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Envisioning dystopia: Eben Venter’s Art of Darkness

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Abstract

Sedert die verskyning van Joseph Conrad se novelle, Heart of Darkness, uitgegee as vervolgverhaal in 1899, was daar al verskeie pogings om Conrad se teks te ‘herskryf’, al was die verwantskap met die meesterteks dikwels gering of selfs twyfelagtig. Nog ’n herskrywing van Conrad se teks is Eben Venter se roman Trencherman, aanvanklik in Afrikaans uitgegee as Horrelpoot. Hierdie teks volg die meesterteks baie nougeset na, nie slegs deur aanhalings daaruit as motto’s vooraan elke hoofstuk te gebruik nie, maar ook deur beelde en woorde uit die oorspronklike teks op ooglopende of bedekte wyse in die narratief in te weef. Die vrae waarmee ’n leser soos ek, wat nie vertroud is met Afrikaans nie, gekonfronteer word, is of dit ’n geval van plagiaat is of ’n oefening in intertekstualiteit en ofdie boek eerder ’n poging is om sensasie te wek ten einde meer boeke te verkoop. Hierdie vraevorm die basis vir ’n intertekstuele verkenning van die twee tekste, wat neerkom op ’n stiplees van Conrad se teks langs Trencherman ten einde die intertekstuele skakels tussen die twee tekste te identifiseer. Teoreties is die artikel gebaseer op die werk van Kristeva en Barthes. Die ondersoek het bevestig dat Trencherman inderdaad ’n oefening in intertekstualiteit is, nie slegs as intertekstualiteit nie, maar eerder as ’n in-gesprek-tree met Conrad se meesterteks. Daaruit volg die slotsom dat Trencherman ’n geldige intertekstuele antwoord is op Heart of darkness wat Conrad se beroemde novelle dekonstrueer en die draaiboek daarvan transponeer na ’n distopiese, post-demokratiese Suid-Afrika.
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Literator - Journal of Literary Cricism, Comparave Linguiscs and Literary Studies
ISSN: (Online) 2219-8237, (Print) 0258-2279
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Author:
Harry Sewlall1
Aliaon:
1Department of English,
University of Venda,
South Africa
Corresponding author:
Harry Sewlall,
haripersad.sewlall@univen.
ac.za
Dates:
Received: 27 Aug. 2015
Accepted: 03 May 2016
Published: 29 Aug. 2016
How to cite this arcle:
Sewlall, H., 2016, ‘Envisioning
dystopia: Eben Venter’s Art of
Darkness’, Literator 37(1)
a1238. hp://dx.doi.
org/10.4102/lit.v37i1.1238
Copyright:
© 2016. The Authors.
Licensee: AOSIS. This work
is licensed under the
Creave Commons
Aribuon License.
Introducon
Once in a while texts appear – written or visual – that resonate with Joseph Conrad’s controversial
novella, Heart of Darkness, first published in serial form in 1899. Sometimes these texts are said to
be ‘rewriting’ Conrad, and at other times they are supposed to be ‘responses’ to his novella. In the
latter case, the relationship with the master text is often remote (Bragard 2008; Eid 2000). As a
cinematic text, Apocalypse Now (1979), set in the Vietnam War, is widely acknowledged as a close
rewriting of Conrad’s urtext. Both the Conrad text and Francis Ford Coppola’s re-versioning of it
expose the underbelly of imperialism: in the first instance the colonising power is Belgium while
in the second it is the United States armed forces in Vietnam from 1955 to 1975. What are we to
make of the novel Trencherman by Eben Venter (Venter [2006] 2008), an expatriate South African
living in Australia? In this text, originally written in Afrikaans under the title Horrelpoot (2006),1
1.Regarding the choice of the English tle, Eben Venter stated in his interview with Charles Malan:
The possible tle Clubfoot seemed too banal, too easy-going for a hard-hing novel. Trencherman was actually suggested by Gerhard
Greyvenstein, our markeng manager. It is an archaic word, intriguing and mysterious. We decided to include its various meanings at the
start of the book. Gluon, cadger, carver, knife-wielding (man) man, the rong trenchfoot, the descent into the hellhole of the trench – all
these meanings are evoked by the word trencherman. And all these evocaons are intended to illuminate the character of Koert.
