Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Life among the Vermin: Nineveh and Ecological Relocation

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Life among the Vermin: Nineveh and Ecological Relocation

Article excerpt

Introduction

The Assyrian city of Nineveh was situated on the banks of the Tigris River, near present-day Mosul in Iraq, on a fault line unsettled by earthquakes since ancient times. (1) As capital of the Assyrian empire at its zenith in the eighth and seventh centuries BC, Nineveh was the site of energetic construction by one of its last kings, Sennacherib, who built gated walls, a lavish complex known as the "Palace Without a Rival," and luxurious gardens and parks. He also introduced canals for irrigation, diverted water to reclaim land for construction, and created a marsh to counteract floods, "stocked with the flora and fauna of the Babylonian marshes" (Grayson 114). Neighboring peoples were coerced to labor on such projects, in keeping with broader policies of forced migration in the Assyrian empire. (2) The sustained aggression of the Assyrians against adjacent kingdoms--the legendary destruction of Babylon's capital occurred during a campaign in 689 BC--assured that the later sack of Nineveh in 612 BC was heralded and celebrated by prophets in the kingdom of Judah. (3) Nineveh appears in the scriptural writings of Nahum, Zephaniah, Isaiah, and later Jonah as a case study in the risks of disobeying God, the dispersal of its once-powerful empire an object lesson in transience. In the Victorian period "rediscovered" by British archaeologists, the ancient city's treasures also embed a narrative of imperial appropriation. Many of its sculptures, cuneiform inscriptions, and stone friezes now grace the halls of the British Museum.

In Nineveh (2011), a novel by Henrietta Rose-Innes, several of these ancient topoi--ambitious construction, mass displacement, land reclamation, and unsound foundations--find fresh relevance in a fable about how spaces and species are blurred in contemporary South Africa. (4) The novel centers on a pest expert, the aptly named Katya Grubbs, who perversely runs her business on "a strictly no-kill policy" (13). (5) Katya is drafted into "Nineveh"--a high-end. Babylonian-themed residential complex under construction on reclaimed wetlands outside Cape Town--to address an elusive insect infestation that emerges from the nearby marshes and threatens the project's existence. An inventive combination of ecological noir, family tragicomedy, and socioeconomic satire, Nineveh catalogs Katya's activities as she discovers how human and insect actors undermine the spatial expectations of post-apartheid South Africa, siphoning off the estate's materials into broader economic and ecological circuits. Nineveh offers an allegory of sorts for a nation-state trying to address novel challenges in spaces and structures haunted by deep-seated inequalities.

I argue that Rose-Innes advances a vision of interspecies connection in Nineveh by recasting controversial themes drawn from South Africa's history--the topoi of "vermin" and "relocation"--to address wider ecological concerns. Although the novel remains alert to vestiges of historical violence and inherited spatial inequality, it thus promotes less a politics for the moment than an ecological ethics rescaled to underscore transience and interchange beyond the human sphere. Rose-lnnes first transforms the notion of "vermin" from the imaginary of South African literature and culture under apartheid, where insect life had often furnished images of alienation and racial animus, to present instead a friendly nexus where figurative boundaries among humans and nonhumans collapse. She further describes her protagonist's humane work as "relocation," repurposing another term freighted with the history of racial zoning and forced migration to spotlight networks of beings that defy the structural and spatial confinements of the post-apartheid city. These gestures of reclamation evince a scalar logic that produces a certain tension in the novel's representational texture: they reframe political matters of current or recent provenance to focus on broader and more durable ecological concerns. …

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