Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Going to the Dogs: Enduring Isolation in Marlene Van Niekerk's Triomf

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Going to the Dogs: Enduring Isolation in Marlene Van Niekerk's Triomf

Article excerpt

Coming up on twenty years past 1994, the story of South Africa's first democratic elections is the stuff of global legend: after decades of struggle and three days at the polls, apartheid came to a grinding halt with Nelson Mandela's landslide victory. In June of that year, one month after the country's black president pledged in the language of his former prison guards to let the past be past, a remarkable novel was published to herald the new dispensation. But Triomf was a decidedly local affair, whose 450 bleak pages marked a sharp break with the dissident tradition for which Afrikaans fiction is best known. In lieu of South African "worlding" or reconciliation, it captured the unappealing subjects that seemed better left behind: a motley crew of swearing, sweaty, inbred Afrikaners and their mutts, described as "too few, even for themselves" (9; see Kruger "Introduction"). As a result, Triomf remains a profound indictment of white nationalist ideology and a forceful case study in the fictional possibilities of isolation. Its depiction of human-animal relationships that disrupt the fluid ascendancy from local experience to paradigmatic significance, in particular, demands more widespread and enduring consideration.

Ten years passed before Marlene van Niekerk's first novel--a relentless account of one poor, cut-off family's life in the weeks leading up to and after the elections--saw American publication, by which point it could be safely consigned to what Rob Nixon called the "white-trash bin of history" (see de Kock). It received attention mostly from South African academics and garnered nowhere near the international notice of Van Niekerk's second novel, Agaat (which, among other accolades, won nods of approval from Toni Morrison and Oprah in 2010). This essay aims in some small measure to redress this wrong, but more importantly to unravel Triomf's relevance for the hyper-local in a world-systems age. The stakes are high for South African fiction, postcolonial studies, and the "sign of the global" (Baucom 159) that has become the default orientation of literary scholarship: for all that a novel like Triomf is bound to a pivotal socio-political moment, what do we give up in casting "local" texts as allegory rather than as literary objects of a less determinate order? Is it time, moreover, to consider what aspects of world fiction are lost by filtering it through an "impulse toward global connection" (Cooppan 10), or what Ian Baucom calls "such dominant coinages as the intertextual, the transnational, and the cross-cultural" (168)? From its confinement to the seemingly static world of a shunned house in a worn-out suburb, Triomf throws a wrench in the too-dominant model of global flux.

Yet it is the very localization of the novel's reception, I argue, that has precluded excavating the local as a defining and complex theme within it; in other words, the widely held meaning of the text is distinct from how it generates meaning in and through the hermetic lives it depicts. And though considering what Triomf represents about South Africa's political transition and Afrikaner nationalism in particular is not mutually exclusive with considering its mode of representation, aspects of the novel that internally complicate the allegorical reading it presents have been all but overlooked. The idiosyncrasy of Triomf's dogs, to which an otherwise irredeemable cast of characters exclusively "tune in their voices" (13), cries out for serious attention that has not been forthcoming even in the midst of what has been called the "animal turn" in literary scholarship. This is perhaps because far from embodying the problem of alterity writ large, these dogs (and mainly one dog named Getty) represent forceful points of intersubjective engagement that defy the imposition of broader significance. In other words, the problem is that their individuation lands them outside of any generalizable message about intersubjective engagement, and therefore outside the reach of most animal-studies criticism or the global narratives into which South African literature is typically absorbed. …

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