Translated byLeon de Kock
REVIEW: Kayang Gagiano
Aaron Adendorff is a sickly man and a widower. For decades a successful painter, he lives by himself in Durban recovering from cancer of the kidney, and grappling with a faltering career and the numbing grief of losing his second, much-cherished wife three years prior. He cuts a lonely figure.
Aaron receives constant overly cryptic and incoherent text messages from his older brother, Stefaans, a rehabilitating alcoholic and drug addict preoccupied with reconstructing their blighted family history. He feels beleaguered by the constant impromptu visits of his new neighbour: chain-smoking, compulsively lying, Milton-quoting Bubbles Bothma, – (one ‘b’ for ‘brash’ the other for ‘brassy’), who is prone to donning a creepy gorilla mask, over plucking her eyebrows, toting a pistol and requesting endless lifts across town from him. He is wearied by the constant admonishing of his domestic worker, the indomitable Mrs Gloria Sekete, to accept Bubbles as a friend, and by her loud singing and unhygienic habits (which lay siege to his more fastidious nature). And he is plagued by insecurity that his agent and gallerist, Eddie Knuvelder, has abandoned and betrayed him through his patronage of younger, more fashionable contemporary artists; this just as Aaron finds himself at a creative zenith, delving into new themes and rediscovering his own artistic vision.
The Road of Excess is vintage Ingrid Winterbach. The critically acclaimed novelist and visual artist, who writes primarily in Afrikaans (this work has been commendably translated with great finesse by Leon de Kock) tends to write cerebral, philosophically and intellectually speculative texts which require active critical engagement from her readers. There’s no sitting back and letting the text wash over one here. You have to sit up and take heed. You have to concentrate. And you may well have to make use of your Google search engine more than once in a while to keep up with constant scientific, religious, literary and artistic references and more oblique allusions which permeate the author’s deft writing.
In this novel, it is the underworld and various artistic and literary depictions thereof which preoccupy the author and her characters Aaron and Stefaans Adendorff. The Bible, Blake, Goya, Hieronymous Bosch, various Romanesque masters – and predominantly Thomas Mann’s epic, Joseph and his brothers – loom large. The symbolic underworld for these characters, (the novel’s Afrikaans title is “Die Benederyk’) is in many senses a contradictory space. It represents a downfall, a space of corruption and excess, but also tempts with its verve, vitality and freedom. It is both dark and redemptive.
At the same time, Winterbach is concerned with examining the role of art and the artist in current society. One has the sense she is cocking a snoot at more pretentious, modish examples of contemporary art. (She has great fun creating Aaron’s nemesis – a cocksure young videographer called Jimmy Harris).
The Road of Excess has the feel of a complex morality play where characters represent certain archetypes. There is something innately theatrical about interchanges between them. The plot occasionally veers from verisimilitude, or gets a surrealist edge. Dialogue has a formal feel to it. Humour is used to great effect, and tends towards the offbeat and sardonic. Aaron Adendorff’s world is simultaneously burlesque and Kafkaesque. He is brittle and insecure and prone to bouts of paranoia. Yet one senses he some fight left in him yet, and much of the novel’s plot centres around him attempting to convince Knuvelder to include him in an upcoming show in Berlin (which he feels is essential to resuscitate his professional career), and attempting to reach out to others (such as his largely estranged daughters.)
Much of Winterbach’s literary oeuvre is concerned with family dynamics. Specific archetypal roles and relationships – mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, siblings and so on are often dissected and analysed. In The Road of Excess it is the complex and ambivalent nature of Aaron and Stefaans’s, (the golden boy turned career substance abuser) familial connection which is put under her authorial microscope. Unfortunately, Winterbach’s depiction of their complex relationship (rendered through Aaron’s patchwork recollections and Stefaans’ mystical monologues via sms and email) ends up bogging down the text. While the author is at pains to portray the inner workings of the former addict’s fraught mind, Stefaans’s constant repetition of motifs and issues which preoccupy him becomes tedious and heavy going, as do Aaron’s own.
While the novel never exactly plods, neither does it ever reach a full blown narrative stride. Instead it has the shuffling rhythm of a man bogged down by weighted shoes with the frustrating habit of examining every crack in the pavement. It is Winterbach’s wonderful character studies and her zany sense of the ridiculous which lift the novel. It also has an unexpectedly upbeat conclusion, which took me by surprise (I was expecting something far bleaker) – and as I read the concluding pages I couldn’t help but imagine the writer finishing her quirky tale, an inscrutable Mona Lisa smile playing over her lips.
- This review first appeared in the Cape Times in April 2014.