Triomfby Marlene van Niekerk
As lyrical and acutely observed as Nadine Gordimer's The House Gun and as penetrating as J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace, Triomf's microcosmic view of South Africa on the brink of disintegration has been acclaimed as one of the best novels ever written in Afrikaans.This is the story of the four inhabitants of 127 Martha Street in the/p>/em>/em>/em>
As lyrical and acutely observed as Nadine Gordimer's The House Gun and as penetrating as J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace, Triomf's microcosmic view of South Africa on the brink of disintegration has been acclaimed as one of the best novels ever written in Afrikaans.This is the story of the four inhabitants of 127 Martha Street in the poor white suburb of Triomf. Living on the ruins of old Sophiatown, the freehold township razed to the ground as a so-called 'black spot', they await with trepidation their country's first democratic elections. It is a date that coincides fatefully with the fortieth birthday of Lambert, the oversexed misfit son of the house. There is also Treppie, master of misrule and family metaphysician; Pop, the angel of peace teetering on the brink of the grave; and Mol, the materfamilias in her eternal housecoat. Pestered on a daily basis by nosy neighbors, National Party canvassers and Jehovah's Witnesses, defenseless against the big city towering over them like a vengeful dinosaur, they often resort to quoting to each other the only consolation that they know; we still have each other and a roof over our heads. Triomf relentlessly probes Afrikaner history and politics, revealing the bizarre and tragic effect that apartheid had on exactly the white underclass who were most supposed to benefit. It is also a seriously funny investigation of the human endeavor to make sense of life even under the most abject of circumstances.
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By MARLENE VAN NIEKERK
THE OVERLOOK PRESSCopyright © 1994 Marlene van Niekerk
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE DOGS
It's late afternoon, end of September. Mol stands behind the house, in the backyard. As the sun drops, it reaches between the houses and draws a line across the middle button of her housecoat. Her bottom half is in shadow. Her top half feels warm.
Mol stares at all the stuff Lambert has dug out of the earth. It's a helluva heap. Pieces of red brick, bits of smooth drainpipe, thick chunks of old cement and that blue gravel you see on graves. Small bits of glass and other stuff shine in the muck. Lambert has already taken out most of the shiny things - for his collection, he says. He collects the strangest things.
Gerty's at Mol's feet, sniffing at the heap. Must still smell of kaffir, she thinks. Gerry drags out something from between two bits of cement and drops it at Mol's feet.
'What is it, Getty? Hey? What you got there? Show the missus!'
Mol picks it up. It's a fiat, rusted tin. Looks like a jam tin. Kaffir jam! Sis, yuk! She throws it back on to the heap.
She picks up Gerry and looks across the length of the bare yard. The yellow lawn stretches all the way up to the wire fence in front. Lambert says it's just rubble wherever you dig, here where they live. Under the streets too, from Toby right through to Annandale on the other side. Rubble, just rubble.
* * *
The kaffirs must've gotten the hell out of here so fast, that time, they didn't even take their dogs with them.
A lot of their stuff got left behind. Whole dressers of crockery. You could hear things breaking to pieces when the bulldozers moved in. Beds and enamel basins and sink baths and all kinds of stuff. All of it just smashed.
That was quite a sight.
The kaffirs screamed and shouted and ran up and down like mad things. They tried to grab as much as they could to take with when the lorries came.
And those kaffirdogs cried and yelped as they ran around, trying to get out of the wag of all that stuff talling and breaking everywhere.
Mol remembers the day very well; when they took away the first bunch of kaffirs. It was raining. February '55. She and Pop and Treppie stood at the top end of Ontdekkers, on the other side, watching the whole business, 'cause Treppie had heard the Department of Community Development wanted to build houses here for 'less privileged whites' - here where Sophiatown used to be.
Triomf, they were told, would be the new suburb's name.
Just for whites. They said they'd start building in 1960. 'From Fietas to Triomf!' Treppie said - and he didn't want to hear any of them complaining they weren't going up in the world.
Fietas was also flattened in later years. Not long after they got out.
Ja, it was also a right royal mixed-up lot there in Vrededorp - that was now supposed to be Fietas' proper name.
Gerty squirms in Mol's arms. She puts her down. The little dog turns around and looks at the heap again. God alone knows how much deeper that hole in his den must still go. Lambert sags it's for petrol; he wants to store petrol in there. It's for when the shit starts flying after the election, he says. That's the kind of rubbish Treppie talks into his head.
Gerty wants attention. She digs with both her front paws in the rubble, poking her nose in the clods that are still red from all the old bricks. Then she pricks her ears and looks up at Mol - she wants to play. Ag shame, the poor little thing, not much chance to play around here.
Mol goes and sits heavily on the old Dogmor tin next to the house. She puts her hand into her housecoat pocket, takes out a cigarette and lights up.
