Imagine living in a town where there is as much asbestos as dust in the air. Imagine living in a town where, in the middle of summer, children play in the silver ‘snow’ of asbestos fibres. Imagine knowing you grew up in such a town; were one of those kids. Such are the nightmares finessed into Die Jakkalsdans.
Asbestos will kill you in two ways; there’s the slow years-long coughing and breathlessness way, and there’s the few-months-to-get-your-affairs-in-order way. Both methods incubate stealthily in your body for two to five decades before announcing their presence, and there is no cure for either. There is also no sure way of knowing whether you’re harbouring one of them inside your body. You can move far away from the asbestos-laden environment in which you were raised but, as the saying goes, you can run but you can’t hide.
In 2001, François Loots for personal reasons, researched the blou dood. He learned about the medical doctor who, way back in 1941, detected the link between asbestos-contaminated air and the asbestos-induced lung cancer, mesothelioma, but who was threatened and silenced by the commercial interests of the government of the time. Loots discovered that in the mid-1960s, another report detailing the high incidences of mesothelioma and asbestosis among people even indirectly involved in the mining or processing of the blue stone, had been suppressed by vested commercial interests.
But the people living in and around Prieska knew. They knew the blou dood lived among them; they knew the names of the many members of the community who died so often, so quickly of the blou dood. They didn’t know who would be next; they dared to hope they might escape it; they knew for sure that once marked, there was no escape. The people of Prieska knew too, that silence was expected of them. They knew that in order to be admitted into the local hospital for palliative care, they must contract, instead, the ‘flu and die of that.
The novel’s epigraph, a quoting of Exodus 29: 38-41 exhorting the sacrifice of lambs, directs stark comment at the story that follows.
François Loots sets his novel in Prieska, the Northern Cape town that milled the Koegas mine’s blue asbestos from 1930 until the late 1970s. Rotman and his sly jackals are everywhere and also, paradoxically, nowhere. The townsfolk know to give him wide berth if they happen upon him in a dark street; hope that with luck, he’s after someone else. This time. The townsfolk know too, that when the Rotman does look you in the eye…
That’s the story of this novel, but it’s not the tale Loots tells. His tale is a superbly crafted account of a weekend in the town during the oppressive November heat of 1974. The opening paragraph is pure poetry:
Almal droom en alles droom… ’n koei begin in die middel van die nag meteens herkou, terwyl karee- en soetdoringbome van reën droom. Nag ná nag, alhoewel ’n klip bedags ook droom: van ’n weerligstraal wat hom oopspalk, sy siel bevry en ’n koel reënvlaag oor hom kom neerstort. Alles droom, spoke en geeste ook…
Those lines also a suggestion, perhaps, that even the blue ‘killing stone’ (the term used by François Loots as title for a paper written elsewhere) regrets the cursed service into which it was harnessed?
Die Jakkalsdans is focalised, in turn, by the different members of a small family; an ordinary family of everyday people. Aletta Steyn is first and she sets out the story, introduces the others. She speaks the last section too, and together with the Rotman, his jackals and other shape-shifters, Loots brings the novel to a close that haunts like the ghosts and spirits of its first pages – for a long time after the book is put down. Not least, because subtle point is made that asbestos and its diseases may have been the first, but are certainly not the last in our country to flourish under the covers of secrecy and denial.
Mannetjies Steyn is mired in tragedy. He lives in tragic times; he inflicts tragedy. It’s no surprise that Rotman, dressed in his hunting clothes, is often seen following Mannetjies around town. It’s no surprise on the night he arrives home to find Rotman in the shadows on the lawn, that Mannetjies,
…toe hy na die huis toe wil draai, vind hy die teenoorgestelde het gebeur. Hy het na hóm toe gedraai… [Rotman] hou sy hand na Mannetjies toe uit soos iemand wat jou vra om met hom te dans. Mannetjies gee ’n tree agteruit, maar besef hy het vorentoe beweeg… Hy weet hy moet dit nie doen nie. Hy moenie, hy mag nie, hy durf hom nie in die oë kyk nie…
It’s compelling stuff, and I hope I’ve managed to convey some sense of that. Tryn Doyle, little more than a child, is catalyst for much of the story surrounding the Steyns. She has one heartbreaking chapter of the book through which to focalise and at the very end, after the epilogue, Loots adds an ‘Aanhangsel’. Here he reproduces portion of an old legal document wat, soos daai weerligstraal, die hele roman “oopspalk, sy siel bevry en ’n koel reënvlaag oor hom kom neerstort.”
Then there’s Joop. Jopie Steyn is a naïve and determined young man, just finished writing matric and desperate to leave town to study fashion design in Cape Town. He notices townspeople with shadows and those that have no shadow; he regrets not having a shadow entirely his own but will not allow his half-empty shadow to stand in the way of his life plans. Joop narrates his sections of the novel in first person and Loots uses the device to comment scathingly on prevalent social mores surrounding sexuality.
And there’s lots of fun in the novel. Young Jopie has an eye for clothing and a tongue with which to sketch an outfit. He conveys the essence of a character with dead-pan acerbic description of what he or she is wearing, and plans new outfits for everyone in town in genuine attempt to rescue them all from,
Die veelbesproke en hoogs modieuse safaripakke. Die oulikste bruin en donkergroen sokkies tot hoog teen die kuite opgetrek. Om die swier van ons plaaslike mode af te rond, pragtige bruin Bataskoene wat aan jou sprankelende persoonlikheid uiting gee. Buitendien is bruin ongelooflik prakties, want jy hoef nie eens die stof van jou skoene af te vee nie. Vir vroulief is daar tydlose Crimplenerokke met ’n A-lyn.
Joop Steyn, like François Loots, does get onto the train out of Prieska; does he, can he, leave the town behind?
Die Jakkalsdans deur François Loots
Prys: R 170.00
Resensent: Moira Richards
Review first published by Rapport in Afrikaans here: http://www.rapport.co.za/Boeke/Nuus/Hy-kan-hardloop-maar-gaan-hy-kan-weg...
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