SMALL-TOWN SOUTH AFRICA: Colette Victor’s ‘What to Do with Lobsters in a Place like Klippiesfontein’
Colette Victor, What to Do with Lobsters in a Place like Klippiesfontein (Cargo, 2015)
By Lynnda Wardle
Post-apartheid South Africa is not an easy setting for a novel. Writers feel bound somehow to tackle the difficult topics head-on: racism, corruption, poverty, lack of service delivery. Or, sometimes not. Recently a number of South African dystopian and science fiction works have appeared that approach these issues obliquely, most notably Lauren Beukes’s sci-fi novel Zoo City (2010) or the alien invasion of Johannesburg in the film District 9. Colette Victor, in her novel What to Do with Lobsters in a Place like Klippiesfontein (Cargo, 2015) chooses to stay firmly within the realist tradition. Although her novel still addresses racism, violence and gender inequality, it does so in a light-hearted manner, choosing to poke gentle fun at the situations the characters find themselves in under a new ANC government.
The novel, shortlisted for the Dundee International Book prize in 2013, is a hugely enjoyable, comic tale set in the small fictional town of Klippiesfontein, somewhere in rural Northern Cape. Klippiesfontein is a mythic place, left behind by progress, where its citizens continue to think and act according to old values and prejudices. (“a place like Klippiesfontein” – the title tells us that Klippiesfontein is a stand-in for all the drowsy dorps across the nation). The South African writer Herman Charles Bosman , in a 1947 essay entitled ‘The Dorps of South Africa’, observed wryly that a dorp,
is unquestionably the best place in which to study life at close hand. Because it is all in slow motion you don’t miss the significant details. And you get a complete picture, circumscribed by that frame which cuts off the village from the rest of the world. What is more important though is the deception of village life that calls for closer inspection: All that restfulness is only on the surface. Underneath, there is ferment.
Into this seemingly untroubled Everytown, in a touch of comic brilliance, Victor drops her smoking gun, a tank of live lobsters. Oom Marius, the local shop owner, married for thirty nine years to the sensible, loyal Hettie, has decided to order these creatures in an attempt to impress Patty, an attractive blond on whom he has had a secret crush for years. Patty is glamorous, husky and (of course) married to someone else. The lobsters are out of place, exotic and full of comedic potential “in a town where people thought fish fingers were exotic.” Are they pets? What could they eat? Are they meant to be eaten? As one of Oom Marius’ sons points out: “They start eating each other up when they’re kept in confined spaces.” Victor is skilled at running the comic and tragic side by side and here we have the first hint that all will not be well in Klippiesfontein; the lobsters devouring each other foreshadows the events as the town is divided and people begin to turn on each other.
The person who discerns the secret of Oom Marius’ strange purchase is Petrus, Oom Marius’ loyal black servant of twenty two years. “It is because Missies Patty had lived in the big city for many years and knew big city things that no one in Klippiesfontein knew. It was because Oom Marius had always dreamed of living in the big city himself and learning big city ways.” Victor begins her exploration of the relationship between city and countryside, between the perceived glamour of the “progressive” city and the plainness of “backward” country folk.
Petrus is a silent observer, and much of the novel is focused through his eyes. In fact, in the early part of the book Petrus is completely silent, having been warned by his mother never to speak to a white man. When Petrus was very young, his father was murdered by a white policemen, apparently for being too outspoken. Petrus is the classic cipher allowing us to observe the comings and goings of the people of Klippiesfontein:
Swish, swish, swish went the rhythm of the broom. From force of habit, Petrus took in the slow happenings of the crossroads. On the veranda of the Royal Hotel, white men, usually the same white men, sat drinking their cold beers. And they said that black men were lazy, Petrus scoffed.
The relationship between Petrus and Oom Marius illustrates the way in which relationships between blacks and whites have been conducted for hundreds of years in South Africa. And although this is a book set in the “new” South Africa, it is only a third of the way through the novel that the reader is told for certain that these events occur after the 1994 democratic elections. In this way, Victor allows us to get a feel for the values of the Klippiesfontein townsfolk, the slow pace of life, the intrinsic racism in Oom Marius’ relationship with Petrus: “Petrus was used to being the butt of Oom Marius’ irritation. There was no one else around most of the time. And, of course, Petrus knew it would be bad for business if his baas started shouting at customers instead of him.”
