While many novels have explored the political and personal ramifications of living under the apartheid regime, few have employed such a terrific sense of narrative brio humour as A Case of Knives, an often hilarious yet ultimately serious-minded coming-of-age tale that uses real events and characters to create an allegorical social commentary on the nature of power, the importance of family ties and the need for the individual story to be told.
De Wette’s storytelling mosaic deals with interwoven relationships during the 1960s that centre around the South African Prime Minister Dr Sybrand Schoon (a clear reference to Hendrik Verwoerd). Constructed around finely chiselled characters and studies of his relationships with his tribal advisor the witchdoctor Khotso, along with his son Dries and wife Alison, Ou Mevrou Jansen, De Wette rounds out a full and fully realised cast of characters that contribute both tremendous humour and pathos to the novel. The two most important characters are arguably Enoch and his grandfather, Oupa Hannes. Enoch is the studious and shy young protagonist, the son of frighteningly overbearing parents and grandson of the gardener at the Schoon family estate, while Oupa Hannes is the voice exposing much of the novel’s inquiry into machinations of state and society during a time of civil unrest and disobedience.
While the novel chronicles the fictional events and undercurrents of racial and political upheaval ultimately resulting in the death of Schoon at the hands of the family butler Mr Molineaux (a serpentine character with many of his own demons to battle), De Wette’s plot echoes the reality of the South African Prime Minister Verwoerd’s murder at the hand of Dimitri Tsafendas. Although a large amount of the novel’s enjoyment would be spoiled by giving away too much of the plot and descriptions of its other characters, it is fair to say that muti, racial classification and reclassification, marital and religious debates, horse-racing anecdotes, bureaucratic blunders and storytelling wonders combine to produce a warm-hearted yet thought-provoking meditation on a South Africa of the past.
With a flair for storytelling and a sensitivity towards his characters, A Case of Knives cuts deeply through the absurd heart of racism and discrimination, allowing the reader to draw many parallels between a country at war with itself in the past and the uncertainty of a future where leaders with true visions of equality and togetherness are all too scarce. Ultimately, it is a journey for readers that is both compelling and necessary.