Heart of corruption in futuristic South Africa

2008-08-13 00:00

This is a difficult book, in many ways a powerful piece of literature, but this reviewer found it heavy-going.

On the positive side: the story is inspired and considerably shaped by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (as was the film Apocalypse Now), and Venter does an excellent job of transplanting Conrad’s archetypal trip up the Congo River to confront the depths of human corruption into a South African context set some time in the near future, when the whole infrastructure of the country has collapsed. Aids, predatory desperation and anarchy prevail, the landscape resembles Tolkien’s Mordor, and we witness the final bloody extinction of Afrikanerdom. Venter’s narrator is (nick)named “Marlouw” (like Conrad’s Marlow), and his journey involves a flight from Australia to South Africa, followed by a horrendous road trip to his former family farm Ouplaas somewhere in the Free State/Eastern Cape in order to try to persuade his nephew Koert (Conrad’s Kurtz) to come with him back to Australia and civilization. Like Conrad’s Brussels, “civilised” Melbourne in Venter’s portrait is sterile and hypocritical.

The South African setting is totally and vividly realised and, although each chapter starts with a quote from Conrad, the story is very much Venter’s creation. His Marlouw has a club foot, which seemed to me somewhat pointless for the story, and Koertz — grossly obese, power mad, raving — is a suitably monstrous figure.

However, after a few chapters, the reader may feel driven to have a bath or brush his or her teeth. Venter seems obsessed with corruption, both moral and physical; his characters are mostly sub-hysterical and erratic people with overblown emotions, and the whole story plays out at a grindingly overwrought pitch. Melbourne

is probably not that superficial. And the narrator, admittedly in his own eyes, comes across as whiney and irritating.

Trencherman struck me as a remarkable literary achievement, but not overly readable. But of course any South African reader would find it disturbing and depressing as a despairing prophecy of our possible future.

David Pike

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