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Marlene van Niekerk: Triomf (Triomf)

When I started reading this book, it reminded me of Tobacco Road, a very fine novel (and a very fine John Ford film, too) Of course, they are dissimilar in many ways but they are similar in that both tell the story of a family of poor whites where the family members are all characters, have what we would consider dubious morals and have a beat-up old car, which features strongly. Of course, van Niekerk’s family are poor whites in South Africa, specifically Johannesburg, and therefore in a different country and in an urban area rather than the rural area of the Lester family. Triomf is the name of the district they live in. It had previously been Sophiatown, a shantytown for poor blacks (throughout this book, the poor whites call them kaffirs or hotnots). However, this is in the 1950s-60s when apartheid was at its worst and the South African authorities decided to convert this to a town for the poor whites. Bulldozers moved in, knocking down the houses, giving the inhabitants little time to rescue their possessions or even their dogs. A new town was built right on top of the bulldozed shantytown, so much so that our family continues to dig up the old possessions and discards (including dog bones) many years afterwards.

The Benade family consists of four people and two dogs. Mol is the only woman. She is married to Pop. Also in the family is their thirty-nine year old son, Lambert, and Mol’s brother, Treppie. The dogs, are Gertie and her son Toby, both named after local streets. Lambert is epileptic so he has never been able to find a job or have a romantic or sexual liaison, with one exception. Mol discovered when he was quite young that the best way to calm him when he was having a fit was to stroke his genitals. This continued throughout the years and evolved into masturbation and then intercourse. Mol also has to provide sexual favours for her brother, so that she is having sex with all three men. She does not like this, not for moral reasons, but simply because it is hard work. One of their regular set of visitors are the various representatives of the National Party. Lambert, who is a hoarder, has a huge stack of their leaflets in his room. The next time they come, Mol plans on suggesting to them that, instead of the government wasting their money on other projects, they should build a brothel to help relieve women like her. Lambert does have his positive uses. He is generally very good at mending and making things with the limited resources at his disposal. They used to be in the fridge business, buying used fridge and repairing them for resale, or simply repairing the fridges of others. Lambert worked at this, not always successfully, and though they no longer do it, they still have a few fridges around the house, some of which work. Indeed, Lambert is always working on something. He has made a serviceable mailbox out of scraps, which he regularly fixes to the front gate but which invariably gets knocked off by Pop or Treppie, who are both bad drivers. His other major activities consist of scouring the neighbourhood rubbish bins and dustbins for anything useful he can scavenge and spying on the neighbours, particularly if there is any prospect of their having sex. However, he could be considered the intellectual of the family, as he enjoys reading anything from the various newspapers he scavenges to Watchtower and National Party leaflets to books he borrows from the library. Indeed, he goes often to the library to browse the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

We learn a little of the family history. Mol and Treppie’s parents had a farm but they had to sell when the water ran out. Their father got a job on the railways and his son followed him, though he was not very good. They moved to one suburb in Johannesburg, before moving to Triomf. They have always had problems with Lambert, so much so that they had to pull him out of school early, as the schools continually complained about him and he has stayed at home ever since. He has tried his hand at art, painting what he considers the history of South Africa, though featuring his family, on his bedroom wall. They now seem to be the standard dysfunctional family. Lambert is strong and erratic in his behaviour and van Niekerk revels in some of his outbursts. For example, he is spying on the women next door, half-destroys their property when he falls and then gets into a fight with their men, resulting in some of their property being destroyed and blood everywhere. On Guy Fawkes Night (5 November), he starts a fire, without telling either his family or the neighbours and nearly burns the place down and burns himself. Treppie can be equally erratic and we see him locking the National Party candidates in the Benade house, while he berates them.

There is a a sort of plot, as we lead up to Lambert’s fortieth birthday. The following day is an important election which interests Lambert, though the others seem less interested. Lambert’s parents have promised him a woman for his birthday and he is eagerly looking forward to this. In preparation, he and Treppie repair the two fridges in his room and he stocks them with food and drink for the woman. Naturally, it does not all go as planned. The beauty of this book is not the plot but van Nierkerk’s portrait of a totally dysfunctional family which, somehow, manages to stumble through life. Two of them – Lambert and Treppie – are borderline psychopaths but also very individual characters; Mol and Pop are relatively innocent and try to hide from the chaos they are exposed to, with Pop spending much time asleep or off driving in his decrepit car. Both of them, of course, worry what will happen to the other two after they die. It is van Niekerk’s skill to give us this very funny and somewhat anarchic story of this family that seems often on the brink of disaster and causes havoc to their neighbours and visitors but somehow survives.

Publishing history

First published 1994 by Queillerie
First English translation by Little Brown in 1994
Translated by Leon de Kock