The Elusive Moth by Ingrid Winterbach, translated from Afrikaans by Iris Gouws & the Author

Title: The Elusive Moth
Author: Ingrid Winterbach
Translator: Iris Gouws & the Author
Publisher: Open Letter, University of Rochester (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 934824 77 1

 

The Elusive MothThe Elusive Moth by Ingrid Winterbach, translated from Afrikaans by Iris Gouws and the Author, is set in Free State, South Africa.  The heroine,
Karolina Ferreira, is a lepidopterist staying in the town of Voorspoed – a place she’d visited as a child with her father.

Free State is one of nine South African provinces. The terrain consists of grasslands, large agricultural tracts and mountains. It’s considered the “breadbasket” or “granary” of South Africa.  2.8 million people live there, the 87% majority of whom are black Africans.  The primary language is Sesotho, a Bantu language. Afrikaans is spoken by the white minority. Voorspoed is home to a diamond mine owned by the De Beers family.

None of this is stated in the novel, but the clues are everywhere. Winterbach is describing a place and, in the process of doing that, telling a story.

Karolina is in Voorspoed to study a rare species of moth.  She spends most of her day in the veld with her companion, Basil.  Him collecting plants and her studying insects. Their evenings are spent in town observing the locals – particularly the Afrikaner community that gathers at the hotel to drink, socialize and play snooker. She studies them with the same clinical intensity as the insects.

It’s difficult not to get caught up in the routine of Karolina’s days.  Mornings in the veld, evenings that begin in the Ladies Bar and end in the billiards room.  Afternoons she has lunch in the hotel’s dining room beneath murals that depict the history of the region.  On Saturdays she goes dancing.  Occasionally events interrupt the pattern – a controversial play is performed, tourists arrive, lovers are observed in a cemetery, protests lead to violence in the black settlements, murder, a suicide – but by the next day everything resets. The plot, in this sense, is simplistic. The bumps – the interruptions to the town’s routine – are what imbue the story with unexpected richness and texture. Karolina is always watching from the edges, never at the center, and seldom privy to the inner thoughts or motivations of the key players.

The man sat on the opened-out back flap of the police vehicle. He was covered with a blanket that was wrapped tightly around his shoulders. He seemed to be wearing nothing underneath it but a vest and a pair of trousers. Even though it was a warm night, his teeth were chattering, which made it difficult for him to speak coherently. He had been given a warm drink, for now and again he swallowed some liquid from the cap of a flask. Two black women stood a little apart from the rest, one draped in a blanket, occasionally weeping quietly into a corner of it. Kieliemann spoke for the police. Although he seemed impatient, he was allowing the man to tell his story  without interruption. The scene resembled a photograph – the action frozen, white and black equally stark in the unnatural yellow light.

Karolina stood at some distance, making sure that Kieliemann did not see her.The yellow light penetrated everywhere, eclipsing even the bountiful light of the night sky, etching the scene in hellish desolation.

The next day Karolina will ask questions and try to understand what she has seen.  But her outsider status limits her. The Elusive Moth is narrated in the close third person, keeping readers at an arms length from Karolina and creating another layer between them and the action. The writing is dense and self-conscious – in some places a little fussy (particularly  when Karolina’s love interest, a dharma bum named Jess, is in a scene).  The structure of the novel is based on the repetition and patterns, and Winterbach sometimes extends that repetition to her characterizations.  One lecherous police officer is always described as having a bulge in his pants when Karolina is around; another character is “aquatic” and shudders (both verbally and physically) incessantly; a friend of Jess’ never seems to be without a smirk on his face and a bottle in his hand.   The effect is that the supporting characters become two dimensional.  It feels like a flaw, but in truth I only noticed it when I was away from the book.  Here it works, where in another book it might not.

The heroine is perhaps the one fully realized, psychologically complex character in the novel. Winterbach maintains a balance between Karolina’s self-involvement / inner-thoughts and her outward reaching curiosity. There is a lot of activity in the story to act as counterweight to moments of introspection. The town’s Afrikaan community is a veritable Peyton Place of tawdry affairs and political intrigues.  Even the larger national picture creeps in, though so subtly as to seem like an afterthought. There are hints of the shifting balance of power occurring in South Africa.  “After the string of boycotts last year, Sarel advised the lads in town to reconsider their options, and to consult with the ANC and the township leaders. Some have begun to do so…”

But I would not call it a political novel.  Nor would I call it a relationship novel. Or even a novel about the human condition. What struck me is that it is concept-, rather than plot-, driven.  Voorsoed is an ant farm – isolated and contained.  And if asked to describe the book in one sentences, I would say “A woman studying the town of Voorspoed and its inhabitants from a distance.”

Except that’s not entirely right.  There’s a passage towards the end of the book. Like most everything else that occurs in The Elusive Moth, it’s unobtrusively inserted into the narrative. Karolina and Jess go away for the weekend. They travel to a nearby town.

At dusk they reached the Dis Al Motel where they had tea in the lounge. There was a large painting on the wall depicting Mabalel and the crocodile, painted by the proprietor… There were large animal skins on the ceiling. Antelope heads on the walls. In an adjoining room people played snooker – Afrikaner couples on the brink of suicide and dissipation. Homicidally depressed. Some national leader came on the television. Karolina and Jess went to their rondavel.”


You’re left with the sense that across Free State (perhaps across South Africa) there are dozens of towns like Voorsoed. Inhabited by people going about their lives, behaving in ways identical to the characters we’ve just met.  The same diversions, the same dramas, the same patterns are being repeated.

