A novel that finds adversity in Triomf

by Shaun de Waal (Mail & Guardian, April 16-22, 1999)

“That’s where they have their picnic.” Afrikaans author and academic Marlene van Niekerk is pointing to a small swathe of willow-shaded greenery between the road and the Westdene Dam. “They” are the characters in her novel, Triomf – Pop, Mol, Treppie and Lambert. The Benades.

This violent, incestuous, alcohol-saturated family represents the “poor whites” courted and favoured by the Nationalist government, given jobs on the railways and homes in the new suburb of Triomf. That suburb, with its hubristic name, was, of course, famously built on the ruins of the demolished Sophiatown.

In the novel, Lambert, the 40-year-old epileptic, is obsessively digging a hole in which to store petrol for an emergency trek to “the North” if and when South Africa collapses under the weight of black rule. From this excavation he draws the fragmented remains of what was once a lively, multiracial area: this is what underlies the white Afrikaner triumph of 1948 and after, the rubble beneath the ideology to which the Benades, in a half-blind tribal way, have so long been loyal.

“That’s where Treppie writes the poem on Peace Day,” indicates Van Niekerk, pointing out another site briefly inhabited by her characters in their occasional peregrinations around that western part of Johannesburg. Few South African novels can be so engraved on the very topography of the city. As the suburb Triomf (in its very name) must always half-recall the history, the politics, the broken lives, underneath its boxy houses, so the novel Triomf is hyper-aware of the urban space beneath its narrative. It both activates an imaginary space – the realm of psychology, pathology, ideology – and inhabits an entirely physical location.

We drive up the hill into Westdene, and Van Niekerk points out what used to be the Ponta do Sol café-cum-video-shop, where the Benades buy their Cokes and Paul Reveres – and where policemen and their families could get the latest video releases at a discount. The café has now been renamed and repainted, but still advertises “new and forthcoming releases”.

Coming over the crest of the hill, we are in Triomf. Van Niekerk used to live here, several years ago – an experience she does not recall with unsullied pleasure. We drive past her old house. She wonders whether the plants she placed so carefully and lovingly in her one-time garden are still there.

A huge oak-tree, which was spared by the demolishers of Sophiatown, is still standing. It must have been a landmark even then. Van Niekerk says she can imagine Kofifi gangsters arranging to meet their molls there. The vast tree could be as old as Johannesburg itself.

But Triomf has changed a lot in the last decade or so. It has had a gradual makeover. Houses and walls are now painted in pastel shades of apricot, coral and watery mustard; some have new walls altogether, like the fancy one with little inset pillars. One can’t imagine this wall fitting into the Triomf of old. Van Niekerk says she thinks that was the home of the first coloured family to move into this street after the group Areas Act fell apart.

Between the stretches of pastel, though, still lurk grey precast concrete walls, their slats topped with sunbursts and wagon-wheels. And tucked between the houses that have been given a facelift are signs of the older Triomf – the occasional pokey little unpainted house with a corrugated-plastic carport squashed between it and its fence. No flowers or trees in the garden. Just a flat swathe of grass.

This is precisely the kind of house one can imagine inhabited by the Benades, by tragic, passive Mol and her troublesome men. One can visualise it as the Benades’ home, its grounds dotted with the remains of immobile Volksies and disembowelled fridges suspended somewhere between breakdown and possible repair. This is just the kind of stubbled kikuyu lawn you can see poor seventysomething Mol being driven out to mow, at midnight, by her raging, drunken son, just to annoy the neighbours. You can almost see her standing at the gate, puffing on a cigarette, next to the makeshift postbox that keeps losing its anchorage. She is wearing her perennial housecoat with a wooden clothes-peg in her pocket in case Lambert has a fit and needs something shoved in his mouth to prevent him biting off his tongue.

