Post-apartheid parable will not end well
Zimmerman — Grinderman — Cleverman … too many men. Trencherman? South African Eben Venter, who has lived in Australia since 1986, opens his novel laying some clues. A feeder; an eater; a cadger, a parasite; a knife for meat; trench foot; decay. Another clue opens the first page of Trencherman: a quotation from Heart of Darkness, a warning that comes to shadow and frame the whole narrative.
The two main white characters are Marlouw and Koert. The first is an Afrikaner who has escaped to Melbourne, the second his mystery nephew, a previously fine young man who disappeared back somewhere around Bloemfon- tein. Marlouw leads a good, if boring, life in that boring city, Melbourne. Boring, we discover, as it lacks the edge, or you might say danger, of city life in South Africa. Melbourne is too white, too clean, too safe, manicured.
Then Marlouw gets a call from his sister. Koert has slipped back into the old life, back into the old new world. Will Marlouw find him, secure his return to the boring new land? In the imperative that you hear in South Africa: “You must go and find Koert for me.” This is not good news for Marlouw: “I had never wanted to return to a country where a white skin was seen as a badge of privilege.”
Koert has gone home, after a fashion, even though the parental farm has been parcelled out to three African families. Koert the nice boy has become a meat monster. He runs a meat monopoly in a place where meat is power. Meat is currency; it is food, and pleasure; it is status; and yet, of course, it also suggests the dark side of cannibalism, of the treatment of human life as though it, too, is always ready for sacrifice. Meat is consumed, as we are to be consumed. All else is flesh.
Back of Bloemfontein there is a drought. There’s always a drought. But the meat master calls the shots, offers his subjects shots of bar scotch and Jagermeister, chooses as he wishes to share his Nintendo and his bed with his black captive audience. He has become a white rat of South Africa, staying on after the changes to make his fortune and gorge on it. The whites stay on as tourists in their own country. There are farm attacks, and explosions in the power stations. And there is the virus. White power is tenuous. The feeders, the eaters, the parasites, the knives … this will not end well.
Marlouw buys bakkie, a ute, and goes in search of his nephew. What he finds is a creature from Mad Max, a grotesque, obese, bloated and diseased maniac of the meat market: a meat monarch whose days are in the counting. The South Africa Marlouw fled has been disestab- lished. Even that which is nailed down disappears. This is a world that is itself disappearing, back into the veldt. Venter’s is a story without redemption. There is no shred of dignity in it, only death, decay, delay, maybe escape.
Most of the narrative is consumed in the search. Marlouw’s expedition ends in the charnel house, until he himself finally escapes, back to the safety of boredom, back to Melbourne, or as the South Africans say, “packing for Perth”.
South African writing has its claims to distinction, but here, as in the work of JM Coetzee, Marlene van Niekerk and Ivan Vladislavic, it also serves as a portal into another world.
Is there a parable in Trencherman? It is possible that it is an attempt to address the question that plagues South Africans and others who care for the place and its peoples: did anything much actually change after apartheid? As Vladislavic writes somewhere, apartheid did not fall over, it sat down. While there are more sources of optimism in South Africa than you will find in