The Man with the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi, translated from the Chinese by Darryl Sterk

From the Hardcover editionWu Ming-Yi, the Taiwanese author of The Man With The Compound Eyes, sets out to prove that these days the truth is stranger than fiction.  He pulls from his background as an environmental activist to describes a world facing environmental disaster. A disaster that resembles current events so closely that readers don’t need to expend their imagination to buy into the premise.  The events of Ming-Yi’s novel could become our reality within a decade and few would bat an eye.

Alice, the main protagonist, is a professor of literature in Taiwan.  She lives alone.  Her husband Tom and son Toto are presumed dead, having disappeared while on a climbing trip in the nearby forest.  Climate change and rising sea levels will soon make the  small house she and Tom built on the beach uninhabitable. Most of her neighbors have already moved to higher ground but Alice refuses to leave her memories. Engulfed by grief and surrounded by the encroaching ocean, she is preparing to commit suicide in the opening pages.

Atile’i lives on the island of Wayo-Wayo (the book’s jacket copy refers to it as a “mythical” place). Wayo-Wayo is isolated enough to have developed an exotic culture, but is not entirely cut off from the outside world.

Atile’i remembered another of the Earth Sage’s offhand remarks: ‘The white man may come and the white man may go, be we will live by the law of Wayo Wayo. We don’t need the white man. The gifts he left us are harmful , ill-gotten gains. There’s just this useless watch, a couple of books, and a few children like Rasula.’ The Earth Sage sighed and said, ‘But there may come a day when the other men who live upon the earth cause Wayo Wayo to vanish. You never know.’

Atile’i is a second son and, per Wayo Wayo custom, he (like all second sons) must leave the island in a talawaka, a canoe-like vessel, once he comes of age.  While it’s never explicitly stated – second sons die at sea.  The best they can hope for is to be reincarnated as killer whales.  The worst, jellyfishes, if they take their own lives. This is the fate Atile’i embraces, until he finds himself floating in his talawaka amidst the Great Pacific garbage patch.  Through ingenuity he manages to survive on the floating island of plastic until it collides with Taiwan.  Atile’i washes up onto the very section of coastline where Alice lives; the ecological catastrophe brings our two protagonists together.  As expected, each impacts the other’s life.  There is a lovely moment when Atile’i greets Alice as is custom on Wayo Wayo, “Is the weather fair at sea today?”  He repeat the question  so many times that after the sixth time Alice stopped answering him.  Hurt, he confronts her and explains that she must answer “Very fair” every time. ‘Even if it’s raining as hard as it is now, you still have to reply in this way?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Even if you don’t feel like replying?’ ‘Yes.’

We both gazed out at the sea, which seemed to be slowly bringing rain. Every so often a breaker would come rolling in. Following a silence of ten waves, Atile’i asked me another time, ‘Is the weather fair at sea today?’ ‘Very fair,’ I replied and for the first time I realised I could ask him back. ‘Is the weather fair on your sea today?’ ‘Yes it is, extremely fair,’ Atile’i replied. I don’t know why, but right at that moment we both began to cry.

If Wu Ming-Yi had confined himself to the story of Alice & Atile’i, adding one or two of the other plotlines instead of the several the novel contains, I believe The Man with the Compound Eyes would have been a better book.  My main criticism is the sheer number of ideas crammed into 300 pages.  The third person narrative moves through no less than 10 different character’s perspectives including, albeit briefly, the titular man.  As it goes on, the plot becomes crowded and unwieldy.  Characters, stories, ideas aren’t given the space to grow.  Take for example the opening paragraph:

The trickling of water through the fissures in the subterranean rock was suddenly drowned out when the mountain made an immense but also somehow distant sound. Everyone fell silent. Then Jung-hsiang Li shouted.  That wasn’t groundwater surging. Wasn’t loose rocks shifting or bedrock bursting, either. And it obviously wasn’t a vocal echo. It sounded more like when something bumps into a flawless glass vessel – from somewhere within the glass you hear a spider’s web begin to spread before the cracks appear. The sound vanished straight-away, and the only thing the people in the cave and control room could hear was the huff of each other’s breathing and the hiss of the radios.

Chapter I. The Cave goes unexplained, the characters unidentified, until we revisit the same event in a flashback roughly 197 pages later.  By that time most readers will have forgotten all about it (I did) or, worse, are unable to make the connection to the rest of the narrative. The shame is that just that storyline could have made a fascinating novel in its own right.  But, as it is written, it becomes easily lost among all the  other plot points which occur in the interceding pages:  the mystery of Tom’s & Toto’s disappearance; side stories about Alice’s friend Dahu and her indigenous Pangcah neighbor Hafay;  the fate of the Wayo Wayo girl Atile’i  loves.  There’s a lot to think about in terms of writing as well:  Ming-Yi dabbles in symbolism  (Toto collected bugs, the identifying feature of the man with compound eyes, the frequent appearance of moths throughout the book); nature is described – even by scientists – in shamanistic terms; there’s even a modernist plot twist inserted at the end.  Dizzy yet?  Ask five different readers and you could easily receive five different (and perfectly plausible) interpretations of what The Man with the Compound Eyes is about.

By the end we discover that it’s Alice‘s world that holds most of the surprises, but the journey to get to that moment of discovery is long and meandering. Darryl Sterk’s fluid translation throws a net over these disparate ideas and events, gathering them together into a surprisingly readable whole.  My criticism is entirely with the scope of the work – not the writing itself. And while a lot of things bothered me about this novel, more impressed me.  I hope  more of Wu Ming-Yi’s work will make its way into English.

Publisher: Pantheon Books, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 0 307 90796 7

 

Note: For anyone interested in learning more about the floating island of trash that is central to the plot of The Man with the Compound Eyes and (more to the point) what we can do about it – check out this video. https://fund.theoceancleanup.com/