The kaffirs weren't very impressed with the whole business, that's for sure.
She and Pop and Treppie stood on the side of the road, watching them stone the buses. The trams too.
In those days there was a tram that ran all the way to Roodepoort.
Treppie was very worked up about the bulldozing. Some days he used to go there after work, riding up and down in the trams so he could check things out for himself. And sometimes, when he worked the night shift, he'd first walk all the way to Sophiatown before going to work. Then, later, he'd come home and make them long speeches, for hours on end, about everything he'd seen there, 'there where our future lies', he'd say, 'where we're going to make a new start in life; cackling through that crooked mouth of his. In those days, she never understood what that laugh of his meant, but she's learnt in the meantime. As for their lives here in Triomf - there's nothing funny about that. Here it just buggers on. And these days the buggering's getting rough.
When they were bulldozing that time, there was a skinny priest in a long, black dress who used to run up and down behind the bulldozers, trying to help the kaffirs with all their things.
The kaffirdogs all knew him. They used to jump up at him as he ran around, and after a while that black dress of his started looking a real mes from all the dusty paw marks.
But he could do nothing for them. The dogs, that is. And their katfirs.
He was an English priest. A real kaffirlover, by the name of Huddleston. Treppie used to call him Muddlemouth or old Meddlebones, 'cause he was one of those holier-than-thou big-mouths from overseas who came here to interfere with stuff.
His church still stands today, just behind them, but these days not much goes on there. It's the PPC of Triomf now. The Pentecostal Protestant Church. Those Protestants look a poor bunch to her. There are not many more than there are of the Members in Christ. And the Members all fit into a single Kombi. She sees the pastor driving past sometimes, going up Martha Street to pick people up. MEMBERS IN CHRIST, it says in big, blue letters on one side. Here one, there one, he picks them up. Chicken feed.
Here in Triomf they've got the PPCs, the Members, the Apostolics and the Jehovah's Witnesses. There's also an NG church across the road from Shoprite, but it's always empty, except when they've got a bazaar going. Right next to the NG, in front of the police flats, she's seen a white noticeboard with DAY SPRING CHRISTIAN CHURCH written in pink letters. And guess what, they actually go there, those policemen, with their little wives and all. Must be a nice church, that. But as for priests in dresses, you don't see many of them around here any more. Except right down in Annandale at the tail-end of Triomf, on the Martindale side. They saw a priest there one day, but he was wearing a white dress, not a black one. That's another mixed lot. One day she and Pop and Treppie - Lambert wasn't with them - were coming back from the panelbeaters when they saw the mixed-up congregation coming out - it must have been a wedding or something - and there stood the priest at the door, greeting kaffirs and Hotnots and whites all together. All smiles. And all with the same hand.
Treppie says it's a Roman church. He says it's foreign to our nation's interest to greet different nations like that, and then he laughs like the devil himself. He says there's a world of difference separating the two nations in that sentence. But in Triomf they know it's actually just Ontdekkers that separates them. 'Cause across the road it's Bosmont, and in Bosmont it crawls with nations.
Not that they have much trouble with them, here in TriomL It's only at the Spar in Thornton that the Hotnot children stand around and beg. Pop gives them sweeties sometimes when he takes Toby and Gerty to the little veld behind the Spar. But when the piccanins play with the dogs, Toby and Gerty don't want to. All they want is to chase those big kaffirs who play soccer there. Young, wild kaffirs with strong, shiny legs and angry faces. And they play rough. Toby got his wind kicked right out one day when he tried to bite one of them on the leg. Pop says it's 'cause Toby's a white dog - although kai firs are quite fond of dogs in general. Then Treppie says that may be the case, but it really depends how hungry the kaffir is. And then he starts telling that old story about Sophiatown's dogs again.
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.
Treppie says he saw some of the kaffirs come back one night with pangas, and then they killed those dogs of theirs. After a while, he says, you couldn't tell any more who was crying, the kaffirs or their dogs. And then they took the dead dogs away in sacks.
Treppie says he's sure they went and made stew with those dogs, with curry and tomato and onions to smother the taste. For eating with their pap. A little dog goes a long way, he says, and those kaffirs must've been pretty hungry there in their new place.
Some of the dogs died on their own, from hunger. Or maybe from longing for their kaffirs. And then their bodies just lay there, puffing up and going soft again, until the flesh rotted and fell right off the bones. Then, later, even the bones got scattered.
Even now Lambert finds loose dog bones when he digs.
Treppie says the ghosts of those dogs are all over Triomf.
Sometimes he wakes up at night from all their barking. It starts at the one end of Triomf and then it goes right through to the other end before coming back again. Like waves, breaking and splashing out, going back in and then breaking again. It sounds like the end of all time. Then she, Mol, waits for the earth to open up and the skeletons' bones to grow back together again, so they can be covered with flesh and rise up under the trumpets.