Since the publication of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, published in serial form in
1899, there were several texts that purported to ‘rewrite’ the Conrad text. Often the relationship
with the master text was remote, if not tenuous. Another rewriting of Conrad’s text came with
the publication of Eben Venter ’s Trencherman, first published under the Afrikaans title
Horrelpoot. This text studiously mimicked the master text not only by using excerpts from it as
epigraphs to each chapter, but overtly and covertly wove images and words from the Urtext
into its narrative. The questions confronting a reader like myself, who is not conversant with
Afrikaans, were whether this was an act of plagiarism or an exercise in intertextuality; or
whether this was an act of sensationalism designed to promote sales. These questions formed
the basis of an intertextual exploration of both texts. What followed was a close reading of
Conrad’s text, side-by-side with Trencherman to identify their intertextual links. The theoretical
basis was provided by Kristeva and Barthes. The investigation confirmed that Trencherman
was indeed an exercise in intertextuality, not simply qua intertextuality but rather as a
dialogical engagement with the Conradian master text. The conclusion arrived at was that
Trencherman validated itself as an intertextual response to deconstruct the Conrad text and to
transpose its scenario to a dystopian, post-democratic South Africa.
Distopie voor oë: Eben Venter se duister kuns. Sedert die verskyning van Joseph Conrad se
novelle, Heart of Darkness, uitgegee as vervolgverhaal in 1899, was daar al verskeie pogings om
Conrad se teks te ‘herskryf’, al was die verwantskap met die meesterteks dikwels gering of
selfs twyfelagtig. Nog ’n herskrywing van Conrad se teks is Eben Venter se roman Trencherman,
aanvanklik in Afrikaans uitgegee as Horrelpoot. Hierdie teks volg die meesterteks baie nougeset
na, nie slegs deur aanhalings daaruit as motto’s vooraan elke hoofstuk te gebruik nie, maar
ook deur beelde en woorde uit die oorspronklike teks op ooglopende of bedekte wyse in die
narratief in te weef. Die vrae waarmee ’n leser soos ek, wat nie vertroud is met Afrikaans nie,
gekonfronteer word, is of dit ’n geval van plagiaat is of ’n oefening in intertekstualiteit en of
die boek eerder ’n poging is om sensasie te wek ten einde meer boeke te verkoop. Hierdie vrae
vorm die basis vir ’n intertekstuele verkenning van die twee tekste, wat neerkom op ’n stiplees
van Conrad se teks langs Trencherman ten einde die intertekstuele skakels tussen die twee
tekste te identifiseer. Teoreties is die artikel gebaseer op die werk van Kristeva en Barthes. Die
ondersoek het bevestig dat Trencherman inderdaad ’n oefening in intertekstualiteit is, nie slegs
as intertekstualiteit nie, maar eerder as ’n in-gesprek-tree met Conrad se meesterteks. Daaruit
volg die slotsom dat Trencherman ’n geldige intertekstuele antwoord is op Heart of darkness wat
Conrad se beroemde novelle dekonstrueer en die draaiboek daarvan transponeer na ’n
distopiese, post-demokratiese Suid-Afrika.
Envisioning dystopia: Eben Venter’s Art of Darkness
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a pejorative reference to a club-footed person, we have a
protagonist named Marlouw – also an expat South African –
who reluctantly goes back to South Africa to rescue
his nephew whose name is Koert. Although the names
‘Marlouw’ and ‘Koert’ are orthographically different from
Conrad’s protagonists Marlow and Kurtz, it does not take
much imagination to conclude that this book is another
rewriting of or rejoinder to Conrad’s classic tale, especially
considering that the author consciously evokes this master
text by using extracts from it as epigraphs to each chapter.
Russ West-Pavlov’s comment on Venter ’s use of a ‘Conradian
template’ is apposite in this regard: ‘[This] is intertextuality,
not as a secret code or a subtext, but as massive intrusion’
(West-Pavlov 2015a:44). How does a reader react to a
novel that consciously mimics its predecessor not only by
replicating in a slightly disjunctive way the names of its
protagonists, or by using excerpts from it as epigraphs, but
also by weaving into its narrative fabric lines and images
from it? Is Venter engaging in an act of plagiarism or an
exercise in intertextuality? If the latter, can his book be
considered as a compliment to its famous predecessor? Or
are the Conradian resonances merely designed to promote
sales? With these questions in mind, this essay attempts to
assess the credibility of Venter’s intertextual project.
