Post-apartheid para­ble will not end well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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