That's why she says to Lambert he must rather leave those bones there where he finds them. Lambert says he doesn't believe in the resurrection. He takes the bones and tins and things, even faded old marbles and knobkieries with carved heads, and then he hangs them up around the paintings on his walls. He says it's his museum, and one day future generations will be grateful someone preserved it. Even if it is just kaffir rubbish. He says Treppie says old kaffir rubbish has suddenly become quite valuable these days.
If Lambert takes after anyone, then it's Treppie. That's what she always says. They play the fool like their lives depend on it, and they've both got a talent for the horries. It's just that Treppie's a cleverer fool than Lambert and Lambert's horries are worse than Treppie's. Then Pop says she shouldn't talk like that about her own flesh and blood. All they have is each other and the roof over their heads. If there's one thing she must never forget, he says, it's that.
Well, maybe, but she's still got Gerty.
Mol bends over and scratches Gerty between the ears. Gerty stares back at her with big eyes.
Gerty knows what she knows. And she's had the dog's luck of landing up with them. A long history of dog's luck.
Gerty is Old Gerty's granddaughter. All the Gertys - Old Gerty and Old Gerty's only child, Small Gerty, and now Gerty - have seen their share of luck. It's in this dog-family's blood, she always says. Luck.
The dog business started one day when she and Pop and Treppie went walking around Sophiatown. They wanted to see where they'd come to live, 'cause Treppie had applied to the municipality for a house, one of those they said Community Development was going to build here. And of course Treppie had lots to say about it all.
'Look,' he said, 'this is now what you call white man's luck. Just as we're about to go kaffir there in Vrededorp, the Red Sea opens before us.'
They were walking up and down the streets, Miller, Tucker, Good, Martha, through Southlink and then into Gerty, when they heard a cry coming from under a rusted old piece of zinc.
That little priest was there too, in his black dress, walking through the piles of smoking rubbish, the burst pipes and the pools of dirty water. All the dogs were traipsing after him, as usual. Every now and again he'd stop, and then he'd write down something in a little notebook.
'I bet he's making notes so he can go complain to the Queen of England,' Treppie said. 'Cause if he understood correctly, the Queen was in charge of all the churches. But he couldn't understand what was bothering that priest, 'cause there his church still stood. No one had even touched it.
Treppie tried to stop her and Pop from looking under the rubbish to see what was crying like that. The priest would think they were stealing kaffir rubbish, he said.
But she kept on at him, and in the end they found a little dog there. It was still a tiny puppy with the cutest little looking-up eyes. Ag shame.
'You better just leave that kaffirdog alone, Mol,' Treppie said. 'All she's good for is stew. I don't want that worm-guts in our house.'
'It's for Lambert,' she said.
Pop's heart was soft. He said, yes, it was true, a boy needed a dog. Maybe it would calm Lambert down a bit.
Then Treppie said it would take more than a dog to make that piece of shit pipe down, and the next thing she had to jump between Pop and Treppie to stop them from smashing each other up right there in the middle of Sophiatown's rubbish. And all the time that priest just stood there, watching them.
Then she wrapped the little dog up in her jersey and carried her all the way back home. When they got to Vrededorp, she decided to call her Gerry, after the name of the street where they found her. Two years later, when they eventually moved to their new house in Triomf, Old Gerty came with them, and that same street was still there.
'So now you're back in your old hometown again, hey, Gerty,' she still said. The Benades had come to live here in Martha Street, just one behind Gerty. She could have sworn that little dog, with her heartsore eyes, knew very well where she was, even though all the houses were brand new and the old ones were gone, 'cause she walked around sniffing everything for days on end. Old Gerty was always a strange, nervous little dog. Lambert never had any time for her. She was Mol's dog. And when Old Gerry got pregnant, she feared for her. Not for nothing, 'cause three of her puppies were stillborn, and only the smallest one survived. Dead or alive, it was just too much for Old Gerty - she gave up the ghost right there, just as the last puppy was coming out.
That was a terrible day. Treppie wanted to throw away all the puppies, the living one too, but she wouldn't let him. Pop also stood between him and the dogs, and that's how they came to raise Small Gerty with a play-play bottle from a lucky packet.
Treppie kept on telling them they must fix Small Getty up, 'cause he didn't want to be stuck with a brood of kaffirdog descendants here on his property. He needed the space for his fridges, he said.
Excerpted from triomf by MARLENE VAN NIEKERK Copyright © 1994 by Marlene van Niekerk. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Marlene van Niekerek was born in 1954 and grew up on a farm in the Caledon district of South Africa s Westerm Cape. She studied philosophy, languages, and literature at the universities of Stellenbosch, Amsetrdam, and Witwatersrand, where she is currently lecturer in the Department of Afrikaans and Dutch. She lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.
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I read it a while ago. It was intricate, involved, shocking, engaging, and everything else you want in a big novel.