This is the third new book from South Africa that I’ve read this year and it’s rather startling to discover common themes between all of them. SJ Naude’s book of stories “The Alphabet of Birds” describes a variety of characters’ estrangement from South Africa where they seek to build a new life elsewhere or struggle against seemingly insolvable social systems within their own country. Eben Venter’s “Wolf Wolf” follows the plight of a son seeking to prove he can be financially independent from his dying father. There are issues of alienation, insecurity, masculinity and severe family strife in both. These themes are also strongly represented in Jacques Strauss’ novel “The Curator.” The chapters in this novel alternate between a rural South African town of Barberton in 1976 and the more urbanized environment of Pretoria in 1996. We primarily follow Werner Deyer who is calculating, sexually-repressed and dangerously angry, but seeks to find an expression of something intangible in art through a copy of Salvador Dali’s representation of Christ and later in the house of a victim of a brutal childhood attack who now obsessively paints scenes of that attack. The reasons why Werner is like this gradually unfold over the course of this frequently disturbing, but gripping novel. The novel also powerfully deals with racial attitudes in South Africa, sexual molestation and the breakdown of family.
I didn’t think there could be a book published this year with content as disturbing as “A Little Life,” but in some ways I feel that “The Curator” is even darker. Of course, they deal with difficult issues in a very different way, but let me explain why I found reading certain aspects of this novel even more harrowing.
Firstly, the deadly violence in “The Curator” is directed between family members in a way which is terrifyingly insidious. Werner’s family hears news of a nearby farmer who shot his entire family before shooting himself. Werner’s father Hendrik fixates upon this story and has fantasies of dispensing with his own family – even going so far to employing a maid who witnessed the family attack and finds himself becoming sexually obsessed with her. Twenty years later, Werner becomes fixated on killing his father Hendrik who is now severely disabled after an anonymous attack. The author skilfully shows the way violence percolates in the closed environment of the home: “This is how it started. Before you knew it, you were hitting and beating and kicking and shooting everything in sight to make things okay again.”
Secondly, like “A Little Life,” this novel also deals with sexual molestation, but we’re shown this from the perspectives of both the abuser and the abused. Steyn is a man who works on the Deyer’s property and drinks heavily after leaving his family. He takes advantage of the adolescent Werner and seems to disturbingly believe that we are cognizant of acts of desire even at a young age: “If there is one thing we are born knowing about, it is sex.” Steyn eventually moves on to taking advantage of Werner’s younger brother Marius which makes Werner very jealous for the attention he’s no longer receiving. It’s unsettling the way this book shows how the desire for affection, especially for vulnerable children who aren’t receiving any love from their parents, can become dependent on adult sexual predators.
Finally, “The Curator” shows the pernicious long-term racism that occurs from longstanding social divisions. The white characters in this novel show an extremely derogatory attitude towards the majority of black people they encounter. There is also a class division between white people who live with certain privileges and poor white people who are viewed as no better than “kaffirs” (a contemptuous term for a black Africans). In one scene the mother of the family Petronella is disgusted by how dirty a neighbouring white girl has become so she aggressively bathes her: “she wanted to wash away the kaffir, so that everything was wholesome and normal.” There is a strong desire shown to keep the races separate. These divisions are rigorously reinforced through social pressure and there is a strong sense throughout the book that the characters fear crossing these racial boundaries. The novel also demonstrates what a heavily dominant and repressive force men make in this society. Petronella feels so belittled over time that she pleads that “I want to be treated like a human being.”
It feels as if there is something stirring in the political and social atmosphere in South Africa at this time which is provoking authors to create such compelling new novels with similarly frustrated characters who perpetually feel like outsiders. These authors have something important to say which is different from the most prominent South African writers who are globally well known. At one point in this novel Werner thinks he’ll pretend to be a writer when staying at a hotel and looking at a Scandinavian family he muses: “Those two stern-looking adults and their beautiful offspring probably have a lively interest in post-colonial literature; would want to discuss Coetzee and Gordimer and Lessing. He imagines having dinner with the family. He could tell them how he grew up not far from here and how those early years still exert a significant force on his work. In what way? They would ask. Oh, you know, the politics, but also the land. There is something, he would say, about this place that is unforgiving.” Jacques Strauss makes a powerful statement with this story about the “unforgiving” aspect of South African society where some issues are suppressed causing people to explode into violent action.
Having enumerated all the ways “The Curator” deals with such hard issues, you may be scared away from it. But I think this is an absolutely striking, original and skilfully written book that you won’t regret reading. It gave me such fascinating insights into a culture and conflicted consciousness so different from my own. By honestly representing and discussing issues raised in such a powerful novel, Jacques Strauss is bearing witness to the violence that can erupt in a repressed society.