One can glimpse her, almost, at the local Shoprite. Women with crumpled faces, in baseball caps and tracksuit pants, smoke desultorily in the parking lot; here, the bibbed attendants shooing cars into their places are all white. These are today’s armblankes (poor whites), spiritual if not literal descendants of the people DF Malan’s Afrikaner nationalism set out to uplift, to empower and if possible to enrich. It didn’t help the Benades much. It just filled their minds with unworkable ideological dreams.

In the same centre as Shoprite is the area’s long-time butcher, advertising the 65-year-old tradition of meat that runs in its owners’ family. Van Niekerk plays with this image in the novel: the Benades’ staple diet may be white bread and polony, but deep respect is accorded a butchery where “they know their meat”. Afrikaners mythology has a special place for vleis – the meal of the hunter, the farmer, a strong dish that gives strength to those unafraid to kill, those unbothered by the spilling of blood. There is a tradition of meat; meat runs in the family.

We continue through Triomf, with Van Niekerk pointing out the various churches. Another kind of tradition – a broken, adversarial one. The local NG Kerk is looking a bit raddled, but the Pentecostal church has been given a grandiose and hideous new facade. A huge glass-brick cross is set in the curved face-brick wall, setting off bizarre associations – the glass bricks so beloved of “post-modern” renovators and builders of gyms embedded in the yellow face-brick that was for so long the mainstay of government builders, brick the colour and texture of schools and police stations.

The brick of Trevor Huddleston’s Church of Christ the King is different: it is darker, smoother, perhaps imported. Maybe it’s just a lot older. The church has been given back to the Anglicans after being passed around a bit in the years since Sophiatown was destroyed and the pesky cleric exiled. Now its windows are firmly barred, but it is easy to slip past the end of the low wall into the unkempt grounds. Still a landmark, this is the church described in Van Niekerk’s novel (by the poetic Treppie) as being like a great ship riding on the top of the ridge. It certainly has an impressive tower – no mere upstart NG steeple.

This is a tower you can climb up inside, four or five storeys high, with windows that must look out a long way in all directions, south toward Soweto and north toward Westpark cemetery. From the ground you can see the high-rise police barracks that sit on the border of the graveyard.

Down the hill from the church is the rubbish dump, another location that has its part to play in the novel. There, Lambert searches for wine boxes so he can take out the silver bags inside to store petrol for the trek north.

One of the warmest encounters in Triomf takes place at the dump’s gates, when the reeling Lambert is rescued by a black man, Sonnyboy. Seen through Lambert’s consciousness, Sonnyboy is referred to repeatedly as “the kaffir”, but the whole passage is permeated with irony, and the way Sonnyboy handles Lambert’s racism and condescension toward the man who has just saved his life is highly amusing. “Big boss, ja baas. Ek’s maar net ‘n kaffir by die dumps, baas, okay I catch flou whiteys here. That’s my job, yes?”

Unemployed men (“loose kaffirs” in Triomf-speak) no doubt still wait opposite the dump gates, as described in the novel, in the hope someone will need them for a day’s work here or there. Inside the dump, people scrabble for oddments they can use or sell; across the road from the entrance such bits of salvaged debris – bits of old crockery, television aerials – are displayed in neat rows.

We drive into the dump, a freelance dump-assistant running alongside the car until it is pointed out to him we haven’t come to dump anything, just to look. But the dump is so much neater than Van Niekerk remembers from years ago: it has been encircled by a precast wall, the big rhomboid bins (one labelled “PAC” – in the novel it is “One settler, one bullet”) set neatly in a central oval depression. They seem to contain little more than pruned branches and leaves.

We pause there a moment, looking up toward Huddlestone’s church on the crest of the hill, then head back toward Van Niekerk’s house, just the other side of Westdene, for a glass of wine and a chat.

But she doesn’t want to talk much about Triomf. That was years ago, she says. It’s in the past. She’d rather talk about a story she’s working on at the moment, called The Proctologist. She hauls out a number of medical books – “fantastic stuff!” – with garishly grotesque pictures of operations on the colon, the sphincter; one is a photo-album of instances of the “anal fistula”. The area of the lower pelvis, she informs me, is “an interesting configuration of muscles”.

