Into the Crud

How can a book transform how we think about the human? It is one thing to claim for oneself, as does a character in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, a dispossession so thorough that she lives with “No ...

How can a book transform how we think about the human? It is one thing to claim for oneself, as does a character in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, a dispossession so thorough that she lives with “No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity,” prompting her father to add, “like a dog.” It is quite another to write a novel marked by the thoughts of dogs, their barks, their whines, their eating and pissing, their love. Marlene van Niekerk’s Triomf dares readers who treasure reasonableness and good intentions to spend time with characters we probably won’t like, whose values we will disdain.1

But then there are the dogs Gerty and Toby. Not only are they characters. They also bring out the best in the white trash liberals love to hate. They belong to the Benades, a family who seem to have burst forth from a world gone bad, as nothing more than disposables: “Pieced together and panelbeaten, not to mention screwed together, from scrap. Throw-away pieces, left-over rags, waste wool, old wives’ tales, hearsay, a passing likeness from the front and a glimpse from behind. That’s how they found themselves here on this earth. Things that get thrown away. Good for nothing. Write-offs.”

What the dogs call up is not sentiment but something closer to what feeling might become if it had only to do with perception, with a peculiarly intense attentiveness. This affective element lies at the edges of van Niekerk’s story. Not merely incidental, it gains force as we read and infuses her characters with personal qualities that make them indistinguishable from the non-humans in their midst.

Triomf opens in early October 1993, just over six months before South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. The poor white Benade family—Pop, Mol, Treppie, and Lambert—live with a secret, the truth behind a shared surname. Pop and Mol, who live as husband and wife, are brother and sister. Treppie, Mol’s younger brother, has also been having sex with her, and she doesn’t know which one is Lambert’s father. And Lambert himself has raped Mol. Can we forget about Mol’s rapes by her son Lambert or put aside our horror at her abuse by her brother Treppie? What if our revulsion is insignificant?

Van Niekerk offers us other ways to see these characters; above all, she encourages us to take seriously their perceptions—their ways of seeing. Treppie sees through the vanity and gimmicks of humans, no matter their color or creed. Pop is tender, with elephant eyes and mouth. Lambert is crazy, prone to fits of epilepsy and rage. Mol is driven into the ground by the men in her life: sexually exploited, verbally attacked, and humiliated. Incest is the family secret that everyone knows, except for Lambert who finds out just when the house is being painted white, the dirt of their 33 years on Martha Street covered over.

Through these characters, human and canine, van Niekerk asks: can we find God, or something like the good, in a can of beans, dog breath, the flesh of a mango, the worn old skin of Mol, in the dirt of everyday life? We fail in our reading if we don’t ask this question, if we stop at the wanton injury and casual cruelty. It is not that van Niekerk means to make brutality and compassion indistinct, but that she wants to push hard at what we mean by these words. She playfully exposes us to what we might prefer to ignore:

As if you’re not exposed enough as it is, with your soft human skin and its holes for seeing and smelling and tasting and farting—that’s if you’re lucky enough still to do all those things. And with your two little legs and their forward-facing feet, and your hands each with their five little twigs. Always trying to grab on to things in the void here in front of you, never knowing what’s coming next.

If any novel in the past twenty years resists the strategic evasions of political correctness, it is Triomf. Race and gender are writ large here, but they come before us in scenes that ask us not to purge even the vilest phenomena of their ambiguities. What is at stake is something more than dichotomies such as good and bad. Something else tugs at us, moving us into a world not quite captured by tags such as “misogynist” or “racist.”

So what happens to thought when a novel asks us to go beyond clear-cut moral judgments? Sentience, not abstract moralizing, is what matters. When he gets angry, Treppie tells a story about the old “Industrial Kneff” washing machine that Hitler used “to wash the Jews … before sending them to the camps. Whole laundries full of Kneffs, full of Jews. Clothes and all. They had to go through the whole cycle, from pre-wash to spin-dry.… Even a spotless Jew is good for one thing only, … and that’s the gas chamber.” Do we become more like the dogs Gerty and Toby, not granting the words their full heft of evil? Do we instead observe and listen without granting expression its abysmal consequences, without turning away from the horror, the history that resides there? And what kind of book would ask such a thing of its readers?

To speak about dogs in times of terror and brutality might seem evidence of a dulled or evasive conscience. We may think wild, dangerous, savage; or we think cute, we sense nice, we feel sentimental. So what is van Niekerk doing with the dogs of Triomf, in the rubble of what was once Sophiatown, razed in 1955 by the National Party that governed South Africa from 1948 to 1994? The story of Sophiatown’s dogs, told by Treppie as the novel opens, sets the stage for a reconsideration of the ethical life: the conscience it demands, the liabilities it incurs. “When everything was flattened—it took almost three years—the dogs who’d been left behind started crying. They sat on heaps of rubble with their noses up in the air and they howled so loud you could hear them all the way to Mayfair.” One night the “kaffirs” returned and killed their dogs. And “you couldn’t tell any more who was crying, the kaffirs or their dogs.” Some dogs died of hunger, others “from longing for their kaffirs.”