There must be few books that have courted as much
controversy as Heart of Darkness written in what Bradbury
and McFarlane demarcate as the high Modernist period,
which span the years between 1890 and 1930. One of the
‘features of the age we are talking about’, declare Bradbury
and McFarlane, ‘is that it is remarkably historicist, disposed
to apocalyptic, crisis-centred views of history’ (Bradbury
and McFarlane [1976] 1991:20). Heart of Darkness was written
at the end of the 19th century, a period which ushered in a
new century that witnessed, on the one hand, the apogee of
human achievement in science, philosophy and technology,
and on the other, which also proved to be the most calamitous
in human history, bringing with it the two World Wars,
the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Vietnam
War. It is pertinent, in this regard, to look at the ending of
Conrad’s fin de siècle novel after Marlow has completed
his intense and harrowing account of his journey into the
Congo in search of the enigmatic Kurtz. The frame narrator
observes:
I raised my head. The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds,
and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the
earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky – seemed to lead into
the heart of an immense darkness. (Conrad [1903] 1927:162)
The moral darkness about to descend on the Western world,
emblematised by that tranquil waterway, the Thames, where
many an imperial mission began, is reminiscent of Yeats’
bleak prognosis in ‘The Second Coming’, another Modernist
literary landmark:
The darkness drops again; but now I know/That twenty centuries
of stony sleep/Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,/And
what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards
Bethlehem to be born? (Yeats 1950:210–211)
It is no coincidence that Conrad and Yeats, born 8 years apart,
envisioned an apocalyptic future that would be marked by
moral, social and political upheavals on a scale unprecedented.
A 100 years after Conrad’s canonical Heart of Darkness, comes,
in the words of West-Pavlov, ‘Venter’s shrill, hyperbolic
nightmare fantasy of a return home to South Africa
[which] stages all the worst-case scenarios of post-apartheid
South Africa rolled into one’ (2015a:43). Translated from the
original by Luke Stubbs, Trencherman could be described in a
nutshell as a story of an expatriate’s journey from Australia
to a futuristic, dysfunctional South Africa ravaged by a
nuclear explosion and HIV and/or AIDS to find his nephew
named Koert. When the protagonist Marlouw (a portmanteau
version of his full name, Martin Louw), who reflects
physically the club-foot encoded in the original title of the
book, Horrelpoot, meets his nephew, all the rumours he has
heard about him are confirmed: Koert has become corrupted
by the meat empire he has created. Suffering from gangrene,
he has become the apotheosis of gluttony, obesity and human
excess, or, as Leon de Kock writes in his online review, he is
‘the ultimate white anti-whiteman’ (De Kock 2009). In
Conrad’s text, Kurtz is portrayed paradoxically as a genius as
well as the devil incarnate, even though ‘All Europe
contributed’ (Conrad [1903] 1927:117) to his making. Venter’s
character Koert is also portrayed as a gifted individual who
transforms into a monstrosity. Both men, the pride of their
respective white cultures, become their antithetical selves in
their pursuit of wealth. In the climactic moment of the novel,
Koert is stabbed to death by some of his followers in an
orgiastic ritual. Marlouw manages to escape from the farm
and heads back to his adopted country, Australia. When
Marlouw meets his sister Heleen, the heartbroken mother of
Koert, he confirms his nephew’s death – which Heleen had
already sensed – but withholds the details of Koert’s
reprehensible lifestyle and his ignominious death.
Koert had gone back to South Africa to their farm Ouplaas,
which, in the dying days of apartheid, the family had
ceded over to their workers before emigrating to Australia.
Described by his mother as ‘bright’ and as having a
‘mind of his own’ (Venter [2006] 2008:3), Koert had stopped
communicating with her and she feared that he was
desperately ill with no one to look after him in a land ravaged
by a ‘plague’ and which was ‘totally out of control’ (Venter
[2006] 2008:4). Heleen showed Marlouw the last e-mail she
had received from her son, in which his language had
degenerated into a hybrid of pidgin English, archaisms and
gangsta rap:
From here on that is THE option
includin includin
takin responsibility for the people right here, brothers of mine.
The people they needeth me like the earth needeth rain
I’m not scared of making mistakes
I learneth from them cause I made them myself
they give me POWER, can youz feel it?
Koert SieS. (Venter [2006] 2008:24)
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Thus, Eben Venter establishes the central Conradian motif
of a journey into Africa to rescue an eccentric maverick.
