Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Eben Venter’s ‘Horrelpoot’, fiction and SA’s future

Anyone who has read Eben Venter’s gripping novel, Horrelpoot (Clubfoot; Tafelberg 2006), would know that it is no easy read despite being written eloquently and engagingly.

What I mean is that it is a harrowing book to read. I have read the original Afrikaans version but apparently it is available in English too. Furthermore, anyone who knows Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, would recall that it uncovers the dark heart of, among other things, the horrific colonial brutalities in what was the Belgian Congo during the 19th century. Add to this that Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now (“The horror, the horror!”), set in the context of the Vietnam war, is based on Conrad’s novella, and the plot thickens, as it were. In fact, as a talented master’s student, Jenna Donian, demonstrated in her dissertation, Coppola’s film parallels the novella meticulously regarding its narrative structure, in addition to which it places the story of a character called Marlowe, who is sent to find a renegade called Kurtz, in a wider arena than Conrad did.

The latter situated his tale of horror in the context of 19th century colonialism and imperial exploitation of colonised territories, while in Coppola’s film this context is extended to a much larger scale, implicating the military might of world powers in the global context of the extension of Empire (in Hardt and Negri’s sense) to (economically) “unconquered” territories. Novella and film are therefore similar at the critical level of uncovering the contradictions and hypocrisies on the part of supposedly “civilised” people, as well as the approximation of the “truth of human darkness” on the part of so-called savages – hence one meaning of the novella’s title, Heart of Darkness: just as the “heart” of darkness is “light”, the “heart” of light is darkness.

What Venter has done in Horrelpoot (“horror foot”) is to relocate the narrative of Kurtz and Marlowe yet again, this time to post-catastrophe South Africa, where expat “Marlouw” (Martin Louw) is sent by his sister from Australia to find and bring back her son, “Koert”, from what expat South Africans clearly see as being “the heart of darkness” – a South Africa rapidly slipping into “barbarism” after the collapse of the electricity supply, the economy and central government. What Marlouw finds here is itself a look into falling darkness, of which Marlouw’s clubfoot, as well as Koert’s gangrenous foot (another “horrelpoot”) is symbolic in different ways – the former embodying the guilt and inescapable responsibility of the ancestors for present conditions, and the latter exemplifying the price of insanity one has to pay to be the “vleiskoning” (“meat/flesh king”) in a South Africa descending into starvation and madness.

But Venter’s novel is complex – who can fail to recognise in the title an intertextual link with the arch-clubfoot, Oedipus (ancient Greek for “maimed foot”), the primordial mythical symbol for parricide and incest? I don’t want to spoil things for new readers; suffice it to say that the meaning of “horrelpoot” plays itself out rhizomatically in the novel. All kinds of other mythical traces pervade the novel too. Shortly after his arrival in post-apocalyptic South Africa, Marlouw takes a taxi, whose owner/driver, Jaap, is a kind of Chairon or guide/boatman who ferries Marlouw to the underworld (there are others like him too), and simultaneously a Hermes-figure who interprets the South African (under)world for him. Here is an excerpt from Jaap’s answer to Marlouw’s question about the Love Life anti-HIV campaign before his departure (with apologies to readers who don’t read Afrikaans; to translate it would be to lose the power of Venter’s sparse prose):

“Gefaal. Daar was naderhand niks meer geld oor in die staatskoffers nie. Meneer moet verstaan dat al hoe meer mense op welsyn begin staatmaak het. Regering was naderhand platsak. Wêreldbank. Nieregeringsorganisasies. Almal siek van die spulletjie hier by ons. Ander wêreld, jy sien … toe raak die helletjie los. Almal wat min of meer middelklas of daarbo gereken is, raak paniekerig. Was ‘n kwessie van die hiënas wat snags by jou poorte kom tjank. Lekker lewe verby, Meneer.”

A little later in the conversation, filling Marlouw in about every aspect of the collapse of “civilisation” in South Africa, Jaap continues:

“En toe? Toe die ontploffing by Koeberg. En sabotasie van kragstasies. Boem, boem, boem … Soos kanonskote. Week ná week. Landwyd. Ag, ons het die dinge sien kom. Daar was toe reeds te veel faksies binne die regering. Selfs binne die provinsies. En elkeen het soos ‘n koning op sy eie troon gesit. En gesorg dat hy deur omkopery die weermag en polisie agter hom skaar. Elke faksie paraat om vir sy deel van die koek te veg … die koek wat nou oorgebly het, is baie, baie skraps.”

Unavoidably many of these dire conditions resonate ominously with some developments in South African social reality today, such as factionalism within the ruling party and bribery, to mention only some. Add to this the fact that, in the novel, farms have gone over into the hands of farm workers, who have proved unable to maintain them productively, and the possible consequences of some recent legislative proposals in South Africa spring to mind. The novel’s multi-facetted ending, revelatory and portentous at the same time, is compelling as far as self-reflection on the part of the reader goes.

