue. Ingi Friedlander makes the journey from Cape Town to the tiny town of Yearsonend, intent on purchasing the huge, controversial wooden monolith dubbed the Staggering Merman by local sculptor Jonty Jack Bergh, who discovered it one morning outside his cottage. As she sounds him out on the possibility of a deal, Ingi becomes infatuated by Jonty, and she also becomes immersed in the local folklore as their relationship begins to blossom. A colorful cast of secondary characters helps bring the village to life, as its residents focus on a muddled but ardent ongoing effort to find a cache of gold that was hidden during the Boer War by Jonty's grandfather, Meerlust Bergh. This subplot revolves around the hidden knowledge of a silent, elderly stonecutter named Mario Salviati, who refuses to reveal the location of the treasure he discovered while helping Jonty's father build a channel for the local dam. Van Heerden's intensely lyrical prose and lighthearted, whimsical storytelling keep the labyrinthine plot from bogging down, and the juxtaposition of art and avarice is a spicy combination. The bloom may be off the rose with regard to magic realism as a genre, but Van Heerden proves that there's plenty of life in the form. (Feb.)
Forecast:Though he's been translated into nine languages, Van Heerden may have a hard time finding a U.S. audience. Good reviews and a six-city author tour may help, and mention on NPR, for example, should entice readers interested in literary fiction set in South Africa.