Allan Kayle’s debut novel, A Match for Doctor Koekentapp, is a bawdy, comic portrayal of a Jewish community in the north-eastern suburbs of Johannesburg. As with most forms of farce, the novel pokes fun at the foibles of its characters, whose flaws are exaggerated to such an extent that they function only as absurd caricatures. Much of the humour, however, relies precisely on the absurdity of stereotypes about Jewish people. In this way the novel embellishes the character flaws of its Jewish community as part of a project of reducing stereotyping itself to the ridiculous and the farcical.
The novel opens with the promise of a particularly witty plot when a young locum doctor, Jeremiah Koekentapp, is called to Mr Levy’s bedside at four in the morning. Mrs Levy, however, is not nearly as interested in her husband’s kidney stone as she is in her sudden conviction that the handsome doctor would make the perfect husband for her daughter, Sylvia. While Mrs Levy plots and schemes in the background, sending relatives with fake ailments to the good doctor’s office so that they can pry into his background on her behalf, Sylvia and Dr Koekentapp manage to fall in love without her interference. However, Mrs Levy’s dream of a perfect pink silk dress for the mother of the bride is nearly shattered when she finds out that Dr Koekentapp is not Jewish.
Luckily for Mrs Levy, Dr Koekentapp is not the kind of man to let life decisions of the greatest consequence stand in the way of plot development, as it takes him only twelve days and 90 pages of rudimentary plot before he decides to convert to Judaism. It is at this point, unfortunately, that the plot loses much of its originality and its humour. Whereas it is clear from the opening pages that the novel is poking fun at the absurdity of stereotypes about Jewish culture, Dr Koekentapp’s own conversion to Judaism endlessly repeats these same stereotypes until the farcical humour seems laboured and tedious. When the final denouement proves that Dr Koekentapp was Jewish all along, the reader is left with the feeling that all the ridiculous stereotypes about Jewish culture encountered throughout the novel were only reinforced, instead of challenged.
Furthermore, the novel’s attempts at making fun of stereotypes in order to show up their absurdity occasionally fails completely, becoming offensive rather than challenging. For example, the novel seems strangely obsessed with large-breasted women and seemingly finds the mere existence of big breasts a source of great hilarity. While I cannot see why female breasts should be funny at all, the novel endows almost all female characters with big breasts, equating the extent to which a female character is made ridiculous with her breast size; the more she is to be made fun of, the bigger her breasts. Mrs Cohen, the most ridiculous female member of the Jewish community, is therefore given “giant breasts” which “slumped like a pair of overripe papaws past her navel” as she “aimed her enormous nipples at [Dr Koekentapp’s] face” (84). Dr Koekentapp constantly finds himself faced with naked, overweight women pushing either their breasts or their bums in his face, in a way that very soon becomes not only repetitive and boring, but also offensive.
Marketed as a “ribald comedy”, the novel’s extreme bawdiness certainly lives up to the expectation created by the jacket cover. In combining religious and cultural stereotypes with rampant bodily, sexual and often excremental excess, the novel pushes the boundaries of what people often think one should be “allowed” to say about Judaism, or any other religion for that matter. Once again, the novel opens with the promise of truly pushing stereotypes to such an extreme that they can only collapse under the weight of their own absurdity, but, once again, even the novel’s lewdness becomes repetitive and thus tiresome. Unfortunately, much of the novel’s supposed “ribald comedy” does not extend beyond endless farting, constipation, diarrhoea, enemas, or references to genitalia.
The biggest obstacle on Dr Koekentapp’s path to his new religion is therefore his circumcision. At the novel’s climax – and anyone who thought that the word climax in that sentence was intended as a pun would be delighted by the incredible amount of genitalia-induced mirth in the novel – Dr Koekentapp finds himself lying exposed in the operating theatre with his new rabbi, his furious spurned ex-lover, his future father-in-law, a Scottish bagpiper in kilts, two drummers, his drunken father, his equally drunk Irish Catholic godfather, and his delightfully named surgeon and anaesthetist, Dr Keppelschnaier and Dr Schlafenmacher. All these different, overly-exaggerated stereotypes are thrown together in a final attempt at pushing farce to the point where stereotyping itself can become ridiculous, but even the ensuing confusion cannot quite save the humour in the novel from repeating the same jokes about the same tired stereotypes over and over again.
While a good comic author can make fun of any subject he or she wants, and while there certainly should not be any taboo subjects or holy cows when it comes to social satire, A Match for Doctor Koekentapp tries too hard to make stereotypes funny. Its humour is too repetitive and thus feels too laboured to truly push a stereotype to that ridiculous extreme where the reader will first burst out laughing and then dismiss stereotyping itself as something absurd.