Interview: Eben Venter’s Trencherman

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Charles Malan interviewed Eben Venter, who is temporarily living in Australia, about Trencherman, the translation of his novel Horrelpoot.


Let’s talk about the reception and implications of the translation. One of the earliest reviews, by Leon de Kock, can set the stage: "Published in Afrikaans in 2006 as Horrelpoot – to wide critical acclaim, and to some controversy, too – it is quite simply the most devastating fictional account of apocalyptic South African collapse yet written, and it has been superbly translated into SA English by Luke Stubbs." The translation was recently published by Tafelberg, in May 2008. What has been the international reception so far?

Trencherman has not been sold to an overseas publisher yet. In the past year or so there has been a spate of dystopic novels: The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Eagle’s Throne by Carlos Fuentes, The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson and recently Man in the Dark by Paul Auster. I believe Trencherman taps into a similar Zeitgeist and gains relevancy by doing so. Therefore I sincerely hope that it does sell to one or more overseas publishers.

I have given the book to friends and acquaintances to read in Poland, Australia and America. Without exception they said that they couldn’t put it down; that it was a good read. One of these readers was Nancy Schumacher of the English Department, College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Nancy wrote: "I thought Trencherman was a powerful, if disturbing book, and I predict a big international reputation for him." Pawe? Zajas of the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland said he didn’t find the book sombre. He said they’re more than used to sombre in Poland.

Something interesting emerged from the responses. The further the (overseas) reader was removed from South Africa, the less the "threat" of the story. My partner, who has some affinity with and experience of South Africa, thought that I had a nerve to write the book. I asked him what exactly he meant by "having a nerve". He replied that the story challenges people – mine – in a country already challenged by many problems. I have spared nothing and nobody in my book.

Jeanette Winterson seems to have been challenged similarly with the responses to her novel. This is what she had to say about "difficult literature": "We want it and we don’t want it often simultaneously, and at the same time as a book is working intravenously we are working to immunise ourselves against it."

Indeed the novel elicits widely contrasting feelings and reactions. One cannot remain ideologically neutral. Surely you must have had the conscious intention of shocking the local reading public, maybe out of their complacency? It seems there is a different response overseas. Can you speculate about the general reaction by the "expats", the emigrants from South Africa? Will they feel that their fears have been vindicated?

I have never intended to shock my readers. It could happen that I find a story gripping and narrated in a masterful way, like the one of Michael K journeying to the Karoo in JM Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K, while other readers find it extremely sombre and depressing. I worked really hard on the graveyard scene in Trencherman. I didn’t want the smashing of graves to sound sensational or violent for the sake of violence only. After all, it was a very violent scene. Some readers read it as hell on earth. Maybe that’s what it is. But hopefully a hell not devoid of meaning.

I simply can’t be bothered with migrants trying to justify their migration in a smug, "I told you so" way. Maybe this kind of migrant will read my book in the way you’ve described. It was difficult to write Trencherman – I was deeply involved with the story, as I am and always will be with Afrikaans and my personal history in the country. I hope ex-South Africans can engage with the book and register what it says about their (our) fear.

Are you satisfied with the translation, especially the difficult colloquialisms and the Babel-speak of Koert during his derangement? Did you have to edit the translation to a certain extent?

Yes, I am satisfied with the translation. Both Luke Stubbs the translator and I thought we had gained a lot more insight, tricks and skills since the translation of My Beautiful Death. As was the case with that novel we worked very closely together on Trencherman.

Luke has a certain turn with his English phrases and having worked in Laaiplaas on the West Coast for years he knew Afrikaans very well. When he eventually came to the last draft, he drove to Prince Albert where I was living at the time and we revised the entire novel word for word and sentence by sentence. It took about two weeks, day and night. We often argued about how best to retain the feeling or sphere of the original story in English. Sometimes Luke’s English sounded too Afrikaans to me and at times too British.