Following the template of its master text, Trencherman traces
Marlouw’s journey by air and land to find his nephew, who
might be gravely ill; and like Charles Marlow in Heart of
Darkness, who during the course of his quest learns from
various people about Kurtz, the protagonist of Venter’s
novel learns about Koert from certain characters he meets
on his nightmarish journey to the Eastern Cape, where
Koert is holed up on the neglected farm Ouplaas. One of
Marlouw’s informants, a person named Giel whom he
meets in Aliwal North, tells him that Koert has established
a meat empire – reminiscent of Kurtz’s ivory empire in
Heart of Darkness:
Let me tell you, that man’s sitting pretty. We hear he buys sheep
from here all the way to East London. He runs the whole show.
There was a story the other day of people who disappeared at his
place. But who can prove it? And who cares? Go ask him yourself
how he runs his show. One thing’s certain: if you want meat
around here, go find Koert. (Venter [2006] 2008:99)
This is just one aspect about Koert that Marlouw discovers
but similar to the protagonist in Conrad’s novella, who is
described variously as ‘a prodigy’, ‘an emissary of pity,
and science, and progress, and the devil knows what else’
(Conrad [1903] 1927:79) there are other aspects about Koert
that Marlouw will discover in good time. It has been
established by this stage of the story that Koert has a
prodigious appetite for whisky, which he orders by the
caseful. On one occasion he sends a painting, done by
himself, to pay for his whisky. The barman at Aliwal North
shows Marlouw the painting:
It’s a small sketch in oils of a little girl, draped and blindfolded,
walking on an endless surface, something like the salt pans of
Namibia, with her hands stretched out in front of her. The sketch
is covered in an opaque white layer. (Venter [2006] 2008:101)
Koert’s ‘small sketch in oils’ recalls the painting by Kurtz,
as described in Conrad. When Marlow is about to leave the
room of the sly brickmaker who has been trying to elicit
information from him, he notices:
a small sketch in oils, on a panel, representing a woman, draped
and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch. The background was
sombre – almost black. The movement of the woman was stately,
and the effect of the torch-light on the face was sinister. (Conrad
[1903] 1927:79)
On an intertextual level, the paintings are echoes of each
other. But there is a difference in their theme and execution.
In the Conrad novella where images of light and darkness
are paradoxically deployed, the lighted torch symbolises the
enlightenment that colonisation is purported to bring to
colonised people. In Venter ’s text, there is no such pretence at
enlightenment. There is no torch of hope. What is represented
is an unrelenting, bleak landscape in which the little girl
(contrasting with the mature woman in the proto-text) is
trying to find her way, similar to Marlouw’s blind quest for
his nephew.
When Marlouw finds himself on the farm Ouplaas, it takes a
while before he can actually see his nephew, who is protected
by his mistress and his henchmen – once again, an echo of
the plot of Heart of Darkness. It is only on page 239, with about
80 pages to go before the end of the book, that Marlouw
meets Koert. What he encounters is not that athletic young
man he once knew but a monstrosity:
The flesh of all flesh rises in front of me, flesh consumed by flesh
that has multiplied and swollen into a malformed colossus of
human dough with pink folds hanging from its sides. The giant
rounding of the shoulders, the ox-like shoulder blades that
shimmer with the secretions of fattiness, the droop of the breasts,
the belly that shudders and is stretched to bursting point at the
navel. (Venter [2006] 2008:239)
By now Marlouw has been prepared for this obscenity. In the
manner of what Ian Watt has referred to as Conrad’s ‘delayed
decoding’ (Watt 1980:279), a day before Martin Louw is
permitted to see his nephew, he comes across a mysterious
woman on a horse – a woman who claims to have been his
late father’s mistress – who tells him:
Who do you think you’ve come here to see, Marlouw? A high
school boy who blushes when he touches a girl’s breasts for the
first time? … Let me tell you what you’ve come to find here:
a colossal monster. A man who lacks restraint in the gratification
of his vile desires. (Venter [2006] 2008:219)
These echoes from Heart of Darkness are a few of the multiple
instances where Venter’s novel reflects its master text. The
motif of ‘restraint’ appears in Heart of Darkness when Marlow
ponders why the black crew of 30 men do not overpower the
five white men and devour them considering that have little
to eat: ‘Restraint! What possible restraint? Was it superstition,
disgust, patience, fear – or some kind of primitive honour?
No fear can stand up to hunger, …’ (Conrad [1903] 1927:105).
Compared to the primitive cannibals, Mr. Kurtz ‘lacked
restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, …’ (Conrad
[1903] 1927:131). Transposed to Venter ’s novel, the motif
of restraint throws into relief the enormity of Koert’s
transgressions.
