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In a (near) future, Martin Jasper Louw, or Marlouw, a clubfooted emigrant selling cookware in Melbourne, is saddled with a grim task. His nephew, Koert Spies, has gone back to the former family farm in South Africa, and Marlouw's sister, Heleen, has asked him to go and fetch her son, who has suddenly broken off all contact. Twenty years earlier the Louw siblings bequeathed Ouplaas to their farm workers, and Koert, presumably with a need to trace his roots, has moved back there. A reluctant Marlouw – under an indefinite compulsion of his own – travels to his former “fatherland”, now laid waste by corruption, mismanagement, violence and AIDS. His flight on a dilapidated SAA aeroplane involves meeting Smittie, who traffics in young girls from Lesotho. In a Bloemfontein which in several details recalls Dante's inferno, he buys a bakkie from a die-hard Afrikaner, Nant du Plessis, and takes the mutilated road to Ouplaas.
En route he patronises the Colonial Restaurant, where the Scandinavian proprietor Per Strand offers him some repast and shows him where he accommodates the sick and dying so as to preserve their dignity. Marlouw crosses the Orange River and stays over at the Balmoral Hotel, reminiscent of a frontier saloon. Here he consorts with a gaggle of rough Afrikaners and prostitutes, and learns that Koert is indeed active on the farm and has evolved a local meat empire. At Ouplaas the Xhosa gatekeeper, Pilot, escorts him to the house where all the former workers still live: Pilot's father, November, and sister, Esmie, the Zukas (including young Headman and his “ouma”), as well as Mildred and her son, Lehlono. Each family inhabits a quarter of the house; Koert, who does not make an appearance, has claimed the fourth. Marlouw gathers that, while the farm did well for a while under Koert's direction, it is now fast falling into disrepair: the sheep are sick and the bulk of the windmills are out of commission.
While Koert's privacy is jealously preserved by Esmie and armed guards, Marlouw is grudgingly drawn into the life of the farm: he lodges with November and Pilot, collects firewood and is eventually pressed to buy medication for the sheep in the neighbouring town of Maitland. On this outing he also learns that the family graveyard is in the process of being overrun by the informal settlement that has grown around the town. An incident with the local police regarding his bakkie is defused by means of two boxes of meat.
Back at the farm Marlouw struggles with his own deep-rooted prejudices and fears, and one day in the veld he is confronted with a memory of his father's worst nightmare – a fear that has become his legacy. Memory modulates into an apparition or vision; his father requests that he destroy the graveyard to save it from further desecration. Vision, in turn, uncertainly modulates into reality as Marlouw encounters an incongruously elegant horse-rider who, in the course of their conversation, tells him that she used to be involved in an affair with his father.
Shortly hereafter Marlouw is finally allowed an audience with Koert. The feared leader, ensconced among hoarded furniture, turns out to be obese and bedridden (with a gangrenous foot), a “king larva” (239), a rotten kernel. In a monologue, delivered in an incongruous blend of urban slang, hillbilly rhetoric (which stands in for Afrikaans) and German, he provides an account, such as it is, of his two years on the farm. Realising that he will not convince Koert to return to Australia with him, Marlouw does manage to enlist his nephew in the project to efface the graveyard. This goal attained, disaster strikes when the last working windmill breaks down. The ever delusional Koert commands a revel, to which townsfolk and members of local syndicates are invited. When he makes his appearance, Ouma Zuka calls him mzungu and – in a scene reminiscent of Julius Caesar's assassination – his guests dispatch him with a knife. Marlouw flees back to Melbourne, where he gives Heleen a sentimental account of Koert's end. The book ends with Marlouw's vision of an abandoned Ouplaas reclaimed by the landscape.
The novel self-consciously engages with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: epigraphs, characters and plot scenarios consistently invoke it. Of course there are also significant differences: Conrad's novel deals with colonial practice, with the hungry European scramble for Africa, whereas Venter's imagines the reversal of that process, the aftermath of a kind of scramble from Africa. Instead of the river which bears Marlow to Kurtz, we have the current of unmoored people and of the country's fate, a stream to which Marlouw relinquishes himself with some trepidation. Also, Koert is killed by his followers, rather than simply wasting away, as Kurtz does. At times one has the sense that Venter approaches Heart of Darkness via Coppola's reimagining of it in Apocalypse Now. The cultural palimpsest, the always imminent surrealism, the spectre of informal or private armies, even the concept of an overweight Kurtz figure and the fact that he dies by violence, recall Coppola's film rather than Conrad's novel. How to typify the relationship of Venter's novel to Conrad's, then, is a less than straightforward matter, and one to which I will briefly return.
There is, of course, another novel that is recalled by Trencherman's grim vision, namely JM Coetzee's Disgrace. In this case the link is merely contextual, specifically as both novels also, on some level, qualify as subversions of the genre of the “farm novel” This, too, marks a deviation from Heart of Darkness, which is set in a world that is simply represented as primitive, undeveloped. At times Ouplaas may outwardly recall such a space – upon his arrival, for instance, Marlouw notices the wasted garden: “Nothing. Not a single tree, like primeval times, when the veld lay untouched, without homestead or kraal” (115). But the point here is precisely the actual deterioration of a manmade “Eden”, which, within the symbolic economy of the “farm novel”, as well as pioneer culture in general, takes the specific form of “the farm” or “the homestead" into an uncultivated natural landscape, a wilderness.
The end of the novel completes – by way of Marlouw's vision – this process, to which he had willingly contributed in destroying the graveyard: the abandoned Ouplaas is entirely reclaimed by nature and an entire history is wiped out. One discerns a strangely perverse hope here: if the history of the Louw family has to be effaced, let everything be effaced. The nightmare, then, also harbours a dream of oblivion. As such the novel outstrips Coetzee's in pessimism: it simply foresees no future for the descendants of European immigrants – and more specifically, for the Afrikaner – in South Africa. History has devoured them; although for this they have themselves to blame.