Yet she can’t dispense with Triomf so easily. The book has a new life now. When it originally appeared, it caused the raising of eyebrows among Afrikaans literati and readers unsettled by both its rawly colloquial language (with the full panoply of obscenities) and its disturbing subject matter. The novel was first published in 1994, the election year in which it is largely set. The novel’s action moves relentlessly towards that epochal event – and towards Lambert’s 40th birthday, when he has been promised the gift of a prostitute by Treppie.

Triomf went on to win the CNA Literary Prize, the M-Net Book Prize, and finally the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa, which is about the biggest international prize there is for African writing. When this newspaper did a feature on the 10 best South African novels of the past 10 years, Triomf triumphed once more. The feature was intended originally to focus on English books, but many of those consulted and asked to vote added Afrikaans works, and Triomf came up time and time again. Eventually we added a set of five much-mentioned Afrikaans novels as a sidebar to the English-language hit-parade; Triomf was in the lead by some considerable distance.

Now this claustrophobic family epic has been translated into English by poet Leon de Kock – in two versions. One, published this week in South Africa by Jonathan Ball and Queillerie, retains much slang and Afrikaans, preserving the unique flavour of the original. A fully Anglicised version will be published later this year by Little, Brown in the United Kingdom.

De Kock was not the first to attempt the translation of Triomf. Others had tried and given up.  “It was exceedingly hard,” De Kock, who teaches at Unisa, told me in an e-mail. “But incredibly rewarding. The early phase was one of the finest experiences of my life. I lived inside the space between the two languages. ‘In translation the original rises into a higher and purer linguistic air,’ Walter Benjamin once wrote, and I began to taste something of that meta-space.

“Translation strips the writing process of the psychodrama, the exaggerated terrors and pyrrhic triumphs, of the ego. It is the highest possible form of reading and it takes you into the heart of writing’s secrets – I recommend it strongly to all kinds of authors.”

Then the hard work really began. “I have lost count of the number of drafts the book took. The process felt like sculpting a huge form out of a house-high block of rough-hewn kiaat into an impossibly delicate work of baroque intensity.

“The other massive difficulty was the translation of wordplay. Triomf is a text that shimmers with devilish wordplay. And so, if you know the original text, the reading of the English version is enriched by an awareness of a kind of semantic joust: will he or won’t he find an equivalent for this or that wordplay in the Afrikaans text?”

Translating from one literary language into another is easier than translating from a text filled with the rough vernacular; read an old translation of a slangy Jean Genet novel, for instance, and it feels very dated. De Kock faced exactly that problem. He searched for “sentences that flew out of the mouth like a speech by a stand-up comedian. I began what I called the ‘vernacular test’. This meant reading the entire text aloud to myself, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter, word by word.

“But those were still early days, even though I thought I was at the end of my tether then already.”

The book was sold by a South African agent in London to Little, Brown for publication in the UK, which meant De Kock and Van Niekerk had to produce an entirely English text. They could retain very few Afrikaans or slang words, however idiomatic they might be in spoken South African English. “In Marlene’s favourite metaphor,” says De Kock, “the whale began bucking. She had warned me when she first asked me to do the translation: ‘Are you sure you want to bestride a bucking whale?’”

The author and the translator worked closely on the English version of the book. “My analogy for that,” says De Kock, “is a massive three-legged pot of mixed bredie which I as translator had cooked up. Then Marlene came along, sniffed the pot for flavour, and began throwing spices in. Rare and wild spices.”

De Kock had “originally created what I imagined to be a ‘hybrid’ text, preserving the bredie of South Africa’s bastardised language use. Now we had to find alternatives for meidepoes, bliksem, naai and boep! Not to mention untold variations on moer. I spent a week lodging at Marlene’s house and we worked together for five days solid, thinking we could kill it, fast. Well, it went on for another four months after that. Right down to the proofs. By the end we were utterly spent.”