Dogs bear history in their bones. Not just the dog bones and ghost-dogs of Sophiatown and their progeny—“Old Gerty and Old Gerty’s only child, Small Gerty, and now Gerty,” and Gerty’s son Toby—but all the South African dogs: the pets, hunting dogs, guard dogs, mongrels or purebreds, boer dogs or police dogs that are so much a part of South African literary history as well. Treppie knows that the sounds in the night are not ghosts but something “worse than ghosts”: “It’s blood and money—and those two together make a terrible racket. Trapped between walls, with bared teeth … blood spewing from their veins. … you could say the whole of Jo’burg is one big pit bull terrier fight.”

The dogs and the Benade clan who feed and love them force us to ask: what does conscience look like at the boundaries of humanity, at the edge of a cherished humanism? To read these pages is to experience a perspectival shift, a means of seeing otherwise or crosswise. “So, all in all,” as the narrator tells us, “the Benades haven’t got too much to complain about. That’s just the way things go in this world. In-out, on-off, here-there, dirty-clean, dog-dog.” We know what white Afrikaners did to the multiracial population of Sophiatown. On February 9, 1955, some 2,000 policemen, armed with guns, knobkerries, and rifles forcefully moved the inhabitants to Meadowlands, Soweto. Within a few years, the removals accomplished and Sophiatown bulldozed, it was removed from the maps and renamed Triomf.

Her writing gives to the color, shape, feel, and smell of matter—dead or alive—
the call of mutuality.

We hear the indignity contained in the words kaffir and kaffir dog. But instead of chronicling the cruelty and loss, van Niekerk surrenders her writing to the pileup of things that remain. The shared intimacies of an impoverished household—whether violent or tender—set the terms for this twisted rendition of creaturely experience that upsets the reliable, the reasonable, the moral order of things. But something else is involved here too. From one sentence to the next the narrative shifts from a human character’s perspective to that of the dogs to statements that seem to be coming directly from the narrator. If humanity remains a position marked by relativity and uncertainty in this novel, it is because it shows non-humans—animals, plants, artifacts, celestial bodies, even appliances—possessing an anthropomorphic essence or power.

Watching with the dogs, talking to them, allows Mol to escape, if only briefly, the casual cruelty and commonplace bother of her human family. When things get rough to live through or watch on TV—people shot, bullet holes and blood—then she can announce that she’s taking the dogs outside and nobody suspects a thing: “Then you’re outside on the lawn, under the stars, and you can take a couple of deep breaths, or smoke a few cigarettes. Or you can look up and down Martha Street to see what’s going on. Even if you see nothing, just the lights in the dark, it still helps.” Her dogs give her an excuse to escape the smack and dazzle of the stinking grocery store where she and her family shop:

Or when she’s not in the mood to see the inside of Shoprite, all the trolleys and shelves and people who can’t make up their minds ’cause there’s just too much stuff, or the light’s too bright and the music sounds like asthma buzzing in her ears; when just the thought of that Shoprite fish-smell mixed with Jeyes fluid makes her feel sick to the stomach, then she can say to Pop, after he’s finished parking on that parking lot with stripes, no, you and Treppie go. I’ll stay in the car with Gerty and Toby.

Then she can quietly light up a smoke and watch everything with the dogs, ears pricked as the shoppers go inside with empty hands and then come out again with bags full of stuff, back and forth, back and forth …

In demanding this change in how we see, van Niekerk sets out to test the limits of propriety, even common sense. Her writing gives to the color, shape, feel, and smell of matter—dead or alive—the call of mutuality that prevails between animate and inanimate. Mol’s beloved Gerty is dying, and Mol listens to her dog’s breathing between coughs: “It sounds like it’s more than just a dog’s breath. It feels like the room itself is breathing, like a big in-breath that sucks all the air from the corners and the cupboards and from behind the dressing table, holding it all in.” And again, later: “When Gerty coughs, it feels like she’s the one who’s actually coughing.… It sounds like Gerty wants to cough her heart right out. Mol wonders what Gerty’s heart would look like if she coughed it out. Would it hang from her mouth by threads, or fall on to the bare cement and lie there, quivering?” To grant intentionality to disparate entities, to reveal the seepage between various subjectivities is van Niekerk’s aim.

