“Tears, nearly; heartache that I’m almost able to touch in my chest. Bossieveld stretches around this dorp, as wide as the vulture flies. In rain years the red grass pushes up. The veld surges and flows, with koppies of ironstone and mountains with cliffs where animals find shelter during the cold winters, where ewes search out the warmth of besembos during the lambing season. Elsewhere it breaks open into rivers and streams and vleis full of platannas and bullfrogs and wild geese. But only when the water runs, when the eyes of the springs open. I want to remember it like that one last time.”
I am not typically a fan of post-apocalyptic or dystopian fiction. No matter how intriguing the scenario, I find myself too frequently disappointed with the writing or the realization of the plot, or both. However, when a trusted friend enthusiastically recommended Trencherman, a harrowing vision of a devastated South Africa by Eben Venter, my interest was piqued in spite of any reservations I might have otherwise held and, quite frankly, I would never have stumbled across this book without her guidance. Even then I was unable to source a copy outside of South Africa so it was high on my wish list for my recent visit to the country. Little could I have appreciated how my experience of this novel would be heightened by the fact that I would read it while my time in the rolling landscape of the Eastern Cape province was still very fresh in my imagination. That is, it happens, where this story is set and, for all the horror it envisions, Trencherman is also very much an evocation to the beauty of the land.
Taking his lead from Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, Venter imagines his native country at an undefined point in the near future. Years of civil unrest and socio-political upheaval have rocked the nation which never really found its footing. Now a massive explosion in the southern part of the country has destroyed the infrastructure, left a lawless void in which bribes and syndicates are the order (or lack of order) of the day. Drought has wasted the land, AIDS has has devastated the population. Our protagonist, Marlouw (a contraction of his first and last names Martin and Louw) is bachelor living in Melbourne, Australia. Both he and his sister Heleen had rejected the family farm and homeland two decades earlier. Yet for all the financial success afforded by an uninspiring career selling high end cookware, Marlouw is a rather bitter, self-centred man, crippled with a clubfoot. He has never forgiven his parents for failing to secure the surgery that would have corrected the deformity and, despite his denial, the pain and embarrassment of his disability weigh heavily on him. When his sister calls him one night desperately entreating him to return to South Africa in search of her only son, his nephew Koert, who seems to have gone missing in that dark land, Marlouw feels no immediate obligation to assist. When he does finally agree, he tells himself that he is doing so for his own personal reasons. Without fully understanding his motivations he senses that something unfinished lies in the deep recesses of his memory. His journey to unravel his own baggage will nearly cost his sanity.
As soon as he sets foot on South African soil, Marlouw realizes that he has arrived in a country that operates on cryptic and shifting terms. He adopts a heightened almost mystical approach to the task ahead, attempting to open himself to the “guides” that cross his path, but he rocks between selfish irritation and a deepening alienation as his quest proceeds. As a hero he is deeply flawed and deeply human. When he reaches the family farm, the place where he knows that his nephew has taken refuge and built up some manner of hideous power base, he is routinely thwarted in any attempts to make direct contact. The degree to which drought, disease and apparent apathy have wasted the land and the people he once knew is a shock but he is soon swept into their confined and miserable world. Upon his father’s death, he and his sister had passed the once proud farm on to the black families who had worked it for so many years. After twelve generations of Afrikaner ownership, the thirteenth generation had set their sights on foreign shores. But, as Marlouw will soon realize, he still carries a deep ancestral horror in his bones. He will not only have to confront whatever it is that his nephew Koert has come to represent, he will also have to come to terms with his own ghosts.
This is not the first time an author has turned to the Heart of Darkness to explore the dark corners of humanity. The late Canadian author Timothy Findley placed his own Marlow and Kurtz in the halls of a modern psychiatric institution in the startling and disturbing Headhunters. Trencherman skillfully evokes the darkness of the journey Conrad imagined in the depth of another part of Africa and updates it, raising important issues along the way. Venter takes the opportunity to offer harsh indictments on the divisions within his native country, envisioning an outcome that has its roots in a recklessness and disregard for ultimate risks among the privileged classes. This is, of course, a common context of the dystopian novel, but one which is, for me, often too carefully removed or generalized in some abstract future. South Africa offers a more immediate tableau that Venter does not shirk from, perhaps afforded by the fact that he, like his hero, has been living in Australia for several decades. He aims his sights close to home, directly at his own heritage and at the decision he and many other South Africans have made to leave.
Originally published in Afrikaans, the translation by Luke Stubbs is seamless. IsiXhosa passages are incorporated, and unlike some translations specifically aimed at a broader (i.e. US) English speaking market, common South African and Afrikaans expressions and terms are left in tact. A detailed glossary is included. There is a point where the dialogue degenerates into a bastardized English mixed with German that had me curious as to how these passages exist in the original, but that is only because the translation process itself, especially when it is striking and effective, is of particular interest to me. This topic is, I discovered, covered in an interview with the author here.
The memory of a land once rich, the protagonist’s struggle to balance compassion with self preservation, and the truly horrific, yet oddly contemporary spectacle that awaits Marlouw when he finally confronts his nephew combine to create an engrossing read. The closer a reader’s connection to South Africa, the more intensely this book will resonate or push buttons, but even with distance it paints an unsettling portrait.
And so it should.
Note: It is my understanding that Trencherman is scheduled to be released in the UK and Australia in 2016. However, my attempts to obtain Venter’s more recent novel Wolf, Wolf which was similarly released earlier this year leads me to believe that rights do not extend to North America. Even so, once there is wider for release for Trencherman outside of South Africa, it will be easier to obtain through UK distributors.