The ulmate white an-whiteman
In his review of Trencherman, Leon de Kock writes:
Koert is possibly one of the most grotesque and fascinating
fictional figures I have yet encountered in a South African work
of imaginative writing. He is an abomination, a demi-god, the
apogee of inward fear and horror. Physically, he is a malformed,
obese and sweating Hulk who spits vengeance, largesse and
crazy intelligence by turns. He is the ultimate white anti-
whiteman. His repulsiveness knows no bounds. (De Kock 2009)
The misguided notion of white Afrikaner supremacy was
one of the cornerstones on which the ideology of apartheid
was constructed. If the white Afrikaner perceived himself as
the epitome of perfection, Venter ’s Koert, according to Leon
de Kock, seems to represent another image of the last
surviving Afrikaner, namely, a debased individual, the very
antithesis of a civilised being. Once again, the comparison
with Kurtz is inescapable.
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Like Conrad’s protagonist, Koert has no desire to go back to
civilisation. Holed up in his quarters where he keeps a
chamber-pot under his bed, the gangrenous and smelly Koert
passes his time playing Mario Kart, a Nintendo game, and
drinking Bells whisky. And like Conrad’s Mr Kurtz, this
white man has ‘gone native’. For female companionship, he
has Esmie Phumzile, who shows all the symptoms of an HIV
and/or AIDS sufferer. In a heart-rending scene later, when
she implausibly begs Marlouw to take her away to Australia,
she claims to be carrying Koert’s child. Unlike Kurtz’s ‘mute’
mistress whose anguish at her dying lover’s departure is
expressed by the gesture of her raised arms, Esmie Phumzile
is invested with agency and a voice of her own – once more a
nuanced, intertextual gesture that serves to compliment and
complement its predecessor.
The sick Koert embodies the plague that follows the nuclear
explosion at Koeberg. Hunger, disease and drought, attended
by lawlessness and chaos, stalk the land. Now that he is
ill and no longer able to dispense meat and whisky to
his sycophantic followers as he used to, he has served his
purpose and his end is imminent. And the end does come
when a huge, orgiastic party is held around a fire on the last
night of Marlouw’s stay. Koert is brought to the party by his
consort Esmie. Using his scuffed elbows, he crawls towards
the fire around which the crowd dances to the beat of a drum.
The act of crawling is meant to resonate with the word ‘crawl’
in its various permutations in Heart of Darkness: as when
Marlow and his crew crawl up the river; or when the dying
natives crawl away into the bush to die; or when the sick
Mr Kurtz crawls away from the steamer when trying to escape
from Marlow and his crew. The image of crawling, common
to both Kurtz and Koert, embodies the dehumanisation that
afflicts both the conqueror and the conquered.
Why does Koert come in this condition to the party? The
narrative voice proclaims because he ‘is the authentic white
master. The one who enforces his will to the bitter end.
Without knowing it, that’s what he’d come here to be’ (Venter
[2006] 2008:298). Goaded on by the old witch who calls
Koert a ‘mzungu’ (a Swahili word referring to someone who
wanders without purpose (Urban Dictionary), who has
‘devoured all the meat on this farm’ (299), a man in a balaclava
steps up to Koert, surreptitiously produces a knife and
plunges it into Koert’s soft belly. In ritualistic fashion the
knife is passed to other men in balaclavas and each ‘drives
the knife cleanly and accurately into the flesh of the master’
(Venter [2006] 2008:302). In his death throes Koert utters a last
mighty cry: ‘De horror. I am de horror’ and falls on his face in
the pool of his blood. This is the ultimate parody of Heart of
Darkness with Kurtz’s eternally enigmatic ‘The horror! The
horror!’ transposed into a pedestrian, if not laughable, ‘I am
de horror’. (This scene alone warrants a film script of the
book, which, incidentally, became available in Britain in 2016,
a decade after its original publication in Afrikaans.)
Marlouw manages to escape from the assassins and finds
himself eventually in the city of Melbourne where he visits
his sister Heleen. Although Marlouw does not tell her about
Koert’s condition or his manner of death, she senses that
he is dead. When she asks Marlouw if Koert mentioned her
name before he died, Marlouw replies, ‘He was already very
far gone, you must understand, Heleen. All sorts of words
came out of his mouth. You could almost say bubbled out.