Obsessed with the expendable, with whatever is labeled disposable—rubbish, remnants, dirt—van Niekerk puts a secular spin on mortification: the human animal’s response to dominion in the sociopolitical order. Folks try to dress up dirt, whatever side they’re on. Whether Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of the National Party, or the ANC, everyone wants to give a sheen to the rotten. Treppie the cynic: “Now it’s supposed to be ‘New’ National Party,” he thinks. “It’s not new, it’s the same old rubbish recycled under a new name. But the rubbish itself is a brandless substance. Nameless horror in sackcloth of hair.” Reminiscent of Milton’s Satan who thinks that the mind can make heaven of hell, and a hell of heaven, Treppie punctuates his ruminations with “it’s all in the mind” and spends a great deal of time on the toilet.

Dog paws have dirtied the walls. No one in the house really minds. Paw dirt is indistinguishable from human waste. Humans, dogs, trees, ants or a moth, roses, fridges, even the cars Flossie and Molletjie, are sentient—gifted with feeling, seeing, or knowing pain. “Let the cars sort themselves out,” Lambert thinks. “Cars are like that. Take what you can from them and forget the rest. Cars won’t let you push them around.” And people are just like fridges, Treppie says: “Nice and scrambled … we’re twisted into each other like the innards of a fridge.” But fridges are also like people, suffering age and then martyrdom at Lambert’s hands when he goes into one of his rages. Like Melville with his compulsion to tell us everything about whales in Moby-Dick, van Niekerk wants us to know all about cars and fridges. And not for nothing, since cars and fridges, like whales, are persons: they get old, wear out, and die. They can be harmed. They are vulnerable. All persons and things, humans, dogs, even angels, are made up of parts, just as Ahab’s leg is multiform: phantom leg or real leg, whale bone or flesh.

Whatever is superfluous counts most. That these details are disregarded by well-meaning readers who look for a single theme or thrust makes van Niekerk’s attention to them even more significant. In her epic of the piecemeal, things decayed or shattered become treasures to be cherished. The more arbitrary the relation between things, the more striking is the consecration. Everything that is defiled can also be exalted—dirty pillows, scrap iron, burnt-out fridges, crates full of empties, dog breath, rusted Dogmoor tins: “Half-holy, kind of beautiful, the dogs on the tins smiling with their mouths open through patches of rust in the candlelight.” It all depends on the strength of the affections. Perhaps it is the way a character holds on to a thing, or, in Lambert’s rage, breaks or burns it, only to know it again, that gives the superfluous such power and centrality.

The sacred is made more intense by being found in things that most seem to
defy it.

For van Niekerk, the burden of reading is to find beauty in the muck. She wants us to obey the terms of her characters’ delicate epiphanies and take seriously the fusion between sacred and profane. The sacred is made more intense by being found in things that most seem to defy it. “Now Mol uses her elbows to push herself up. Both dogs look at her. The streetlight from outside shines right through their eyes, which suddenly look just like marbles. The sight almost takes her breath away.” This is a marvelous more ample than the divine, a wonder before the kind of knowing that has everything to do with perception, with what is first in the senses. What bears the most intense marks of the ordinary produces a strangely spectral vitality.

Van Niekerk and her characters have no patience with any utopian dream of perfection or myth of progress. Most hated and hateful is what Treppie calls “wallpaper,” pretty words and empty slogans, captured in what we might call the parable of “Wonder Wall.” The company’s pledge to paint the Benade house free of charge—a “present” for the New Year, “the big paint prize”—is really a ruse, a scheme that will ultimately cost the Benades dearly. It is Treppie who meditates on Wonder Wall’s gift of paint, who laments the loss of “every little mark and crack” in the bathroom, the room he knows so well. “All of it painted white, pure white, without a trace of their comings or goings.” His meditation on what he calls “the blues of 127 Martha Street.… The dregs of Triomf” is more than comic. Nor are the so-called dregs really waste products. Or if they are, something happens to them once they are looked at or handled. Like sacred relics, they become icons of attachment, as if things could become witnesses to what matters, to what counts in a life:

Not exactly what you’d call museum pieces. Just the collected works of wear and tear. The little bits of baggage from the Benades’ Great Trek, full of dirty marks. Burnt black, caked up, flopped out, moth-eaten, unstitched, sticky and rusted, with dog-hair on everything too.

These pages are a lament for what will disappear under new and sanitized regimes—whether called “Purified” or “New,” it’s the same old National Party. The inhabitants of Sophiatown and their dogs were brutally removed from their land, their homes reduced to rubble. But the poor white armblanke and bywonder class were also moved off their farms during the Great Depression, not through force but through hype. “They knew fuck-all about fuck-all, but they wanted to come and tell us about the finer things. Us with our hands full of rose thorns and fridge oil.” They were tricked by other whites to forget their loss and squalor on the railroads and in the factories in the name of what Treppie calls “a light at the end of the wagon-trek.… always a fucken light, a column of fire, a Spirit, a Higher Idea, an Ideal of Unity or something.”

