“I have been content up to now,” she said at last. I was perfectly content until recently. I could keep everything at a distance. But now, all of a sudden, I can no longer do so. I feel caught up in everything. And detached from everything too. So detached, and so caught up. A strange feeling.” She spoke more urgently. “I don’t know what I’ve done with my life! I don’t know if I can still love someone!” (She started, why speak of love all of a sudden?) “I can’t open my hand,” she said, opening her hand, her palm facing upward, “I can’t let go.”
This is the curious dilemma of Karolina Ferreira, the heroine of The Elusive Moth by South African novelist Ingrid Winterbach. A similar searching ambiguity, complicated tension and hidden motivation runs through the cast of this slowly simmering, cinematic novel. Moving across a finely painted canvass in fits and starts, The Elusive Moth is an evocative exploration of memory, loss and anxiety that almost feels more like an art film, unfolding scenes that repeat motifs, imagery, fragmented conversations, all playing out against racial tensions that are building to a critical point in and around a small Free State town.
Karolina is an entomologist who returns to the town where her family spent time when she was growing up. Ostensibly she is in pursuit of a rare species of moth that is capable of withstanding extreme conditions and this is a brutally harsh, drought ridden area. However, on her way to her destination she makes two unusual decisions. She stops and picks up a fellow traveller, Basil September, an unusual and enigmatic individual who is on his way to spend time working with his Argentinian mentor, an expert in herbal remedies and medicinal practices. He will become her daily companion out on the dry veld where he collects a vast array of living and non-living samples while she observes insect life. Karolina also, despite her scientific tendencies, stops into a roadside caravan to have her palm read. The fortune teller promises that she will find a man who will love her forever and a woman who will be a close and faithful friend, suggestions she both laughs at and hopes for.
As she settles in to her research, Karolina seems to be increasingly restless. She spies lovers in the cemetery who fascinate her. She begins to frequent the snooker room of her hotel where the regulars, all male, are coarse, frequently lecherous – farmers, policemen, reservists. On Saturday nights she takes to the dance floor to lose herself in the arms of a man referred to throughout as “that Kolyn fellow”, theirs a connection based solely only on comparable tango skills. She tends to drink heavily, retreating when necessary to the Ladies Bar where she regularly encounters Pol, a singing lawyer, delightfully described throughout as amphibious, watery, and humid. He is a source of background information upon whom he she tends to rely as local political undertones begin to rise to the surface. Basil is also a helpful bellwether in this regard, as he possesses an uncanny ability to analyze the natures of others on sight and, as it turns out, foretell death. And then there is Jess, a red headed man who is singled out for her by Basil when they first see him. He is an economic analyst on a sabbatical to study, for himself, Buddhist philosophy, longing to learn to live in the moment and to overcome a persistent fear of death.
It is clear that Karolina is at a tremendous loss as she tries to find a rhythm to life in this small town. Loss intermingled with longing. She has destroyed or divested herself of most of her possessions. She is plagued by a sense that she disappointed and was disappointed by her father, also an entomologist from who she inherited her early and long standing fascination with insects. He had died just hours before she reached his bedside. She had imagined herself capable of dedicating herself to her studies without the bother of emotional entanglements. Now, in her dreams she is haunted by strange visitations and lewd sexual fantasies involving not only past friends and lovers, but characters from her immediate environs. By day her observations and interactions with others are a mix of curiousity, compassion and clinical dissection. By night she struggles with a desire for physical comfort and a need for space. As personal tragedies and political tensions in the town move toward a dramatic eruption, Karolina will ultimately find the ability to surrender and move forward with her own life.
For some readers, The Elusive Moth, may almost be too fragmented and repetitive. I read it slowly, over the last few days, luxuriating in the beauty of the imagery – the stark landscape, sensual descriptions of architecture and artwork, the enigmatic characters. Winterbach is also a painter, she writes in images and scenes. I simply did not want this book to end. I am currently recovering from a trauma that has left me with a mix of loss and anxiety that I recognized in Karolina, Jess, and Basil. I found it to be an exquisite and haunting experience.
* Originally published in Afrikaans as Karolina Ferreira under the pseudonym Lettie Viljoen in 1993, the first English translation by Iris Gouws and the author was published in South Africa in 2005. The edition I read was published by Open Letter Books in 2014.