From the centre to the margin

The Displaced by Kimon Neophyte (Houdini), Praise Routine Number 4 by Michael Rands (Human and Rousseau), Plot Loss by Heinrich Troost (Umuzi)

It’s interesting to see how many white men, some of them young, are putting pen to paper to document in fiction their experiences or views on what might loosely be termed “the white man’s life in post-apartheid South Africa”. Despite surveys that show white men are still dominant in business and earning capacity in 2008, some of these writers seem trapped in a negative narrative that sees this time as post-privilege, often post-work and thus post having a future.

The way white men are presented in post-1994 fiction was examined in an article by Michael Titlestad in the Sunday Times as long ago as 2006. In the article he took David Lurie, the main character of Disgrace by JM Coetzee, as his starting point and went on to discuss Eloff in The Good Doctor, by Damon Galgut.
In Galgut’s latest novel, The Impostor, Adam Napier is a young white male who loses his job after mentoring and training his “employment equity” successor. These white male characters, in their various ways, appear embattled or cynical.

Two new novels in this area are The Displaced by Kimon Neophyte (Houdini, 2008) and Praise Routine Number 4 by Michael Rands (Human and Rousseau, 2008).

Neophyte’s novel recounts the story of Athon, a second-generation Greek migrant to South Africa, whose business goes under because of the requirements of the BEE legislation that he does not, or cannot, fulfil. His family goes off to relatives in the United Kingdom while he sails up the coast of Africa back to Cyprus, where (mirabile dictu) he still owns two fields. (So what is he complaining about, one wonders). He has nothing good to say about Africa and dishes up all the old clichés about the “dark continent”—“more full of horror than splendour”. He barely notices the indigenous people except to call their villages “squalid”. This novel might have done better as a series of essays—he uses the storyline as a framework for interesting philosophising on the ancient Hellenic culture and a synthesis in terms of this of the major religions of the world. It is a sad little novel, possibly influenced by the experience of many Greek café owners in South Africa being killed in armed robberies, a point that he notes.

Praise Routine Number 4 is another rather angry offering. Narrated in the first person by Byron Winterleaf, whose “job”, in between smoking a huge amount of dagga, is to translate the praise songs that are the speciality entertainment of the tourist-oriented restaurant in which he works. The strength of this novel lies in the cleverly observed dialogue and speech styles of his characters—the flashback structure is carefully maintained and provides an interesting contrast to the drifting chaos of Byron’s life. Despite this unattractive scenario and much deliberately offensive imagery, the reader is drawn quite skilfully into the story. Things deteriorate and Byron loses both his house and his girlfriend. This self-lacerating satire on spoilt white “trustafarian” boys also presents a scathing view of those kinds of feminism and political correctness that are turned into power plays every bit as ugly as previous manifestations of exclusion and power. It’s an uncomfortable read, full of anger. But although Byron’s feckless existence is set in the 21st century, the new political order is not the object of the satire.

On the other side of this fictional coin are novels that explore what young black men are doing with freedom, now that it is here, and with education and opportunity long sought. Two novels spring to mind: Room 207 by Kgebetli Moele (Kwela, 2006) and After Tears by Niq Mhlongo (Kwela, 2007). Both did well in the M-Net English fiction awards in 2007 and 2008 and are worth reading—Room 207 for its harrowing reality and After Tears for its lethal satire.

But, noticeably, in none of these novels is there any sort of racial sharing of the new South Africa. Apartheid persists, even in fiction it seems. How dour and dire is this? At least in Morabo Morojele’s novel, How We Buried Puso (Jacana, 2006), there is a cross-cultural (in this case, read racial) marriage and the author addresses some of the complexities and difficulties that arise from this.

A novel that offers a more cheerfully nuanced look at being young in post-apartheid South Africa is Plot Loss by Heinrich Troost (Umuzi, 2007). In the novel Harry van As finds himself seconded to the Pretoria branch of the insurance company for which he works. Newly returned to the city where he grew up, he is happy to find it vastly changed and befriends a motley selection of people: an old girlfriend, a young BEE appointee in the firm, Vusi, and Johnson, a Nigerian bouncer at a club he frequents.

Although they are by no means the main focus of the novel, the friendships between Van As and Vusi and Van As and Johnson are noteworthy, partly because they stand out from the dearth of similar relationships in other post-1994 fiction. Vusi and Johnson are astutely observed characters whose relations with Van As are not without tension. But tension surfaces with Van As’s women friends too: Jeanne, Cirkene and Clara. Troost shows great skill in imagining the lives of others as seen through the eyes of Van As, transcending both gender and race.

But this is somewhat secondary to the novel as a whole, which is an extended and rather brilliant improvisation—a meditation on life and death and what it means to be an Afrikaner after 1994. These are extremely complex subjects, but he confounds any stereotypes while invoking song lyrics and poetry in such dense allusiveness that a three-page list is provided at the back. Eugene Marais, Louis Leipoldt, Ingrid Jonker and J van Melle figure alongside many modern songwriters. But mostly, and delightfully, Troost invites the reader to see the complexity and joy of life; in Buddhist terms, to value “precious human birth”, and in this case it is manifested in a white man in post-1994 South Africa. Not that he uses this phrase in the book, which has a deeply spiritual thread running through it.

It is quite a remarkable novel; shortlisted for the M-Net English Fiction Award in 2008, it could easily have won it. Perhaps it should have. More than once Van As refers to his tendency to overdo self-destructive quips and puns; it might be that Troost also suffered from overdoing things in this novel. Why did he call it Plot Loss when its weakest aspect is the complexity of plot?

Michael Titlestad would not agree here. He sees the loss of plot as necessary and says: “Grafted on to the ponderously historical is a cacophonous province of dissonant possibilities, evanescent connections and affiliations — “

But do not be put off; this novel is an exhilarating read and the evocation of post-1994 Pretoria seen through Van As’s “lightness of being” will stay long after the details of the plot have faded. You might even enjoy the circular, rewinding plot.

Troost will be among the last men standing when it comes to writers of whatever hue. As with Bart Nel, who lost everything, he will be able to say: “I am still he.” Whoever and whatever that means.

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