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.

We All Just Want To Be Literary Rock Stars: Reading Roberto Bolaño’s Distant Star

Title:  Distant Star

Author:  Roberto Bolaño

Translator:  Chris Andrews

Publisher:  New Directions, New York (2004)

 

Last weekend eight or ten books by Roberto Bolaño fell off a bookstore shelf and landed on my head.  Fortunately they were paperbacks.  But the not so subtle point was made that it was way past time for me to read Bolaño.  And so I picked-up a copy of Distant Star, shelved the rest and went home to read.  The following weekend I went back for Nazi Literature In the Americas.

Distant Star began life as the final chapter of Nazi Literature in the Americas. Bolaño, in a short introductory note, explains how his friend Arturo B. was unsatisfied with the story.  Arturo felt it should be longer and less dependent on the other stories in the collection; that “rather than mirror and explode the others, would be, in itself, a mirror and an explosion”. And so the two men spent “a month and a half in my house in Blanes, where, guided by his dreams and nightmares, we composed the present novel.  My role was limited to preparing refreshments, consulting a few books, and discussing the reuse of numerous paragraphs with Arturo and the increasingly animated ghost of Pierre Menard.”  The joke for those in the know: Arturo B. is Bolaño’s alter-ego.  Pierre Menard is a reference to the Borges short story – “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote“.

Primarily set in Chile and beginning in the year 1971 – two years before the military coup which unseated then President Allende and put General Augusto Pinochet in power for the next twenty-five years – Bolaño renders a tumultuous period in Chilean history for readers.  Events are described by a first person narrator; a struggling Chilean poet* who recalls how he spent the years leading up to the coup attending poetry workshops with his best friend Bibiano.  In one of these  workshops, led by the Bolshevik poet Juan Stein, our narrator and Bibiano meet the lovely and talented Garmendia twins.  It is in Stein’s workshop that they also first encounter Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, the man who we are told will “revolutionize Chilean poetry”.  Ruiz-Tagle, we eventually learn his real name is Carlos Wieder, becomes a life-long obsession for our narrator.  He is the  bogeyman at the center of the novel –  tied to random acts of terror perpetrated by the Pinochet regime.  Even after our narrator becomes an expat living in France he continues collecting information on Wieder, as well as the other poets he left behind (the poetry professor Stein and his rival workshop leader Soto, Bibiano and the doomed Garmendia twins). He makes only a token effort to sort fact from rumor.  Most of the information comes to him incomplete, in bits and pieces. You get the feeling he’s filling in the gaps, himself, as he goes.

What happened next is uncertain.  Soto lost himself in the cathedral or cosmic transmitter that is the Perpignan railway station.  Because of the time and the weather (it was winter), the station was almost empty despite the fact that the 1:00 a.m. train for Paris was about to leave. Most people were in the bar or the main waiting room. Soto, for some reason, perhaps he heard voices, went to look in another room, some way off.There he found three young neo-Nazis and a bundle on the ground.  The youths were diligently kicking the bundle. Soto froze on the threshold until he realized that the bundle was moving, when he saw first a hand and then an incredibly dirty arm emerging from the rags. The tramp shouted, Stop hitting me. It was a woman’s voice. But no one was listening, no one except the Chilean writer. Perhaps his eyes filled with tears, tears of self-pity, because something told him he had met his destiny. Now he wouldn’t have to chose between Tel Quel and the OuLiPo. For him, life had chosen the crime reports. In any case, he dropped his bag and the books at the door and approached the youths. Before the fight began he insulted them in Spanish. The harsh Spanish of southern Chile. The youths stabbed Soto and ran away.

There was a brief article in the Catalonian newspaper, but Bibiano told me all about it, in a very detailed letter, almost like a detective’s report. It was the last letter I received from him.

Then one day, without warning, a detective arrives at our narrator’s apartment and asks for his help in tracking down Wieder.  Bibiano had sent him.  He, of course, agrees to help. Continue reading