This is the story of the four inhabitants of 127 Martha Street in the poor white suburb of Triomf. Living on the ruins of old Sophiatown, the freehold township razed to the ground as a so-called 'black spot', they await with trepidation their country's first democratic elections. It is a date that coincides fatefully with the fortieth birthday of Lambert, the oversexed misfit son of the house. There is also Treppie, master of misrule and family metaphysician; Pop, the angel of peace teetering on the brink of the grave; and Mol, the materfamilias in her eternal housecoat. Pestered on a daily basis by nosy neighbours, National Party canvassers and Jehovah's Witnesses, defenceless against the big city towering over them like a vengeful dinosaur, they often resort to quoting to each other the only consolation that they know; we still have each other and a roof over our heads. TRIOMF relentlessly probes Afrikaner history and politics, revealing the bizarre and tragic effect that apartheid had on exactly the white underclass who were most supposed to benefit. It is also a seriously funny investigation of the human endeavour to make sense of life even under the most abject of circumstances.
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Marlene van Niekerk was born in 1954 & grew up in the Caledon district of South Africa's Cape. She studied philosophy, languages & literature at several universities and is now associate professor of Afrikaans & Dutch literature at Stellenbosch University.From The Washington Post:
In 1999, the South African poet, critic and novelist Marlene van Niekirk composed an intriguing essay on the will to write, entitled "Poetic Desire." Those who knew van Niekirk through her scabrous 1994 novel Triomf, widely viewed as the seminal Afrikaans novel of the '90s, might have expected something lusty and political. Instead, her essay was a survey of nature poems.
Specifically, she examined the writerly desire to escape one's own subjectivity, to be absorbed by something entirely outside oneself. But in her reading of "The Hedgehog," by the Dutch poet Ida Gerhardt, van Niekirk warned against the illusory aesthetic communion with the object one is contemplating. In the poem, the narrator locks gazes with a hedgehog stealing a drink from a bowl of milk, and human and beast share a moment of ruminative satisfaction.
This, van Niekirk wrote, is "pure poetic wishful thinking." "Die krimpvarkie is bevredig deur die melk," she pointed out, in common-sense Afrikaans: "The hedgehog is satisfied by the milk." The human's satisfaction, on the other hand, stems from a patronizing empathy with a being of a lower order. This is no shared moment.
False sympathy, privilege, the lurking specters of class and race -- the way van Niekirk introduces these issues to an innocuous poem about a hedgehog hints at her sensitivity to issues of power, so indispensable for a writer in today's South Africa. But if van Niekirk is a sensitive writer, she is by no means a polite one. She is, in fact, downright filthy. Triomf is a scatological black satire, as explicit as Michel Houellebecq's Atomized and as politically savage as Victor Pelevin's Omon Ra.
Lambertus Benade, Triomf's central figure, is a hulking 39-year-old epileptic who spends much of his time shoveling through the topsoil under the floorboards of his bedroom, digging a hole in which to store gasoline in preparation for the gathering apocalypse of South Africa's first multiracial vote. The year is 1993. The Triomf of the book's title is the decaying white working-class suburb of Johannesburg where Lambertus lives. The ground he digs through is full of bricks, because Triomf was built on the wreckage of the black township of Sophiatown -- a legendary melting pot whose juke joints, or shebeens, nurtured legends like Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masakela. The bulldozing of Sophiatown in the late 1950s, to build subsidized tract housing for whites, is among the tragedies of South African cultural history, and the image of Lambertus tunneling through the remains is charged with racial symbolism.
Lambertus himself is another kind of symbol. Huge, with "skew, monster-feet," he is the epitome of the scary, inbred Boer; he evokes Roger Ballen's photographs of pale whites from isolated Transvaal towns, with their wrong-sized limbs and asymmetric faces. There's a reason Lambertus looks the way he does, though he doesn't know it: His mother, Mol, and his father, Pop, are brother and sister. Actually, it's not even clear that Pop is his father, as Mol also sleeps with her younger brother, Treppie. The terrified old lady allows her son to rape her as well, to keep him from annihilating the house in a sexual rage. This amazing family entertains itself with television, drinking, visits from Jehovah's Witnesses, and what Lambertus calls "[expletive]-ups," those periodic outbursts when the men take leave of their precarious senses and demolish yet another bit of the tottering house.
Triomf's vision of incest as the logical extension of racial separatism makes for bitterly funny political allegory. As domestic drama, too, the Benades' orgies of abuse are darkly entertaining, even moving. But as the book moves on, the reader notices a gradual shift in tone. The point of view broadens from that of Mol, victim of male violence, to include the men committing the violence. Apartheid, we see, has betrayed them: Old Pop, the family patriarch, was driven to suicide by the starvation wages of his whites-only government railroad job. Treppie turns out to be a frustrated intellectual. Lambertus is an overgrown child. Their mad rages are the product of lives twisted by poverty. A few good days lighten the atmosphere, and, gradually, we come to root for the Benades -- even to like them.
As the tone shifts, van Niekirk grants the Benades occasional insights into their situation. It's here that the book takes some false steps. As with other novels told partly from the point of view of intellectually limited individuals -- The Butcher Boy, The Sound and the Fury, even in a sense Huckleberry Finn -- it's difficult for the author to decide just how much intelligence the idiot savants can plausibly sustain. In Triomf, once the Benades have been transformed from apartheid's brutal epigones into apartheid's half-witting victims, their political and cultural pronouncements begin to align suspiciously with those of right-thinking South African liberals. Mol comes down in favor of the progressive lesbians across the street. Lambertus befriends a black man. Various members of the Benades clan offer homespun appreciations of Nelson Mandela and the assassinated black communist leader Chris Hani.
The danger here is not simply that of crossing the line between Huck Finn and Forrest Gump. It's more like the error van Niekirk decries in "The Hedgehog": the mistaking of empathy for identity. The reader may come to understand the Benades, but that does not mean they must share the reader's politics. And it's not just the politics -- the Benades are made to seem far too emotionally perceptive to have wound up in the mess they are in, and Treppie's bursts of Joycean eloquence are frankly brilliant. Like Gerhardt with her dubiously wise krimpvarkie, van Niekirk wants her characters to be too sympathetic and to understand too much.
Triomf may be the signal Afrikaans novel of the 1990s, but it is not the best South African one; it lacks the icy discipline of J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace. Yet it is a daring, vicious and hilarious flight of imagination, and it reveals Marlene van Niekirk as a writer who can imbue a tale of unspeakable brutality with the tenderness of a nature poem -- or vice versa.
Reviewed by Matt Steinglass
Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.
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