A Memoir of Then and Now
Pieter – Dirk Uys
Apart from his numerous published plays, reviews, cookery books and stories, South African playwright and cultural icon Pieter-Dirk Uys has previously put pen to paper to produce two memoirs: Elections and Erections: A Memoir of Fear and Fun (2002) and Between the Devil and the Deep: A Memoir of Acting and Reacting (2005). While these two volumes were filled with anecdotes from his long and diverse career, they revealed little about the man himself or his family background. The Echo of a Noise goes some way to remedy this.
At the Book Launch in Cape Town at the beginning of November, Uys revealed the genesis of this memoir. The name of the book comes from a stage monologue of the same name. It was promoted as: ‘This is Pieter-Dirk Uys un-powdered. No props, no false eyelashes, no high heels …’ For someone who has been on stage over 7 000 times, he himself, up till that moment, had never been the subject of his art. In writing the show, he was confronted by an avalanche of memories, characters and stories that could not be contained in a 90 minute stage show. Added to this, the reaction of the audiences to this show persuaded him to include some of these stories of his family, biological and other, his childhood and his life in the memoir now published, The Echo of a Noise. Finally some of the person behind the persona is revealed.
Uys writes about the characters from his youth in the Cape Town suburb of Pinelands that shaped him: his brilliant but troubled mother; Sannie Abader the family’s housekeeper from Athlone whom he says “wasn’t just the maid. Sannie was my best friend, she was my Cape Flats Mother”, his Paarlse ouma and his Strudel-baking German Oma.
Yet it is his forbidding, musically driven Afrikaans father Hannes who dominates. Uys describes him as “vibrant, complex mysterious man”. He was also an angry and frustrated man who expected perfection from his children. His disapproval of his son had them at constant loggerheads. At the book launch, Uys revealed that he had no intention in giving his father such prominence, but it was only while writing that he realised what a profound influence he had on him. Like many fathers of his generation and background, Hannes Uys was not demonstrative of his affections towards his son. Uys said that there was love in his family…they just didn’t show it. And their relationship was based on denial, of the realities of the Apartheid system, of Pieter’s homosexuality. So much easier than talking about it. They were, as he writes, “still on Planet Calvinista…Pa and I had a relationship entangled and confused. Loving and loathing in equal extremes”. They did eventually reconcile and Hannes ended up being his son’s biggest fan. It was only towards the end of his life that Pieter realised how popular Oom Hannes was with other people. He did not recognise him as the same man who dominated his childhood.
Uys’s portrait of his mother is probably the most poignant episode of the memoir. Suffering from depression, Helga Bassel, born in Berlin, killed herself by hurling herself off a cliff at Chapmen’s Peak. It was only after she died that her children discovered that she was Jewish and a refugee from Nazi Germany. Uys reproduces a letter Helga wrote to her ex-fiancé in Germany in 1948. “I am sitting here in de Waal Park. It is a beautiful, sunny day in Cape Town. Table Mountain is looming over me like a huge wall. My little blond boy Pieter is three years old and playing in the grass with the dachshund. I am sitting on a bench that has a sign on it that says Whites Only/Slegs Blankes. How did I get here from a place that said No Jews/ Juden Raus?” The tragedy for Uys is that he never knew this woman at all and he was left with so many questions that nobody could answer. Though in his characteristic humour he writes that he enjoys describing himself as a Jewish-Afrikaner, belonging to both chosen people!
There are a few tantalising glimpses of his remarkable friendship with Italian screen goddess Sophia Loren, to whom he remains devoted. But readers are left wanting more of this. He also makes a passing reference to his military service in the South African Navy where “I never put my foot on a ship, but I had a helluva time!” Perhaps Sophia and his navy shenanigans will be given prominence in the next memoir. Also completely missing are details of friendships, apart from the celebrity ones, and lovers. But this is a minor quibble.
The Echo of a Noise’ is filled with photographs from the family album as well as 40 years of satire. It briefly chronicles the invention of Evita Bezuidenhout, the most famous white women in Africa, and how Sophia Loren is actually her Drag Mother, though Uys decided to quarantine his alter ego as she has a tendency to take over. He describes his life-changing encounter with Marlene Dietrich amongst his other theatrical recollections. Uys shares his story with honesty and with his characteristic self-deprecating humour: there more than a few laugh –out -loud moments. Reading about his remarkable life is most enjoyable.