The ordinary reader of Triomf, indeed, is likely to feel a little spent by the end of this nearly 500-page book, exhausted by the misadventures of the Benades, lulled a little by the poignant patches of tranquillity and then jerked onward, helter-skelter.

As Van Niekerk says, “My editor [at the time of the book’s Afrikaans publication] said to me this book is not well-made because it doesn’t end with a bang. I said I refuse to make it end with a bang – it will just simmer, simmer out, because it’s not the kind of book that can have a catastrophe at the end. It’s a running catastrophe, throughout.”

Yet the traumas through which the Benades drag themselves, and us, are ameliorated by Van Niekerk’s humour, by her compassion, and by a sense that in many ways these damaged, deranged people are just like the rest of us. Fighting for control, trying to construct meaning. Constantly they narrate their own lives, telling themselves stories, whether true or false – going over past experiences whose wounds are still unhealed, or spinning elaborate fictions to protect themselves, their family secrets and their tenuous sanity.

Overarching their individual and familial stories is a perhaps more fantastical narrative, that of Afrikaner nationalism. This is a tale the Benades also tell themselves, with varying degrees of belief in its truth value. Treppie, whom Van Niekerk describes as representative of the “bloody-minded anarchist strain within the Afrikaner bosom”, may have come to question it and seek to undermine it, but old Pop still recalls the 1938 recreation of the Great Trek, when wagons paraded through the streets of Fordsburg and he dove beneath one of them to get a bit of axle-grease on his scarves.

“That story,” Van Niekerk says, “I got from Albert Grundlingh’s essay about the nekdoeke of the Voortrekkers. The people had a kind of popular hype around it – you must get some grease on your nekdoek! That was the sort of memento that was popularised.”

She laughs and shakes her head at the way Afrikaans culture was so assiduously contrived, driven by the ideological needs of power. For that reason, she is suspicious of the flashy rubric of “African renaissance”, with its rainbow-arch trajectory from past golden age to future golden age. As an Afrikaner, she says, she finds it rather frightening.

“We know how it feels to have a whole invention around us. We had a well-oiled fascist state that orchestrated this in a very concerted way, in the churches and schools, everywhere, and brainwashed a whole generation.”

One reason for the Benades’ hollowness, their terminal misdirection, is their (albeit fluctuating) faith in the state. “I don’t think one of those people in the book is portrayed as innocent,” says Van Niekerk. “Neither in their political consciousness nor in their sexual activity. They are all guilty, because they have all, for various  personal reasons, contributed to their fate. These people bought into the weak romanticism of Afrikaner nationalism, just as they buy into the weak romanticism of TV ads.”

But, in the end, says Van Niekerk, the book tries to resist both the determinism of personal pathology (“those mad alcoholic inbreeds!”) and the determinism of ideology (“those poor victims of history!”). “In the end,” she says, “I think it’s more allegorical, an allegory of certain types of human solutions to human problems, of possibilities of being within the human condition.

“If people read carefully,” says Van Niekerk, “they will see that all four characters are artists. They all have ways of interpreting or trying to make sense of their lives. Lambert has an obsession with order – he wants things to work. Treppie has a huge problem with nominalism and realism – ‘What’s in a name?’ … ‘It’s all in the mind,’” she quotes a favoured Treppie saying from the book. “Pop and Moll, one could say, are the chocolate-box story-fabricators who want to pad their own existences sufficiently for them to survive the cruelties of life. I think we all do that. I do. You negotiate a certain narrative that helps solve the problems you experience now.

“I try constantly to put a bit of an allegorical level into all the situations in the novel. That’s what I consciously did. But I also think many of the things I did were unconscious. I can’t write without symbolism. I’m a Calvinist. And I know the Bible very well.”