Its back cover informs me that A Case of Knives was written during the 1980s, is set in a 1960s South Africa, and was first published in 2010 - despite being recommended to Doubleday by Jackie Onassis back when. That's quite a time warp to get my head around but I'm game and I turn to the inside front matter where my eye skims the standard ‘all persons fictitious' disclaimer. But what?!
"...In the unlikely event that any person considers himself or herself aggrieved by the misuse of identity in terms of Section 5 of the Identity Registration Act, or if any person has any objection to the misuse of the identity of any other person in terms of the Act, he or she may at any time object in writing to the registrar. Every such objection shall be lodged in triplicate and..."
I begin to suspect my leg is being pulled but continue to meet Enoch, a young God- and parent-fearing lad who, dutifully, believes nothing his grandfather tells him. Quite rightly too, for Oupa Hans soon shows up to take the boy on an outing to visit a tailor in District Six for the purposes of a weekly business transaction that is decidedly not sartorial.
Later, after sitting illegally on a bench marked, ‘Europeans Only' to feed peanuts to the squirrels, the recalcitrant Oupa Hans accompanies the boy to the latter's favourite display in the local museum - the Bushman diorama. Here the old man interrupts his tales of his friend, Khotso (a witchdoctor who in 1948 had given the Broederbond medicine strong enough to bring about the defeat of ‘the traitor, Smuts') to point out that the beautiful work of art had been created by encasing live men, women and children in plaster of Paris. Enoch is horrified by his Oupa's tall tales and so am I - even more so as he continues,
"I used to know a man called Veldkornet Stockenström near Prince Albert, who always boasted that he got a permit to shoot the last Bushman."
I realise, with sick feeling in my stomach, that Oupa Hans tells way more truths than not. Google tells me the South African Museum closed its ‘Bushman diorama' exhibit in 2001; and more than I want to know about shooting permits.
Julian de Wette's book is acerbic satire and revolves around the fatuous new prime minister of South Africa, Sybrand Schoon, and the members of his household. Schoon is loosely modelled on Hendrik Vervoerd, and looking back at the architecture of apartheid through de Wette's pen is rather like watching the wacky-but-not-really-funny movie, District Nine.
Central to his story are teasings-out of the direct and the riquochette effects of the 1950 Population Registration Act that was spoofed in the introductory disclaimer, and the entire novel is told with a tipsy-toppling between the plausible and implausible that helps soften the satire, lighten the burden of the tragedy of the era. De Wette tells his story slant too, which adds to the sense of the surreal and also makes for an enjoyable change from linear narrative. As one character says of another, while easily referring too, to his author/creator,
"Memory is a clutter of happenings, past and present...She would commence one story - then draw on her stock of memories and often introduce a third, maybe even a fourth strand which bore little apparent relation to the first one. However, at its conclusion the tale would coalesce with its own clarity."
Review first published in WordsEtc
Moira Richards, accountant, author, editor, publisher, hangs out online at www.darlingtonrichards.com
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