/ 12 March 2009

Scar tissue of apartheid

Jane Rosenthal reviews The Lahnee’s Pleasure by Ronnie Govender and An African Cameo by Naka Pillman

Ronnie Govender throws the reader into the deep end with his rapid, funny and pretty scathing narration, in which he introduces a kaleidoscopic sketch of the Mount Edgecombe Indian community. It’s initially a bit overwhelming and confusing but the reader is soon engaged and involved in this village life.

At the centre of this novel is Mothie, widower and father of seven, employee of the Hulett sugar barons. Tongues are wagging over the fences between the little company houses in which they all live, concerning Mothie’s teenage daughter’s new boyfriend who visits her in secret during the day.

Govender’s style of headlong grandiosity is laced with oft-repeated jokes — he refers to the novel as this “impenitent account”, “salacious saga”, “lascivious legend” (which it is not — a joke within a joke). The targets of his satire are racism, colonialism and apartheid, which he lampoons in many ways including consistently referring to people by race names such as “Char Ous”, “Bruin Ous” and the more simple dividing feature of skin pigment. There are frequent references to melanin, as in “melanin-starved”, or “impaired”, “skimped”; and conversely “melanin-blessed”. Actual political events and figures as well as insight into history give weight to the sad and simple story of exploited Mothie, who grovels to survive.

Much of the action takes place in The White House Hotel, which has a segregated bar one side for Wit Ous and the other for the melanin-blessed. Both sides are served by the same barman, Sunny. Some wonderful dialogues take place here, including the climax of the novel when Mothie finds out about his daughter’s misdemeanours. Govender’s command of the variations of KwaZulu-Natal speech dialects is spot on, both funny and sad.

The Lahnee of the title is the owner of this hotel, suitably ridiculed for his ignorance and arrogance. But then so are those who ingratiate themselves with him — of whom Mothie is the worst — and who Govender shows us is the most vulnerable.

The end of the novel appears to have been condensed, which is a pity as one is just getting into the swing of Govender’s style and engaging with the characters. It’s a deceptively light read. Much suffering and anger is made bearable for the reader by the jesting tone.

Another novel which throws up the effect of apartheid and the racist mentality it “normalised” is An African Cameo by Naka Pillman. The narrator is Pillman and she begins her fictionalised account of real events by explaining the coincidence of how she got to know Yoriko, the Japanese woman at the centre of this highly unusual story. But even before that, she cuts to the chase with a scene in which Yoriko is most likely to die, of shame or her injuries, inflicted by the man who had lured her to South Africa to marry him.

Pillman has researched the stories of both Bill Bosch and Yoriko, tracing the improbable intersection of their lives. Whereas Bosch was raised in a poor white family in the road-building camps of the western Transvaal, Yoriko came from a refined and educated background in Tokyo.

Bosch became a successful businessman with useful connections in the government of the old regime. And Yoriko, whose life is almost unimaginably different from that of all South African women, was raised in a very tightly traditional environment. She showed a great talent for painting and after a long apprenticeship was allowed to work as a sumi-e painter and assistant in a museum. It is there that she meets Bosch, who is in Japan for business.

In those days Japanese people in South Africa were officially designated as “honorary whites”, but Yoriko had no knowledge of this, nor indeed of any of the contortions of apartheid law, when she began what she thought was a passionate and honourable correspondence with Bosch. When she finally travelled to South Africa it was to discover that she would be a virtual prisoner, maid to Bosch’s mistress and sex toy for Bosch, whose pathological behaviour was encouraged by the apartheid milieu.

This is simply and elegantly told, full of detail of life in the road camps and Bosch’s early adult life as he climbs the social ladder in Johannesburg and of the philosophy and discipline behind Japanese art.

Pillman also explores Yoriko’s own vulnerability inherent in her own cultural tradition of the submission of women, still valid in the 1960s. And it still happens today when the struggle for women’s equality is being waged in many communities, whatever the Constitution may say.