Often the text had to be pared down. Sometimes my Afrikaans seemed tautologous or wordy once translated into English. Thus the nuanced way of saying things twice in Afrikaans without actually repeating oneself might have been lost in the new text. On the other hand the story has gained a certain swiftness in English. Maybe it has become more to the point, more transparent. It’s the most you can hope for from a translation: that it simultaneously captures the original feeling and gains clarity in the guise of the new language.

Yes, we had to work very hard on Koert’s babble-speak. This is an important part of the story. In Afrikaans Koert literally bastardises and destroys our beloved mother-tongue. The total destruction and eventual disappearance of Afrikaans represents a deep fear of mine, probably of most Afrikaans-loving persons.

The challenge was how to render the destruction in English. We decided to retain all the Yiddish, Dutch and malformed German and lace it with phonetic spelling and street slang and rasta talk without ever turning Koert into a Dutchman or a rastaman or whatever. Koert remains a unique creature and so does his language.

"Die horrel die horrel" in Afrikaans seemed a perfect play on Conrad’s Marlow’s last utterance and a link back to the Afrikaans title, Horrelpoot. In the English text Koert calls out "de horror, de horror". We added extra words here to render the total destruction of the language by Koert. On LitNet a reviewer by the name of Dawid de Villiers thought the rendition to be farcical, but as far as that goes his was a lone voice.

When I first read Horrelpoot I was – well, horrified. This could be seen by some readers, especially from abroad, as the apogee of decadence, the monstrous result of Afrikanerdom’s greed for power at all costs, and at the same time the terror of “the masses” moving in for the kill. You have been somewhat apologetic about the novel that “had to be written”. With hindsight and now with entrance into the international arena, what are your feelings?

No regrets. I've just had to remind readers not to conflate the writer with the characters. Yet they still and always will do that.

I am more attached to South Africa with its beauty and its welts and sores than I can explain. It’s an emotional attachment. During my long stay of 19 years in Australia I have returned again and again to the Great Karoo. I love Afrikaans and the accents spoken in the Karoo. The farm in the Eastern Cape where I grew up has informed almost all my novels, including Trencherman.

It is this utter devotion to South Africa that has made me write about the total destruction of my people, my language and my country. I can imagine that the same motive drove Cormac McCarthy to write The Road. You only have to read his Border Trilogy to realise his insider’s knowledge of the land and the people. Yet here is a novel where the American landscape he loves so much is completely ravaged. There is no food left, no drinking water, no hope and no future.

Cormac McCarthy has cleaved fear (his) to the bone. So have I. As I said before: I had to write this nightmare out of my system. Many South African readers, too many to count, have told me that the story horrified them. However, they have always added that they could identify with the story. It was far too real to be read as science fiction. It was their own nightmare laid bare.

How do you feel about the translated title, Trencherman? De Kock explains: “A ‘trencherman’ is one who cadges meals, an eater of meat, but a ‘trencher’ is also a cutting instrument, a person who carves meat.” Clearly, the connotations with meat and over-indulgence, even slaughter, are important. You have had this thing about meat since Foxtrot van die vleiseters, the meat eaters. But one inevitably also thinks of trench, entrenchment?

The possible title Clubfoot seemed far too banal, too easy-going for a hard-hitting novel. Trencherman was actually suggested by Gerhard Greyvensteyn, our marketing manager. It is an archaic word, intriguing and mysterious. We decided to include its various meanings at the start of the book. Glutton, cadger, carver, knife-wielding (mad)man, the rotting trenchfoot, the descent into the hell-hole of the trench – all these meanings are evoked by the word trencherman. And all these evocations are intended to illuminate the character of Koert.

Yes, I have had this thing about meat from Foxtrot through My Beautiful Death to Trencherman. I am continually exploring and reinterpreting what meat means to people. (On our sheep farm meat figured prominently in discussions and on the plate.) I have given meat a role in every one of the above-mentioned novels.

To most people meat on the table is a privilege. Plenty of meat becomes an indulgence. Heaps of meat is pure decadence and in the case of Koert, who exploits meat, devours and wallows in meat, it becomes repulsive. It reminds me of graffiti on the wall of a vegetarian restaurant in Melbourne: "eat meat ya bastards", which expresses the grossness of meat indulgence.

