|Monday, 13 June 2011 10:57|
Written by Michiel Heyns (Jonathan Ball)
Review by Margaret Lenta
Lost Ground is set in a Karoo dorp, Alfredville, with the narrator, newly returned from twenty years in London, staying at the Queen’s Hotel and remembering the appearance of the hotel and the dorp in 1988 when he left at the age of 18. Though the descriptions of both are as delightful as Heyns’s readers have come to expect, I shall summarise by saying that Peter Jacobs, the narrator, focuses his memories on a foursome date after matric, when he and his friend Bennie Nienaber attempted unsuccessfully to take Elrina Potgieter and Gladys Schoonees to the Ladies Bar at the hotel for a shandy. By 2008 Alfredville has brought itself up to date – but its modernity in Peter’s eyes is as comic as its 80s style.
So far the reader is tempted to look uncritically through Peter’s eyes and enjoy the metropolitan skill with words (he’s a journalist) which allows him to caricature what he sees in Alfredville. Platteland jokes, after all, are an old South African custom. Soon, however, we learn that he has returned to write an article about the recent murder of his cousin, Desirée van Blerk, who had married a Struggle hero, a Coloured man called Hector Williams, newly captain of the police in Alfredville. When she was found battered to death, the white population assumed – and their assumption was confirmed by evidence – that her husband was the murderer. The case seems to Peter likely to offer insight into race and community relations in the new South Africa.
The fact that it’s Peter who is telling his story prevents us at first from registering this as cold-blooded exploitation of the violent death of a near relation. But the Alfredville residents register with surprise the close physical resemblance between him and his cousin. Later in the novel, when he learns of Desirée’s longing to leave the dorp and her willingness to use others to obtain the security of a man to accompany her when she leaves, he comes to another recognition, this time about himself. Desirée was not consciously cruel: she was unfeeling, and like her cousin, she saw the residents of Alfredville who would never leave the dorp as so inferior as to be without emotions that mattered. Now Peter has to recognise that when he left, he abandoned his dearest friend, to whose suffering he was oblivious.
Peter’s investigations turn up the fact that the evidence against Hector Williams, accused of the crime and under house arrest, was planted: white policemen, resentful of his rapid rise in the service, had issued orders. He is willing to use what remains of his boyhood involvement with a few people in the dorp to elicit more information – but to do so, he finds, is to become re-involved. As a new friend, another temporarily returning resident, tells him – and shows him in her own behaviour – “Embroiled up to one’s ears. That is the condition of living here.”
Bosman’s Willemsdorp, written in 1951 and set in 1947-8, is the inevitable comparison with Lost Ground, since both refuse to allow small town life to remain within the area of comedy. Violence of feeling and action, corruption and prejudice are present in both – the protagonists both discover the validity and strength of emotions in small towns. Sixty years separate the periods in which the novels are set, during which the possibilities of South African novels have changed and widened. Lost Ground, to the complexity of which a short review cannot do justice, seems to me far the richer book.