A stark tale of modern South Africa. Afrikaner Matt envies and hates the old-time machismo of his ailing father – but it is the shifting power balance he needs to look out for in a mesmerising novel.
By Christopher Hope. Photo: ‘White man’s magic is not what it was’ … the Blikkiesdorp township in Cape Town, South Africa by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
There are not many books in the library of Benjamin Duiker, a dying patriarch in a Cape Town mansion. One of them is David Goldblatt’s iconic collection Some Afrikaners Photographed. These memorable portraits, dating from the 1970s, show farmers, brides, cops, kids and pastors from Africa’s white tribe, staring at the world with flinty defiance. In Wolf, Wolf, superbly translated by Michiel Heyns, Eben Venter takes a long, cold look at some Afrikaners here and now.
Old Benjamin Duiker once sold Mercedes limos to rich white clients. The brand has totemic status among both white and black Africans. Where else does a class of plutocrats, the WaBenzi, take its name from a car? But the world the stern old man once presided over is dying along with him, and so are its stifling rules about sex, race and power. “Duiker” means diver in Afrikaans, and Wolf, Wolf plumbs the depths of Afrikaner angst.
Duiker’s only son, Mättheus, is a disagreeable man, but then so is almost everyone in this stark study of arrested ethnicity. Matt envies what he hates: his father’s masculine power and authority. He can’t stop trying to earn his father’s love, but he’s terrified some hitch may stop him getting the money when the “old dogmatist” dies. There is the risk his smarmy sister, on her faraway Karoo sheep farm (a splendid cameo, this) may beat him to the prize.
Adding to his predicament, Matt Duiker happens to be gay in a culture that exalts machismo. His dilemma is at the heart of Wolf, Wolf: who are Afrikaners when they can’t be who they were?
Wolf, Wolf draws a haunting portrait of Matt as an Afrikaner Jekyll and Hyde, a man sentenced to a double life. Dutiful nurse to his dying father by day, after dark he goes hunting online to feed his hardcore porn habit, bookmarking his finds in his secret “wank-bank”. Matt’s sidekick and inadequate lover is Jack, a failed teacher of Afrikaans literature. Jack’s idea of fun is to pull on a wolf’s-head mask after dark, film himself, and post the images on Facebook for the delectation of his chorus of “friends”, who supply sententious comments on Matt’s ruinous addiction.
Matt dreams, above all, of opening his very own takeaway joint, serving decent meals to local workers in a rundown corner of Cape Town. Quite why someone so socially inert and inept would do something so ostensibly worthwhile is never explained. What he gets, however, along with his restaurant, is Emile, a Congolese immigrant from Boma. The sinister Emile understands what’s needed to get ahead in the new South Africa far better than his fumbling white boss.
It is downhill all the way. Matt sets off to his father’s funeral in the old man’s venerable Mercedes but is forced to pull over by a blue-light brigade of motorised cops, a spectacle with which Capetonians are wearily familiar. The visiting king of Swaziland races by in his vast brand-new Mercedes, tossing Matt a gnawed chicken leg. The old order may have been decisively reversed, but bigwigs and lesser breeds contend for status in the same old way.
As it turns out, neither Matt nor Jack are any good at playing wolf. Neither is big enough nor bad enough; and besides, white man’s magic is not what it was. Jack means to help his grieving lover when, with tender daring, he pulls on his mask and plays Wolf, Wolf one last time in the darkened garden of Bennie Duiker’s mansion. But the new owner has no time for fairytales …
Eben Venter has lived in Australia for decades but exile has sharpened his perspective. Wolf, Wolf is a mesmerising novel. Much as Goldblatt’s portraits did in their time, he skewers his world into place with detail. Matt Duiker rings true – stuck between the old South Africa now passing away, and a new world painfully coming into being.