As well as being a comedic device, the lobsters serve to illuminate the prejudices and intrinsic ignorance of the dorp. Petrus is deeply suspicious of the lobsters; he has never attended school and his reactions are fearful and superstitious. The more educated the characters, the less likely they are to be afraid of the lobsters. So, Mrs Joubert, the liberal educated proto-feminist, and Precious, the smart young bookkeeper from the township of Rifilwe, are both matter of fact and sensible about what needs to be done with the lobsters: they have to be fed, the tank cleaned and ultimately, they have to be cooked and eaten. Poor Oom Marius baulks at all this lobster related responsibility and eventually in the classic “old” South African way, he hands over their care to Petrus.
At about the same time as the arrival of the lobsters, a second disaster befalls Oom Marius’ family. Tannie Hettie is found to have ‘the cancer’ and needs to travel to Cape Town for her treatment. Oom Marius will have to leave the shop unattended and he is unable to find anyone in Klippiesfontein willing or able to step up and manage the shop in his absence. In a rush of inspiration and bravery, Petrus (speaking to his baas for the first time in his twenty two years) suggests that he, Petrus, could look after the shop.
While this is a sensible solution, it is an outlandish one in a place like Klippiesfontein. The die-hard racist attitude to this situation is summed up by Karel, the stolid, unsympathetic leader of the local Afrikaner resistance movement (AWB):
We’ve been buying our groceries from Marius. A white man. A brother. Petrus is a cleaner and that’s the way it should be. He’s always known his place and we’ve accepted him. But when people start getting airs and graces that’s where our acceptance stops […]. This might be the way they do things in the city, Dominie, but it’s not the way we do things here.
Ferment, in Bosman’s terms, is what Victor now turns her attention to: what happens when a black man is put in charge of a white man’s business? Is it possible for a white man to live under a black man’s rule? Let us see the new South Africa in action indeed.
Petrus symbolically becomes a “strange creature,” like the lobsters, imported into this new role of being in charge in the shop. His new status ignites the prejudices that lurk just under the surface of everyday life. True to their word, the AWB barricade the shop and Petrus, along with Precious, whom he enlists to help with the figures and stock control, are left to face the wrath of the AWB alone. Precious is practical, smart and educated: “People don’t eat things because they are beautiful or ugly,” she tells Petrus, “They eat things because someone else has eaten it first and tells them it tastes good.” Precious is able to cross the race divide in a way that other characters are not; moving easily between Rifilwe and Klippiesfontein. She dates a white man, brave enough to cross the colour line that is still unofficially in place even in the new South Africa.
The shabby display of aggression and bad humour goes on for weeks until Oom Marius returns from Cape Town and the AWB men at the front of the shop melt away. But Oom Marius has returned with the news that Hettie is dying and that he has decided to promote Petrus to the post of Manager while he stays with his ailing wife. The AWB men are incredulous; unable to comprehend that a white man, a man like themselves would overturn the order of their society in this way. Oom Marius is in no mood for their objections: “‘First black manager in Klippiesfontein!’ Oom Marius shouted as he crossed the road, his fist raised in the air. You want war you bastards? You got it.”
Oom Marius symbolically crosses the road from the old South Africa with its unenlightened attitudes and prejudice, to the new, where Petrus is valued and is regarded as a colleague. Personal circumstances have forced Oom Marius to face his own prejudices; not only his racist and offhand way of dealing with Petrus, but also his casual sexism in his relationship with Hettie. Gender inequalities run deep through the narrative, crossing borders of race and class; the women in this novel are mostly at the beck and call of the men. It is the educated women, Precious and Mrs Joubert, who begin to move out of these gender stereotypes that are entrenched in the South African male psyche. Having seen the light, Oom Marius cannot turn back; he becomes an enlightened “new” Afrikaner.
Although the characters of Oom Marius, Hettie, Petrus and Precious are believable, sympathetic and enjoyably flawed, occasionally they can come across as couthy, wobbling slightly into sentimentality, being too obviously a “type.” Petrus for example is the archetypal servant, downtrodden, loyal, faithful and passive. Even when he “finds his voice” in the second half of the novel, his language has an odd simplistic quality. A grown man, Petrus’ innermost thoughts are rendered in childlike prose:
He liked to share his important news with others. Especially with his friend Jacob who got kicked in the head by a donkey when he was small and everyone said he was simple, but still he was Petrus’ best friend […]. But first he had to be brave and tell his mother.
The problem is that that Petrus’ endearing qualities — simplicity and unquestioning loyalty — become themselves an example of the cultural stereotypes that Victor is wanting to critique in the novel. In the same way, the “lovable” Afrikaner, proud, fierce and principled is the flip side of the racist whose blood and soil self-delusion and cruelty resulted in some of the worst examples of violence and abuses of power under apartheid.
