Mol, Treppie, Pop and Lambert Benades inhabit a crumbling government house that is all they own apart from each other. Mol, abused and ageing, is comforted only by her beloved mongrels, her numbed resilience as forlorn as her buttonless housecoat. Alienated, articulate Treppie, "a devil with a twist, a twisted devil", furiously turns his frustrated intellectual abilities against his family. Pop, shuffling bemusedly between sleep and waking, tries to remember his lies as he slips towards death. All of them protect the doltish, violent, voyeuristic Lambert, the epileptic progeny of parents who constantly reinvent fantasy stories, disguising a family secret that is a narrative time bomb waiting to explode into the heart of the novel. "We have each other and nothing else", is their refrain, a catchphrase for the survival of a demoralised family adrift from the tide of change, where incest has become a metaphor for the crooked logic of obsessive racial purity, just as the topographical layering of Triomf over Sophiatown becomes a guiding metaphor for the social architecture of apartheid.
Triomf depicts apartheid racism with an uncompromising exactness that has sometimes been lost in white South African writing in English slanted towards a middle class perspective. As the Benades veer between aggressive passivity and directionless activity terrorising each other and their neighbours, Van Niekerk invites the reader to despise the narrowly ignorant sensibilities evoked by their racist vernacular, whose idiom is skilfully echoed in poet Leon de Kock's meticulous translation.
Whilst the novel makes no pretences about the ugliness of racism, its radical success lies in the way it starkly realises the hard reality that the Benades' position as whites gives them few privileges. Van Niekerk tells their story in a bleakly hilarious mode of comic degradation that captures strikingly the unexalted expectations of a forgotten class. Theirs is the desperation of those who have nothing to lose, of an underclass who have only the vaguest recollection of self-respect and just treatment for others and themselves. For the armblankes (poor whites), she shows, notions of superiority were built on nothing but the detritus of another culture and the promises of betterment peddled in the weak Romanticism of blood-and-soil nationalism byoudentlik (proper, middle class) Afrikaners, empty illusions described by Treppie as, "the fine print of fuck-all."
Although Triomf is a startlingly comic yet salutary reminder of the sustenance racism gives to class inequalities, it stops short of representing the social rehabilitation of South Africa's poor whites. In what is possibly the first truly post-apartheid novel by a white writer deserving the description, Van Niekerk opts wisely to leave the hopes of reconciliation beyond the boundaries of her fictional excavation of the suburbs of truth.--Rachel Holmes