Triomf by Marlene van Niekerke

Louise Vijoen, Department of Afrikaans and Dutch, University of Stellenbosch

Part 8 of the author's "Postcolonialism and Recent Women's Writing in Afrikaans," which first appeared in World Literature Today and which appears here with the kind permission of the author and Dr. William Riggan, editor of that publication. Copyright, of course, remains with the author and World Literature Today. Many thanks to Eric Dickens for suggesting the inclusion of this important essay.

Marlene van Niekerk's novel Triomf was one of the first literary texts in Afrikaans to be published in what can literally be called 'postcolonial South Africa'. Incorporating references to the first democratic election in South Africa in April 1994, it appeared only a month or two after the election. The novel recounts the monotonous daily lives of a family of poor white Afrikaners, showing how apartheid failed even those it was ideologically designed to benefit. The family lives in the Johannesburg suburb ironically called Triomf (Afrikaans for triumph), built on the ruins of the black township Sophiatown that was demolished in the fifties by the social engineers of apartheid to create a suburb for the white working class.

It is gradually revealed that the Benade-family of Triomf is a gross caricature of the nuclear family and all the values it embodies: the old man Pop, his "wife" Mol and their "relative" Treppie are actually siblings while the epileptic Lambert is their son (it is not clear whether Pop or Treppie fathered him). Treppie's scheme to establish a refrigerator repair business having failed and Lambert not being able to finish school or hold down a job because of his epilepsy, they depend on welfare pensions for theri livelihood. The suspense in this novel comes from the buildup towards Lambert's fortieth birthday and the election while the reader also waits for the unsuspecting Lambert to find out the truth about his father and mother. The family prepare themselves to escape to the North in their beat-up Volkswagen Beetle if "the shit hits the fan" after the election, but the end of the novel shows the remaining members of the family (Pop has died in the interim) still caught in the same circumstances as before. Nothing has changed and the final moments of the novel depicts them looking at the constellation of Orion over the roofs of Triomf, without a north they can escape to.

Underneath its naturalistic surface the novel is richly symbolic. On a political level the incestuous and inbred Benade-family becomes symbolic of the extremes to which the apartheid philosophy of racial exclusivity led. The novel also discloses the historical circumstances that led to their condition (their ancestors were landowners forced off their land during a depression to become impoverished workers in the railways and garment industry in the city). Their history and family set-up leads to a situation in which anyone outside the family is regarded with the utmost suspicion, prejudice and contempt (as manifested in their crude racism towards blacks and their disgust with the 'dykes' who live across the road). On a religious level the family consisting of two brothers and sister together with their ironically innocent son can be read as a symbolic perversion of the myths of origin found in several world religions, the trinity and sacrificial lamb of Christian religion, the different images of the devil as well as the idea of an apocalypse. The novel also drives the idea of the Freudian family romance to grotesque extremes, going so far as to have Lambert accidentally kill his 'father' Pop.

Although this novel is not exclusively occupied with gender issues it demonstrates more eloquently than any feminist treatise could the position of women in such conditions. The objectification of Mol, the sister of Pop and Treppie and mother of their child Lambert, reaches atrocious depths. She is emotionally, verbally, physically and sexually abused, especially by her brother Treppie and her son Lambert. She is the sexual tool of all three the men and her status as a (sex) object is underlined by the fact that their beat-up car is also called Mol. Racially she is part of a group who considers themselves superior to blacks (her position is symbolic of the failure of the ideology of white supremacy); she is of a class looked down upon by other whites and Afrikaners (as is evident from the reaction of the young Afrikaans couple who tries to recruit their votes for the Nationalist Party) and she is of the gender oppressed by the patriarchal system prevalent in the race and class configuration in which she finds herself.

Triomf, as well as a spate of other novels probing the hidden corners of the Afrikaner psyche in a process referred to as "Afrikaans literature's own truth commission" (Swanepoel 1995: 102), signifies an important element in Afrikaans literature's postcoloniality. In her paradoxical ability to evoke feelings of revulsion as well as compassion for the degenerate Benade-family, the writer illustrates the intricate relationship between the colonial and the postcolonial that has to be negotiated when writing the new South Africa. Van Niekerk's novel demonstrates an awareness of the fact that the colonial cannot be eliminated from the postcolonial in a simple act of political amnesia and that the past has to be confronted rather than evaded when constructing a postcolonial discourse in South Africa


The texts by Afrikaans women writers discussed in this article have shown different ways of engagement with the postcolonial problematic in South Africa. The texts by Viljoen, Krog and Huismans demonstrate their commitment to the project of an oppositional postcolonialism as well as the complexities involved in such a commitment for an Afrikaans woman writer. Scheepers' text shows an attempt to forge new narrative strategies appropriate for a multicultural situation and an awareness of the narrative subject's implication in discourses of power while the text by Van Niekerk represents a preparedness to confront the colonial in the postcolonial. Afrikaans literature -- including these texts written by women -- has shown that it is willing and able to make a meaningful contribution to a postcolonial South Africa as well as the continuous process of defining a heterogenuous postcolonialism.

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