Obviously the last thing on your mind is to be politically correct. But now that you have entered the international arena with the novel, how do you feel about the possible perception by readers abroad of your stereotypical Koert as the archetypal Afrikaner, the despised Boer, and the further stereotype of the all-consuming blacks?

It would be naive of any reader to regard Koert as the archetypal Afrikaner. Just as Hannibal Lecter does not represent the archetypal American in the novels of Thomas Harris. Koert, like Hannibal, rather represents an abomination thrown up by a society devastated by corruption, greed, selfishness, bad governance, infighting, an utter lack of skills, excessive violence and war.

The black people in Trencherman are not "all-consuming" or "masses moving in for the kill" as you suggest, but rather miserable, deprived human beings with hardly anything to consume. And most of all with no hope of the future ever getting better.

Luc Renders of the University of Hassel, Belgium remarked that the big difference in the way Dutch read or perceive their literature as opposed to Afrikaans readers is that the latter closely identify with the story and its characters: How can you do this to us, how can you turn one of our sons into the monster Koert? These sort of questions were often asked of me.

It is the fear, your fear, that makes you ask these questions I tried to explain. There are so many types of Afrikaans speakers here and all over the world who have made a major contribution to culture, sport, the economy – eg Marlene Dumas, Breyton Paulse, Adam Small, Charlize Theron, Marius Kloppers, CEO of BHP-Billiton and so on. None of us represents the archetypal Afrikaner (what is that?). And Koert definitely does not. Heis an outrageous variant of the Afrikaner and represents the most extreme form of a degenerate human being. His physique, mind, language and intentions – all of these are abominations.

With the translation your novel now has entered the well-established discourse on colonialism and the great divide between the coloniser and the “other”. It seems that before he wrote Heart of Darkness Conrad was to a certain extent uninformed about the implications of colonisation in the erstwhile Congo. Afrikaners were contemporary imperialists, not colonialists, but they certainly joined ranks against the other, be it blacks or English South Africans. They were at least misinformed or indoctrinated about the implications of apartheid by their political leaders. How do you perceive the translation, if you will, of this discourse into present-day South Africa with its political turmoil?

The misinformation continues. Koert tricks the people on the farm. They let themselves be tricked. They are not astute enough to see what’s behind his offers of whisky, meat and Nintendo games. Maybe they are simply too hungry and too desperate.

However, Ouma Zuka does see through Koert. She penetrates his lies and megalomania to the core. She speaks in isiXhosa, as do all the other black characters in Trencherman. At different times in the story the blacks challenge Marlouw when he reverts to old-school patronising. The black characters may be down and out, but they’re never at loss for words. They are proud, emancipated beings. They’re also very human, maybe even more so than the whites. It is the two elders on the farm that help Marlouw escape in spite of his refusal to help them.

The divide between Marlouw and the "other" is obliterated when he starts dancing at the final party. Right down to the remnants of food left in his stomach he has become the same as all the other people on the farm.

Through their language, their empowerment and humanity and the assimilation of Marlouw with the black people I intended to write a corrective on the one- dimensional portrayal of black people in Conrad’s novel.

As I said in my interview with Leon de Kock, it’s the whites you need to worry about rather than the blacks.

I take your point, but still one of the characters relates the future anarchy and the collapse of infrastructure in the country directly to the infighting and corrupt struggle for power at a national and provincial level. Are you surprised by the way things are turning out in present-day South Africa?

No. It seems that the era of honest, wise and truly non-racist public servants like Mandela and Tutu are gone. Now people with little or no education are led by semiliterate majesties who tell them to shower after they’ve had sex without protection, to bring on the machine guns, to eat beetroot if they’re HIV-positive, to fight till death unless one of these semiliterates becomes president. The chances for good governance and healthy democracy to survive are slim. So slim that Sunday Times writer Xolela Mangcu calls on the middle classes to rise up against vulgarity and illiteracy (Sunday Times, 17/07/08).

It’s fertile ground for story-writers. Dido recently wrote to me to say that I’m missing out on all the fun.

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