And yes, one of those words was your name’ (Venter [2006]
2008:312–313). Marlouw then narrates, ‘I get up quickly and
step away from her and my white lie and try, without success,
to forgive myself’’ (Venter [2006] 2008:313). Coming towards
the end of the novel, this lie that Marlouw tells his sister
Heleen is the last of the self-conscious devices that Venter
has used to echo Heart of Darkness when Marlow, in response
to Kurtz’s fiancée’s importunate request to know what
her betrothed said before he died, says ‘The last word he
pronounced was – your name’ (Conrad [1903] 1927:161).
The presence of Conrad’s urtext is ubiquitous – sometimes
as an elaborate trope and at other times in a word or phrase
casually dropped by Marlouw or the frame narrator. Here
is one example of the latter: when Marlouw is obstructed by
Koert’s retainers from seeing his nephew, he expresses his
frustration and tells of the tedious routine on the farm in the
following manner: ‘I await an opportunity to speak to Koert,
but am repeatedly prevented. Camp, cook, sleep, strike
camp, march. My life is reduced to a primitive existence …’
(Venter [2006] 2008:176). In Heart of Darkness, Marlow
narrates: ‘Day after day, with the stamp and shuffle of 60 pair
of bare feet behind me, each pair under a 60 lb. load. Camp,
cook, sleep, strike camp, march’ (Conrad [1903] 1927:71).
What are we to make of such self-conscious textual
resonances, or as West-Pavlov puts it, the ‘ostentatious use of
chapter epigraphs … not to mention a relentless flow of
textual allusions, some of them explicitly recursive’ (West-
Pavlov 2015a:44)?
Intertext, pretext or plagiarism?
At this juncture the tentative questions posed in the abstract
of this essay will be addressed briefly. The crux of the set of
questions is whether Venter ’s text is an act of plagiarism
or a work of intertextuality, or whether it is a sensational
marketing ploy. Considering that the author acknowledges
at the end of the book that certain ‘characters, scenes and
sentences in the text are reinterpretations’ of Conrad’s
original text, the charge of plagiarism would be spurious.
Considering too that the original title was Horrelpoot and
the English version Trencherman – none of them remotely
suggesting any kinship with the Conrad text – coupled to the
fact that Venter ’s original project was targeted at a limited
readership, namely, the Afrikaner reader and/or intellectual
in South Africa and in the rest of the Afrikaner diaspora,
it is quite clear that the writer has eschewed sensationalism
and commercial interests in favour of artistic integrity. One
Afrikaner academic, reviewing Horrelpoot in a newspaper,
has nothing but praise for it: ‘An ingenious blend of internal
monologue, dialogue, dreams and retrospective narratives,
the novel is evidence of Venter ’s astonishing writing ability.
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With Horrelpoot, Venter has reached a high point’ (Willie
Burger, quoted in the flyleaf of the English edition). Those
readers whose command of language is limited to English
would only have been alerted to Trencherman as a re-working
of Conrad by bilingual critics and academics such as Leon de
Kock and Dawid de Villiers. The only inference then is that
Venter intended his text to be an adaptation of Heart of
Darkness to serve as a chronicle of what white South Africans,
in the main, would regard as an impending apocalypse
brought about by a dysfunctional government. Like the
Conrad text, which proleptically serves as a harbinger of a
troubled century, Venter’s novel falls into a continuum of
narratives on the circularity of universal contretemps.
Reading Conrad and Venter dialogically in a spatio-temporal
trajectory would be consonant with what Russ West-Pavlov
has postulated in his trenchant study of Heart of Darkness and
its ‘avatars’ as a ‘chronotope’. Deploying Bakhtin’s precept of
the chronotope, he contends:
In analogy with the Bakhtinian notion of the chronotope,
I will argue that Heart of Darkness and its avatars themselves
constitute a chronotope, a spatio-temporal complex whose
trajectory around the globe and down the twentieth century
into the twenty-first itself forms a complex story never yet told
in its full scope. (West-Pavlov 2015b:54)
Intertextuality, or adaptation, as Linda Hutcheon (with
Siobhan O’Flynn) avers, is not necessarily harmful to the
original source:
An adaptation is not vampiric: it does not draw the life blood
from its source and leave it dying or dead, … It may, on the
contrary, keep that prior work alive, giving it an afterlife it would
never have had otherwise. (Hutcheon [2006] 2013:176).
While the latter part of the foregoing quotation does not apply
to Conrad’s novella, which has been granted immortality by
the academic and publishing industry, an adaptation such as
Trencherman raises the issue of the latter ’s use of intertextuality
and its relationship with the master text.