So Pop finds himself in Shoprite, standing before the specials shelf. We all know the feeling. “That day it was baked beans.” Special, indeed. “Nothing! Finished, out, gone! Pffft! No one, but no one can escape this trinity of beans, farts and death. Amen.” Lecturing, sweeping the tins off the shelves, kicking them. The violent rituals of everyday life, the repeated knocking down of a postbox or the burning of fridges, all so commonplace for the Benades, become exemplary: reactions to a vulnerability that leaves them no other outlet. They know they have been fooled by the promises of the government and their lackeys. But their brutal acts are covered over in state symbolism that turns even shit to gold: “you can make any fucken thing you like ‘symbolic,’ from a pisspot to a postbox. It just depends whether you’ve got enough power.”

Van Niekerk’s real drama occurs in the writing itself. Not even the perfect sentence can hold the dirt back. You do not have to look hard in Triomf to find the skeletons in the closet. Van Niekerk writes in order to excavate the dead and the disregarded, and to make her sentences a habitat for that unearthing. But the world she composes is neither anarchic nor chaotic. In her supple relating of interlaced characters we read what has transpired not only in South Africa but also in the heavens above. Apartheid history is entangled with a fall from Paradise that summons resurrection. Scattered dog bones lead Mol to a heartening that is uniquely visceral. “Then she, Mol, waits for the earth to open up and the skeleton’s bones to grow back together again, so they can be covered with flesh and rise up under the trumpets.” Before Mol finds her beloved Gerty dead in the bathroom, Pop tells Mol about his dream. “Me and you and Treppie and Lambert. But we were dogs. Dogs with wings. We weren’t walking, we were flying, and we could talk. Dog-angels, that’s what we were.” Since when did angels have bones? When did dogs become angels, or stars? At the end of the novel, when Pop dies, a dream of stars and dogs becomes real in Mol’s writing on the wall beside the grave where Pop’s ashes join with Gerty’s: “they’re / Now in dog’s heaven / where the dogs are seven eleven. / Just the way Pop dreamt it.”

What happens when writing itself churns out the degraded and despised excess of its own operation? In her fiction and her poetry, van Niekerk refuses the solace of patriotic myth and artistic ideals. Less obvious, perhaps, is her disavowal of the meaning of what we might delimit here as human treatment. To think about the fragility of personhood is her aim. Not just the nature of personhood as applied to humans, but the problem of animality for humans and non-humans, with both human and non-human persons seen against the threat of things or thinglikeness: never actual death but the lure of the inanimate or insensate.

Van Niekerk lays out a terrain that amounts to an alternative reality in which the unlikely and the extraordinary are always part and parcel of the commonplace. Even her ghosts are not quite right: they are too palpable, too real, and at times too much like garbage to be cordoned off as “spiritual” somewhere in the beyond. The opening of Treppie’s trunk with the tools of his old trade, repairing refrigerators, is nothing short of sacred in Mol’s eyes: “and the screwdrivers with their many different bits for different screws, the Keystone, the Cabinet, the Philips, the Frearson, the Clutchhead, the Allen and the Bristol. Treppie took them out, one by one, showing them to Lambert. And Lambert said their names, with her repeating them afterwards.” In this ritual of naming and repetition, Mol senses the sacred in the hardest matter: “It was like catechism, just nicer.”

Defeating hierarchy everywhere she finds it, van Niekerk presses on hard and dissolves distinctions so that all kinds of things, physical and incorporeal, are put into relation, as are other dichotomies such as the living and the dead, human and non-human. Not only do her characters in their various moods share qualities with the objects they possess or destroy, but their minds and spirits have bones and blood and skin and take their cues and shape from their material connections with things, whether dogs or moths or fridges or rust-bucket cars.

What is most striking about van Niekerk’s hyperboles and hesitations, her precision and fragmentation, is her emphatic denial of a supernaturalism emptied of what mortifies: the wounds, the enervation and dissipation of daily life. Her exacting perturbation of civility and privilege depends on a radical way of looking at the natural. In this novel, the eating of a mango is sacramental, the howling of dogs in the night a call to faith. What kind of world is this? And how can we comprehend a world that resists domestication? It is not easy to write this cosmos into being. It is even more difficult to read a book that resists what we admire as most humanizing. icon

  1. Though named a New York Times Notable Book when it appeared here in 2004 (it was originally published in Afrikaans in 1994; the first English translation appeared in London in 1999), and winning numerous awards in South Africa, Triomf has not been as widely read or discussed as van Niekerk’s second novel, Agaat (2004; English translation, 2007). Watching the discussion between K. Anthony Appiah, Toni Morrison, and Marlene van Niekerk at the Great Hall of Cooper Union in May 2010 is instructive. The topic was Agaat. Triomf was hardly mentioned. To begin to understand why is to know yet again the politics of the under-read.