“Give the People What They Want”: Bodies on Display in Marlene Van Niekerk’s Triomf
Marlene van Niekerk’s Triomf has attained both literary acclaim and notoriety since it was first published in Afrikaans in 1994 (English translation 1999). This darkly comic novel is set at the dawn of the democratic election and as such, the fictional context mirrors the historical moment in which it was published. The novel relates the misadventures of the incestuous and indigent Afrikaans family, the Benades, whose grotesque bodies are described in minute detail. The paper examines the reason for this visceral corporeality in the context of Louise Bethlehem’s classification of the post-apartheid literary canon as one “in which the abject body is a privileged trope.”
During apartheid, relationships were governed by racist laws, stereotypes, and perceptions (rather than intimate conversations or reciprocal interactions). Van Niekerk explores this dominance of the visual in encounters with others, and in the process unpacks the “ensemble of practices” which made up what Allen Feldman calls the apartheid “scopic regime.” Van Niekerk enquires whether looking at the other could potentially facilitate empathy and understanding, or whether this remains merely an act of voyeurism. In this regard, the paper examines the meaning of the motif of binoculars and peepholes in Triomf, and argues that the Benades’ thwarted desire for connection and empathy is enacted through the visual medium. The reader, too, acts as literary voyeur, yet in this manner begins to care for and empathize with the Benades.
In conclusion, Van Niekerk’s visceral descriptions should not be classified as merely sensationalist or exhibitionist. Rather they represent an ethical intervention and an attempt to explore the formation of intimate relationships which, for Van Niekerk, are always mediated by the body.