Texts speaking to other texts is not only a phenomenon of
postmodern writing but something that goes back to the very
foundations of Western literature. According to María Jesús
Martínez Alfaro (1996:269) this practice can be traced back
to Plato: ‘Bakhtin himself locates in the Socratic dialogues
one of the earliest forms of what he terms variously the
novel, heteroglossia, dialogism – what Kristeva will christen
intertextuality’. Pioneering scholars such as Bakhtin, Kristeva
and Barthes have pointed out that texts are not time-bound
but stretch across ages and cultures. In his celebrated essay
‘The Death of the Author’, Barthes touches on the central
notions of dialogic exchange, parodic mimicking and
contestation in intertextuality: ‘[A] text is made of multiple
writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into
mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation …’ (Barthes
1977:148). In an online review of Trencherman in July 2008,
Dawid de Villiers writes:
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.
(De Villiers 2008)
Although De Villiers does not mention the term ‘intertextual’
in his four-page review, he draws several parallels with
the Conrad text, pointing to their intertextual resonances,
convergences and divergences. He goes so far as to suggest
that at times Venter:
approaches Heart of Darkness via Coppola’s reimagining of it in
Apocalypse Now … even the concept of an overweight Kurtz
figure and the fact he dies by violence, recall Coppola’s film
rather than Conrad’s novel. (De Villiers 2008).
Leon de Kock’s earlier review of 23 March 2009 also eschews
the term ‘intertextual’ although it recognises Venter’s novel
as ‘a deliberate rewriting of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
(De Kock 2009). It is at the level of the intertextual, and thus
the symbolic and allegorical, that Trencherman makes its
unique impact as a study of the angst of the white Afrikaner
community in a post-apartheid South Africa. An important
insight offered by Kristeva is the subversive potential of
intertextuality, or ‘transposition’ as she preferred to call it,
to discourage the banal reading of a study of sources: ‘[W]e
prefer the term transposition because it specifies that the
passage from one signifying system to another demands a
new articulation of the thetic – of enunciative and denotative
positionality’ (1984:59). Venter ’s re-conceptualising and
rewriting of Conrad conforms to Kristeva’s enabling insight
into the subversive nature of intertextuality. When Charles
Malan, who interviewed Venter in October 2008, turned to
the inevitable comparison with Conrad, the author’s response
was:
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. (Charles Malan).
This is not the place to take issue with Eben Venter ’s rehearsal
of the charge that Conrad’s characters are one-dimensional,
suffice to say that what Conrad created was not a novel in
the conventional sense but a dramatic monologue – Marlow’s
monologue – certainly with its stereotypes of black people,
gender insensitivities and racially-offensive descriptors but
arguably the most devastating anti-colonial critique in the
English canon. In Trencherman, what Venter has created is
a completely ‘new’ dialogic text, a novel, peopled with
characters invested with agency. Using the Conradian text
as a template, Venter has shaded in his own plot, setting,
characterisation and symbology. To illustrate, in Conrad’s
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Heart of Darkness, Marlow sees two women knitting when he
visits his aunt in Brussels:
Two women, one fat and the other slim, sat on straw-bottomed
chairs, knitting black wool. The slim one got up and walked straight
at me – still knitting with down-cast eyes … (Conrad [1903] 1927:55).
Much later, in Africa, Marlow remembers these women:
Often far away there I thought of these two, guarding the door of
Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall, one introducing,
introducing continuously to the unknown, the other scrutinizing
the cheery and foolish faces with unconcerned old eyes.
(Conrad [1903] 1927:57)
Eben Venter makes capital of this knitting scene. When
Marlouw visits his sister, who is out at the moment, he sees
the maid Jocelyn on one of the stools at the breakfast counter:
There’s knitting on her lap and she picks up what she’d
apparently been doing when I rang the bell … The wool is black,
and she’s finished a gigantic piece. It tumbles between her legs
and falls in loads onto the sterile kitchen floor. (Venter [2006]
2008:14).
This image of the black wool is taken up several pages later
when Heleen returns to her flat:
Slowly, like tar being poured, the black knitting slips from her
lap and falls misshapen on the floor. The dog suddenly realizes
there’s a river of black knitting between him and his mistress and
tries to wade through it: each time he tries to get free the wool
makes waves and entangles him even more. We all look down at
Henrie drowning in Jocelyn’s wool. The dog wails like a baby.
