Anatomy of a nation


by Farida Karodia


This novel centres on the sleepy — not to say dying — town of Vlenterhoek in the remote Northern Cape. Like the author herself, Leah Hopkins returns home to South Africa after a long absence in Canada.

Instead of the peace and quiet she anticipates, Hopkins finds Vlenterhoek in turmoil over the possible development of a luxury holiday spa near the town’s natural spring. There is, too, much talk of a film company using the town’s surroundings as background to a documentary.

Untouched so far by the new South African democracy and impervious to change, much less transformation, Vlenterhoek has continued in the old apartheid ways. The arrival of a film crew and cast consisting mainly of Indians and mixed-race members comes as a rude shock to the old brigade but shakes the town into a new vitality.

Many of the scenes relating to the film shoot are extremely funny, but the more serious side of Karodia’s writing is concerned with the state of the nation that she anatomises in the microcosm that is Vlenterhoek. With its mixed population of dyed-in-the-wool whites and needy blacks, the town created by Karodia becomes an ideal site for examining South African’s problems as a whole.

As plans for developing the spa unfold, various interests come in to play and corruption is not difficult to spot. While Danie, the ambitious town clerk, is eager to go ahead at any cost, Rebecca Fortuin, who left the town years before and is now an opposition MP, is anxious that the townspeople are not left out of the deal.

Of mixed-race descent, Fortuin has perceptions beyond those of most of the white residents, and she is partly a mouthpiece for the author. Although her personal relationship with her brother and farm-labourer father are very well drawn — especially her inability to forgive the old man’s earlier cruelty — Fortuin is often used to expressing a litany of dissatisfaction with the progress made since the fall of the apartheid regime. One very telling exception to this tendency, however, is the way in which Fortuin’s personal difficulty with truth and reconciliation epitomises the larger national problem.

Swarming with a large cast of diverse characters, Boundaries affords a vivid picture of small-town South African society — or that of any contained area, such as a suburb, for instance. Each person who appears in the narrative is convincingly portrayed and Karodia succeeds in drawing the reader into the hopes, conflicts and aspirations of the townspeople. She is even capable of making us feel some sympathy for the Joubert family, in spite of the father’s bigotry and the son, Frikkie’s, self-deceptions.

As part of the present wonderful efflorescence of post-apartheid fiction, Karodia stands shoulder to shoulder with the best. Despite a few didactic passages in which she lists rather than integrates into her plot the gains and shortcomings of contemporary South Africa, this is a rich and compelling novel.

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