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Second sex unveiled

Jane Rosenthal

This frank look at how sexuality, sexual behaviours, relationship skills develop in a man, makes Bad Sex a groundbreaking novel.

Bad Sex by Leon de Kock (Umuzi)

To begin with, one has to wonder at the title of this novel. For Leon de Kock, poet, translator, literary academic, to choose this in-your-face and rather tacky title, is a surprise. Attention-getting. But as De Kock himself has said, “bad sex” can be read in many ways. It’s not that obvious, but this novel is really about the consequences of climate change—climate of ­opinion change.

The main, in fact one comes to feel almost the only, character is Sammy Baptista, the narrator; it is set in the Sixties and Seventies, in the Mayfair of that time, scrunched between Fordsburg/Fietas and the old Crown Mines, a white working-class area. Sam is a “Mayfair boykie” of Portuguese-Irish-Afrikaans extraction and his childhood is a battle for survival in a world of brandy-and-Coke braais, mother gossiping with vicious intent in the kitchen with her hugely fat friend, Suzy and, factory-worker father off to the Libertas Hotel.

“This bar, kroeg, crucible of male shame, — a stinking hole of low-life wetters, rondfokkers, good-for-nothing, kaksleg shits who sat there talking the biggest load of crap on Earth while their wives burned the supper at home in their semi-detached houses, their ‘semis’ because their children were driving them mad. Med.” It’s a household in which pa works but ma controls the pay-packet and battles for power, dominance and control seems paramount. Sam is, however, sent to learn boxing and to a neurologist when he develops ­epilepsy.

A philosophical and linguistic meander
The whole narrative is delivered as Sam’s “reverse-reel view of life”, a conversation, in person and in writing, with his therapist, Anna. It is the “theatre of the second guess, a chamber where all certainty of action and motive is suspended ...” as we hear Sam’s engaging narrator’s voice, sometimes reverting to the crude but apposite language of Mayfair streets, but more often into a soliloquy, a riff, a philosophical and linguistic meander that is characteristically
De Kock.

Sam is seeing Anna to try to understand why yet another relationship has ended badly. He goes far back, to his earliest sexual encounters, starting with the first whiff of the power of sex when he finds a couple, Marie and Hennie, snogging obliviously in the passage. He senses that they are out of control—that’s the bad and scary part.

There’s a lot more sex in this novel in which Sam tells with utmost candour of abuse in his childhood and teenage years and then of later encounters. Anna helps him see the point of disconnect. But interestingly, though Sam understands what she has shown him, he does not buy into change. The novel is about why he doesn’t.

It is an extremely interesting addition to the canon of South African fiction in which much has been written on the abuse and damage wrought on women: Mol in Triomf for example. This frank look at how sexuality, sexual behaviours, relationship skills develop in a man, makes this a groundbreaking novel. It is discomforting insofar as it is focused so obsessively on sex, gender and masculinity. Some rather stereotyped female characters play out in the background.

I found myself thinking of Maurice, that wonderful old roué in the movie Venus (screenplay by Hanif Kureishi), played by Peter O’Toole, who is called by one of his friends “The Prince of Pussy”. He does have the advantage of old age, a life richly lived, but here is a character who is a cheerful philanderer, a man who has misbehaved and abandoned many loves, but one who can nevertheless enjoy and comment on the world around him.

Sam, however, perhaps because he is still in the throes of it all, is too narrow and very angry; apart from sex his view of the world has been pared down to noting the trappings of class and power. And whereas Maurice loves women, Sam does not. He is obsessed with men, his own sexuality, and it often seems he would be happier in a relationship with a man were it not for his entrenched homophobic upbringing. At the end of the book he is still in defensive mode.

The shouts on the cover of this book describe it as “captivating” and “unapologetic”, which it is. Some will find it offensive—the sex is pretty graphic—and some may see misogyny. I see it as the story of a tragically arrested man, addicted to bad sex (as in illicit or somehow wrong). The title, in its most likely meaning—I keep on about this—disguises the seriousness of this novel, which is, almost throughout, beautifully written: light, swift, elegant, amusing and informed.

An interesting read

To anyone who has mused on how relationships work and why we are as we are, act out as we do, this will be an interesting read. As you keep turning it over in your mind the question you should be asking is not about the inner dynamics of sexual relationships, which this novel purports to be about, but whether it is in fact an act of “regstellende aksie” (so much better in Afrikaans) against the current favouring of women, an act of redress?

Whatever your conclusions, this novel is provocative. In the interests of fairness it deserves to be read. It is not so much about the titillations of bad sex, but of being the bad sex.

Which women were until recently, but in a different way.

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