(Venter [2006] 2008:25)
In Kristevaean terms, the black wool has taken on an
ominous symbolism that finds a resonance in the old thetic
position (Heart of Darkness) and the formation of a new one
(Trencherman). It is now a ‘river’ of black knitting, reminding
us of Marlow’s crew that will crawl up the River Congo to
Kurtz’s Inner Station. Unlike Conrad’s Marlow, the club-
footed Marlouw in Trencherman will make his way towards
the farm Ouplaas in a bakkie, but like the dog Henrie that
gets tangled in the black wool in this scene, Marlouw will
find himself entangled in the warp and weft of Koert’s
phantasmagorical world.
To plead guilty to the charge of what Wimsatt and Beardsley
referred to as the ‘Intentional Fallacy’, it would be instructive
to listen to the voice of Eben Venter. When questioned by
Charles Malan about his controversial depiction of the
‘apocalyptic South African collapse’ in his book, the novelist
replies:
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 … I believe Trencherman taps into a similar Zeitgeist and
gains relevancy by doing so. (Charles Malan)
In the same interview he declares, ‘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’
(Charles Malan).
Conclusion
As a conscious re-enactment of the ur- or master text by
Conrad, Trencherman deserves a place in the archive of
Conradiana if for no other reason than that it raises pertinent
questions about the post-democratic South Africa and its
much-vaunted Constitution. Like Conrad’s text, Venter ’s
project has the potential to generate controversy in the
way that Heart of Darkness has, and the way J.M. Coetzee’s
Disgrace did in its bleak evocation of the new South Africa.
Although Heart of Darkness and Trencherman belong to two
distinct genres of writing – one located in the tradition of
realism and the other in the tradition of futuristic, dystopian
writing – they are both controversial texts in their own ways.
Heart of Darkness has received more than its fair share
of negative criticism from scholars in Africa and abroad
since Achebe’s notorious denunciation of the writer as a
‘thoroughgoing racist’ in a lecture in 1975 (Achebe 1988:257),
subsequently revising these words to ‘bloody racist’ (Achebe
1990:124) 2 years later in The Massachusetts Review, 18:4,
782–794. Notwithstanding Achebe’s criticism of Conrad,
the late Eloise Knapp Hay, the doyenne of early Conrad
scholarship, described Heart of Darkness as a ‘vehement
denunciation of imperialism and racialism’ (Hay [1963]
1981:112).
Cedric Watts has said of Heart of Darkness: ‘It offered a concise
iconography of modern corruption and disorder. The tale
became an anthology of epitomes’ (Watts [1987] 2008:24).
In the light of Watts’s comment, Venter ’s use of Conrad’s
template to envision a futuristic South Africa is a compelling
testimony to the relevance of Conrad’s novella. If the power
of intertextuality resides in its potential to enable excursions
into texts across linguistic, national and ideological frontiers
with a view to interrogating, deconstructing or subverting
them through caricature and parody, then Trencherman
validates itself as a rewriting of Heart of Darkness to present
the reader with a troubling vision of a dystopian society.
Acknowledgements
The author acknowledges the financial support of the
National Research Foundation (NRF – South Africa) under
whose aegis his research is conducted. The views expressed
are his own and in no way reflect the policy or views of the
NRF.
Compeng interests
The author declares that he has no financial or personal
relationships which may have inappropriately influenced
him in writing this article.
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This article analyses two novels set in dystopic South African futures, namely Trencherman (2008) by Eben Venter, and Moxyland (2008) by Lauren Beukes, a discussion framed by the following theoretical issues. The first question is the extent to which these novels might be considered “future histories” in terms articulated by Michael Green (1994: 15), defined as speculative novels which give serious and detailed attention to the conditions of a particular time, as would be the case in a historical novel. A related question is the extent to which these novels project into the future current societal conditions in South Africa, with regard to the historical drivers of contemporary society. I discuss these questions with reference to the notions of dystopia and “critical dystopia” (Stobie 2012: 369), the latter denoting a dystopia containing hopeful elements. A subsidiary question is the differing ways in which both writers use the grotesque to symbolise different forms of oppressive state power. Drawing on treatments of the grotesque in Krzychylkiewicz (2003), Csicsery-Ronay (2002), and Nettels (1974), I consider corporeal and linguistic forms of the grotesque in Venter’s novel and their role in signifying the toxic morality of apartheid; and in Moxyland, a form of grotesque arising from the fusion of human organism and technology, and its role in signifying a technological mode of oppression. I conclude that Trencherman is a dystopic future history; and that while Moxyland is a critical dystopia, it should not be considered a future history.
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