Afrikaans author Marlene Van Niekerk lived for a time in Triomf, the white working class suburb of western Johannesburg built on the bulldozed rubble of Sophiatown, once one of black South Africa's cultural heartlands. Whilst gardening she kept digging up its remnants, just like one of the characters in her novel Triomf, which excavates the lives of the impoverished poor white culture that superseded it. Sophiatown boasted names like Masekela and Mandela amongst its cultural riches but the Benades family inhabit a far from triumphant world of cheap brandy and coke, kaput cars, irreparable fridges and broken political promises.
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
In the 1950s, at the height of apartheid, the government bulldozed the multiracial community of Sophiatown in Johannesburg, renamed it Triomf (Afrikaans for Triumph), and resettled it with whites only. This story is about one poor Afrikaans family living there in a house built on the rubble in 1993, on the eve of the democratic election. Ignorant, desperate, inbred for generations, they take care of each other, or try to. Lambert is epileptic. He wants a woman for his fortieth birthday, and Mom, Pop, and his older brother help him. The book is much too long, but the humor is dark, the mixed metaphors are hilarious, and the translation from the Afrikaans is spot-on, capturing the voice of the "white trash" family in all its coarseness and humanity. Everything stays the same. Only worse. You think you guess the family secrets, but they are beyond even that. Bones are broken. Everyone is crippled. But it's the enduring tenderness that tears you apart. Hazel Rochman
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