Having said that, Victor nicely captures the truculent defensiveness associated with the Afrikaner position. Arguably the most successful portrayals in the novel are the die-hard Afrikaners and their families facing the perceived threat to their identity. Their stories are both insightful and entertaining: “Frikkie was a twenty-two-year-old Afrikaans male. Previously that would have meant being the most powerful and the most revered, just a couple of steps below God, but now it had devalued him to being a member of the least loved of all species.” Like the lobsters, the Afrikaner is a defensive, highly armoured creature, out of its depth, an anachronism in the new South Africa, struggling to come to terms with its new environment.
Victor has a fine ear for the cadence of Afrikaans speech. One of the issues when using Afrikaans phrases in the text is whether to allow the character speak the words unmediated and untranslated to the reader. In this novel, the choice has been made to translate and italicise Afrikaans and Khosa phrases. These are political choices. For example, Junot Diaz in the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008) chooses not to translate or to italicise the Spanish of his characters. The gamble is that the reader will not understand everything, will be forced to fill in the gaps for themselves. The argument in favour of allowing the text to stand untranslated is that it doesn’t patronise the characters or treat the language as a subset of English. It allows the Spanish, or Afrikaans or Khosa to stand upright, non-italicised; a language on an equal footing with English. Phrase-by-phrase translation also has the effect of alienating the reader, pulling them out of the story each time a phrase is explained. In Victor’s novel translation sometimes results in awkward word-for-word, paraphrase: ‘‘’Jissus, vandag, is die dag wat ek jou klap,’ he started. ‘Jesus today is the day I slap you.’” Or, translating “brandewyn” as “burning wine,” instead of simply calling it by its proper name, “brandy.” It is ironic that although the identity crisis of the Afrikaners is treated sympathetically in this novel, the struggle for their own language (Afrikaans only became an official language in 1925) is undermined in the text by treating it as a second class citizen to English.
The same difficulty arises when black characters speak: ‘‘’Mfowethu, ufuna ntoni?’ Precious asked in their isiKhosa language.” The use of “their” is loaded. We know it is their language but noting it in this way points to it as “other” and set apart from English, the official language, the language of the coloniser. In this way a hierarchy of discourse is set up, Afrikaans and Khosa are by implication not equal to English. In a novel that deals both humorously and seriously with inequalities in South Africa, an opportunity has been missed to address these inequalities and hierarchies inherent in the language of the text itself.
If there is a message in the book, one that is handled with a light touch and much humour, it is a deeply humanist one. It is the idea that the solutions to the problems of a place like Klippiesfontein, lie with its people. Victor’s characters, even the unlikeable ones, are shown to be deeply flawed but capable of remorse and redemption. Oom Marius, who at the beginning of the novel constantly snaps at Petrus and treats him more as an object than a person, by the end of the tale has come to see Petrus as a loyal, hardworking person, but more than that, with his promotion to manager, as a colleague and ally. Petrus gets to sit next to Oom Marius in the pew at Hettie’s funeral, trumping the racism of the town and this is an acknowledgement of the status of the new relationship between baas and servant. Petrus in turn has literally found his voice, he has grown in stature and confidence and has taken up his authority in the town as someone who has knowledge and expertise. Oom Marius has come to understand that although his wife Hettie is not beautiful, she was the love of his life and in losing her he realises the true value of his marriage. The town of Klippiesfontein will never be the same again.
After Hettie’s death, Oom Marius symbolically cooks the lobster with Thermidore sauce. Unsure of himself, he invites Patty over to share the meal. It would have been easy to have an upbeat Lobster Thermidore sunset moment but instead the meal is less than successful. Patty won’t eat lobster out of principle because of its suffering. They both agree that “it’s too soon,” for them to embark on a relationship and as readers we know that this is true also for the people of Klippiesfontein. The lobsters have become a metaphor for the strangeness of the new country; a creature born out of compromise, defensive and difficult. Education, it seems, is the way that these characters come to terms with the creatures. The more knowledge the townsfolk have about the lobsters, the more likely they are to be unafraid and to treat them with respect. Change, it seems, cannot be rushed and like Oom Marius, people have to come to terms with the truth of their situation at their own pace for the change to be meaningful. Perhaps “it’s too soon” for the new South Africa also, as the new struggles to emerge from the shadow of the old.
- Herman Charles Bosman, charismatic South African writer whose stories of Oom Schalk Lourens and the Groot Marico are part of the South African literature canon http://zar.co.za/bosman.htm
- Quoted in Snyman, Salomé. (2012). Willemsdorp by Herman Charles Bosman: the small-town locale as fictional vehicle for commentary on social and moral issues in the South African historical context, inTydskrif vir Letterkunde, 49(2), 60-71.