To be sure – as many readers are probably thinking – this is fiction, and not prophecy. Indeed, but although fiction (literature or film, for example) is not a “direct” reflection of social reality, it does stand in a meaningful relation to it, which could perhaps be described as a kind of “refraction”. Just as a prism refracts white light into all the constituent colours of the rainbow, art refracts social reality into its constituent components of various kinds.

More to the point, however, art, including literature, shares something with politics in relation to social and political reality, as Jacques Ranciére has demonstrated in various ways. What they share is the aesthetic capacity to “partition” or organise the sensible world (the world of sensible perception as well as the world of common sense) within certain parameters. And because in both cases such organisation is “aesthetic” in Ranciére’s sense of the word, it works in a reciprocal manner: political actions and linguistic/discursive pronouncements structure the social world (in both actual and anticipatory transformational ways). In so doing they supply the opportunity for art to gain a purchase on these “partitionings”, and vice versa.

In the case of Venter’s Horrelpoot, actual as well as possible, anticipated or speculated-upon events would have fed into its fictional structure, and like all literature, it has the capacity to structure social reality in turn via the new ways of seeing and anticipating that it creates aesthetically. A simpler way of expressing this complex dialectic is in terms analogous to what 19th-century philosopher John Stuart Mill remarked about the relationship between humans and history: humans are shaped by history, and in turn shape history through their actions. The only difference is that, like other poststructuralists, Ranciére invites us to think of language (either textual or spoken) AND actions as having this transformational capacity. This includes texts like Horrelpoot.

It does not follow that the dystopian scenario that unfolds in Horrelpoot will, or must unavoidably take shape historically in social reality, of course. There is no determinism here. It merely means that its aesthetic “partitioning of the sensible”, in Ranciére’s terms, projects lines of anticipation and possible actualisation into the future, which can either be realised through human actions or negated by them. No one is compelled to actualise what art articulates aesthetically, but it remains in the realm of the possible. And this is a possible future South African scenario that must (and can) be avoided at all costs.

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    • Bert

      For English-speakers, here is a translation of the two passages, above, from the Afrikaans:

      “Failed. Eventually there was no more money in the state coffers. You must understand, Mister, that more and more people started depending on welfare. Government ended up broke. World bank. NGOs. Everyone sick and tired of what was going on here. Another world, you see…then all hell broke loose. Everyone who was more or less regarded as middle class or above became panicky. ‘Twas a question of the hyenas that howl at your gates at night. Good life over, Mister.”

      2nd quote:

      “And then? Then the explosion at Koeberg. And sabotage of electricity plants. Boom, boom, boom…Like cannon shots. Week after week. Countrywide. Oh, we saw things coming. There were then already too many factions within government. Even within provinces. And each one sat like a king on his own throne. And saw to it that he got the army and the police behind him with bribery. Each faction ready to fight for its slice of the cake…the cake that was left over now was very, very small”

    • Balt Verhagen

      Thank you Bert for bringing to our attention this work that I had seen mentioned but never read. I will now most certainly do so, in the original Afrikaans. Interesting the allusions to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the (your?) student’s astute analysis of it in terms of Coppola’s film.

      I think I notice another allusion, that to the historian Arthur Keppel-Jones’s When Smuts Goes, of 1947. Written as a history of South Africa as written in 2015 – a date that should give us pause! – he foresees the imminent rise of Afrikaner nationalism, to be overtaken by ever more radical black nationalists until its comprehensive collapse in the new millennium.

      As was to be expected from such a projection, much of its detail deviates significantly from the actual course of history. However, the outcome appears to resonate chillingly with that of Venter’s. It ends with a report on the South African situation following a visit to the devastated country by a Peruvian scholar Quichua who’s interest was aroused by Afrikaner farmers in Argentina – much like Venter’s Marlouw:


    • Balt Verhagen


      “The opponents…came to accept as axiomatic the view that a Government in power looks after the interests of its members and its supporters by any and every means that might be necessary…These are the fundamental reasons for the present political condition of the Republic. Violence, trickery, corruption, the exploitation of the public, the habit of regarding the people as the legitimate prey of the faction in power, hence the arrogance of every official down to the lowest – these are the inevitable fruits of such a plant”.

      The final, despairing remarks are by John Dudd to a Swiss Red Cross official:’…we have had poverty, rebellion, war, famine and plague. Nothing has been spared us. What have we done to deserve this? Why have we had to suffer this? Why?”

    • Bert

      Wow, Balt! Thank you for this reference – I did not know of it. And as you indicate, plenty of resonances. The excerpt you quote is indeed ‘chillingly’ apposite. It makes one think that there is something disturbingly accurate about the ‘heart of darkness is light’, and more relevantly, ‘heart of light (civilization) is darkness’- insight on Conrad’s part.

    • Balt Verhagen


      My copy was published in 1950 by Shuter and Shooter, Pietrmaritzburg, I first read it around that time and occasionally since

      From a press review at the time in Sunday Times: Probably the grimmest piece of political satire since Swift’s ‘Modest Proposal’ – and yet, is it really satire? Or is it a sober prophesy by a distinguished historian simply seasoned with a bit of donnish irony?