Canvas of the dark side

The protagonist discusses early Renaissance work by artists such as Piero della Francesca, who painted 'Battle between Heraclius and Chosroes'.

The protagonist discusses early Renaissance work by artists such as Piero della Francesca, who painted 'Battle between Heraclius and Chosroes'.

The Road of Excess by Ingrid Winterbach (Human & Rousseau)

“Painting is a harrowing business, harrowing. It’s a fight to the bitter end.” These are the thoughts of Aaron, successful painter and protagonist of this novel, while he takes a serious look at his latest work, which has been dismissed by his long-time gallerist, Knuvelder, with the remark, “Why shoot yourself in the foot?”

Aaron muses further: “It’s a miracle to come up with something that’s worth the effort, that doesn’t contribute to the growing heap of rubbish and noisy excess out there in the world”.

This dark but satisfying novel in its own way manifests the same struggle, asks the same question and it is certainly “worth the effort”.

Ingrid Winterbach is well known in Afrikaans literary circles (also as Lettie Viljoen, her earlier nom de plume) and has won many awards. The Afrikaans original of this novel, Die Benederyk, won an M-Net literary award in 2011.

The Road of Excess is the second book in a trilogy; the first was The Book of Happenstance.

Here she delineates a short period in the life of Aaron, when he has recovered from a debilitating illness and is starting out on a new phase of his art-making.
But he finds himself ignored by Knuvelder and fobbed off on gallery underlings.

Monastic seclusion
At the same time as he pursues his monastic seclusion and dedication to his work, he monitors and considers his reconnection with his brother, Stefaans, after a very long break. Although Aaron assiduously avoids “noisy excess”, even in his work, Stefaans, on the road of excess, has been using substances since the age of 13. Now a recovered addict, Stefaans reminisces obsessively about their family in a stream of succinct and often poetic SMSs and long letters to Aaron. He recalls their grandparents and especially their mother’s carefully edited version of their lives.

Aaron is working on a set of paintings he calls The End of the World, which Winterbach brings to life in a sweeping, detailed and erudite flood of meditation on the series generally, on painting itself and on each piece. In these, Aaron discusses the black paintings of Goya, the early Renaissance works of Piero della Fran-cesca and Masaccio, and the work of Joseph Beuys and Louise Bourgeois.

Pilgrimage to St Isidore’s Hermitage by Goya.

It is a profoundly engaging and exhilarating read, not only for art lovers but also for anyone. The flood, the pit (abyss), our fate, family portraits (our versions) – these things concern us all.

Aaron’s paintings can be universally understood: austere, silent, potent, the concentration of dark experience and the anti-image to the noisy external world. These passages read as his manifesto of what his work is about and are so vivid that the reader remembers the paintings as if they had actually been seen.

Offsetting this passionately conveyed corner of the art world are several minor characters. Two of these are Knuvelder’s new protégés, young artists Aaron is asked to give a lift.

One of them, Jimmy Harris, provides the counterpoint to Aaron’s work with his cynical, slick views on the art market. He expounds on the virtues of video versus painting, while his friend Moeketsi laughs. Unattractive and ultimately as foolish in his pursuit of “death works” as Jimmy is, he humiliates and enrages Aaron.

Bubbles and Mrs Sekete
Another pair of characters is two women, one a new neighbour, ludicrously named Bubbles, and the other his domestic worker, Mrs Sekete. Bubbles proves herself a seasoned liar and takes an entirely unwanted interest in Aaron’s wellbeing.

She has coffee in the kitchen with Mrs Sekete, and Aaron sees them as a pair of old Zen masters – but “of the military wing”, taking “no shit from anyone”. They certainly ground him effectively. Bubbles, in her hilariously horrible clothes, and with her offers to sort out Harris, offers readers some relief from the unrelenting dissection of family life to which Stefaans and Aaron return again and again.

Part of Winterbach’s technique is to pile up seemingly random life events with images and verbal references (Blake, Milton, the King James Bible) to produce a rich and beautiful text. She also likes to circle back to specific images that embody certain themes.

One of these is the “cool orange shadow” in Masaccio’s fresco, The Healing of a Blind Man, which fascinates Aaron. The acknowledgement of shadow is significant in this novel, which is a celebration of darkness. Winterbach takes hold of it to examine the underworld (die benederyk), most pointedly the hell of drug addiction that Stefaans went through, its effect on his family and on Aaron’s painting, but also the bad choices, loss, alienation of other characters.

Stefaans says he has learnt “to treat, temporarily, the afflictions of the heart. With traditional remedy, Jewish wisdom and muti. With freemasonry, with a variety of pills. With the I Ching and the Bhagavad Gita. With amours.

“The practice of martial arts and long hours in the gym. Listening to music. Taking sunbaths. The writing of reports. Taking stimulants and intoxicants at work, and alcohol at home. With the best of intentions. Even with dedication, with love even, though somewhat twisted. Even with meritorious, creative work, here and there.”

The novel has been mellifluously translated by Leon de Kock. Clearly the original was extraordinary, and he has kept it fluent and elegant, not surrendering any of its intelligent complexity, density, power and humour. 

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