The figurehead for this guilt is the character of Koert, although the crippled Marlouw bears part of the symbolic burden (his acute self-consciousness is itself a persistent aspect of post-apartheid Afrikanerdom). Koert is grotesque – his obesity does not only testify to his preference for lamb chops, but also symbolises his acquisitive instinct. Conrad's Kurtz is gaunt and wasted, the broken vessel for an idea that merely persists as a voice. Koert, on the other hand, is not driven by an idea (unless it is that Bell's Whiskey and Mario Bros – booze and games – are indispensable to the lives of those at Ouplaas), but rather by the species of business savvy we also encounter in the characters of Smittie and Nant du Plessis. His tale is one of simple moral anaemia, decadence, and greed dressed up as leadership. On one level he is the Afrikaner unmasked, on another he is the Afrikaner's deepest fear – in both senses he is the Afrikaner's heart of darkness.
As far as the novel is concerned, fear actualises its own worst nightmares. According to this argument the Afrikaner's downfall had always been already implicit in his fear of being deposed, of being robbed, of being annihilated (a fear which encouraged his violence, institutional or otherwise). Even Marlouw and Heleen's gift of the farm to their workers here begins to seem like an act of appeasement, an attempt to exorcise the legacy of fear, to abjure responsibility (one is acutely aware of Marlouw's unwitting racism upon his return to the country). Their emigration to Australia is an act of repression, the consequences of which emerge in Koert. At Ouplaas Marlouw comes to recognise in Koert "the embodiment of the fear of all our forebears. The fear that the man with the knife beside the bed of the forefather will gain the upper hand and that nothing will remain of us: here it is now, the nothing, writ large. An abomination that has retained merely a splutter of the original language. But it's not the man with the knife who is the father of the monstrosity – it's us. He came from our loins. That Pappie would not have understood" (240).
On a literal level Koert is this “embodiment” because he is the last in the line of the Louws and is clearly on his way out. But as an “embodiment” of the fear he also points to that which is fundamental to the fear: avarice, power-lust, solipsism. This fear itself produces the conditions in which it might flourish: himself a product of it, Koert's relation to South Africa can only take the form of a presumptuous and increasingly malign paternalism.
We must not lose sight, however, of the grim humour involved in Venter's portrayal. Both Kurtz and Koert may be figures of hubris, and both may at times come across as pathetic rather than portentous, but the latter has sole claim to being also grotesquely comical – from his linguistically encompassing gibberish to his bulbous body he is literally an exaggeration of Kurtz – in short, a parody. What could such a parody mean? Generally speaking, a parody simultaneously critiques another text (usually canonical) and acknowledges its strength – in such general terms, then, Venter confirms the eminence of Heart of Darkness as a novel dealing with the confrontation between Europe and Africa, while possibly suggesting that its perspective is no longer reflective of current or imminent realities. In a way that again recalls Disgrace: the white presence in Africa – whether as exploiter or as victim – is no longer a subject for pathos, but for bathos. Thus, even when Koert is spot-on, he is somehow also ridiculous: “I am he, I am the taal, the volk, I am your destiny, your fear, das Ende des Lebens, the one who shits last, the very heart of darkness who has remained” (247). Intense as Marlouw's fear is as he is escorted to Koert's chambers, and despite the fact that these words recall Marlouw's own earlier insight, we cannot help but feel that Koert here claims too much for himself.
This sense becomes particularly acute in the scene of Koert's killing. While Kurtz famously dies whispering, “The horror! The horror!”, Koert expires with a “last mighty cry: 'De horror. I am de horror'” (302), sounding like some Marvell comics villain. One cannot help but wonder whether here the translator overplayed his hand, as Venter's original rendering – “Die horrel! Die horrel!” – draws its parodic strength precisely from its echo of the enigmatic quality of Kurtz's parting words. Furthermore, “die horrel” manages to recall Marlouw's afflicted foot as well as, by extension, Koert's own, and finally ties these to the idea of misdirection, to a sense of things having gone awry. In the English version the moment is reduced to pure farce.
Luke Stubbs's translation is generally well handled. As is often the case with translations, something of the colour and originality of Venter's idiom is lost, and unavoidably the language question that drives much of the tension is placed at a remove. Nonetheless he manages, with the help of a brief glossary, to retain several Afrikaans words in the text. Here and there he indulges direct renderings of idiomatic expressions: “elke man kom een of ander tyd sy moses teë” (102) becomes “everyone meets his Moses sooner or later” (98); “sak en pak” becomes “sack and pack” (116); “he who shits last”, which appears in the quote above, may well be a literal translation of an expression which would mean: “he who succumbs last”. The legitimacy of this is open to question. Breytenbach did something similar in Dog Heart – in order to communicate the content of the original expression – yet he indicated his use of literal translation. Despite these reservations, Stubbs's work is competent and not without its own pleasures. The English title speaks volumes, particularly in the light of the dictionary definitions of trencherman, trencher and trench foot added after the original epigraph. In this way Marlouw – whose handicap is the focus of the Afrikaans title, Horrelpoot – remains implicit in the title, although the focus undeniably shifts to Koert, specifically in his role as a “parasite”.
A dark novel, then, but one which merits, and is apt to reward, rereading. Its pessimistic vision is perhaps too reminiscent of contemporary public opinion – particularly as voiced in the Afrikaans press – to be genuinely disconcerting, but its analysis of the Afrikaner's psyche invites serious consideration. This might well be Venter's game: to grant a certain kind of Afrikaner his doomsday prophecy, only then to reveal the depravity of such a vision, which finally comes down to having no vision at all.