Playscript set in the sixties reworked as a novel

2009-03-04 00:00

Originally conceived as a playscript, The Lahnee’s Pleasure has been reworked as a novel, introduced by a contextualising prologue whose relentlessly mocking tone, contrived phrasing and apparent thesaurian addiction (symptomatic of what lies ahead) are enough to make the reader halt right there.

Set in the sixties in Mount Edgecombe, north of Durban, the novel recalls South Africa’s period of “pigmentocracy” when the “melanin-challenged” (or, variously, “-starved”, “-impaired”, etc.) and the “melanin-overloaded” (or, variously, “-enriched”, “-blessed”, etc.) lived and labored according to the edicts of apartheid. Though there were transgressions. One such is the focus of the first “book” of the novel.

The Lahnee, who has lowly British origins, is the manager of the White House Hotel, a Tudor-style edifice situated amid fields of sugar cane and housing the regulation separate bar facilities of the time. His wife, who has literary pretensions and has married beneath her, chances to see, from her second storey room, the muscled 18-year-old Fanyana Ngcobo working below in the fields, and, likened in a rather labored parody to Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott, she is overcome with ardour for the local Lancelot. Given the period, there will inevitably be consequences. Though Govender’s treatment of the situation and its resolution is light.

While there are hints of further significant characters and events in Book the first, these are not fully unfolded until Book the second, by which time the Lady of Shalott and Lancelot have been dispatched. The focus switches to the grievance of Mothielall Sewmungal, loyal employee of the Hulett Sugar Company for 30 years and the father of six children. His distress is over his teenage daughter, who, it seems, has been visited covertly by the flashy Johnny, a streetwise, otherwise individual who sports long hair and drives a Ford Mustang. The pub at the White House Hotel is a consoling venue in which to purge angst and plot action.

Govender has had obvious enjoyment in writing this book. That is evident in the humour, the paciness and the satirical characterisation and speech patterns. However, the mock-melodrama, authorial intervention and ultimately uneven quality of the work — not to mention typographical errors — conspire to make this an unsatisfying reading experience.

Moira Lovell

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