“A man is a strange thing.” So remarks the blind, dying patriarch Benjamin Duiker in a tape recording he makes for his son Mattheus (Mattie) in lieu of the conversations they never seem to be able to have. Benjamin concedes he never “talked much about life” with his own father. Yet he tells Mattie that his own father remained “an outstanding example to me, throughout my life. I suppose that that’s how it is between men.”
How it is between men is the great theme of this powerful South African novel by Eben Venter. The women characters, who include Mattie’s dead mother and his married sister, hover on the edge of the narrative. When they impose themselves on it, it is often through a kind of destabilising physical or emotional absence.
There is one exception: Sannie, the Duikers’ judgemental, evangelical Christian busybody of a neighbour. Sannie, with her ostentatious kindness and shameless stickybeaking, is all too present, for Mattie’s liking, anyway.
As Benjamin approaches the end of his life, his greatest concern is for Mattie, his only son. Benjamin once dreamed that Mattie would take over the Mercedes dealership that he established and that was both his pride and the source of his wealth. He dreamed that Mattie, like him, would grow up to be a pillar of church and community, and a father himself to sons who would carry on the Duiker name.
Thirtysomething Mattie is never going to be any of that. For one thing – a big thing – he’s gay. For another, he’s not interested in selling cars. He likes to cook and he has a social conscience: his dream is to open a little takeaway in a working-class neighbourhood that will sell delicious but healthy food.
Mattie, who is his father’s full-time carer, loves his father, fears his father and despairs at his inability not to disappoint him. And so he drowns himself in alcohol and numbs himself with porn – a secret addiction like a “monstrous thirst”. His porn habit removes him emotionally from the one person who is capable of offering him unconditional love, his boyfriend, Jack.
Benjamin, who mourns the fact that “What he manages to get of Mattie’s time, he more or less has to steal,” resignedly acknowledges Jack as his son’s “big friend”. But he forbids them from doing “whatever kind of unmentionable things you get up to” under his roof: he has his limits.
Jack is a popular teacher at a private progressive boys’ school: “He likes his job. He likes explaining a poem and seeing the revelation dawn on their faces. Okay, only a few. He likes the energy of the boys. How it flares up and dies down and goes crazy and dies down again.” Jack’s own father ran away when he was young. He fantasises that Benjamin will mellow into an accepting father-in-law. You already know this will
not go well.
The epicentre of the narrative drama is Benjamin’s library: a calculatedly male space, a place where a man could shut himself away from women and children to work, think, drink and gather with other men – an older, classier version of today’s “man cave”.
Mattie covets the study, which will be his own once his cancer-ridden father dies. The story opens with the old man demanding to be shifted, sickbed and all, from the bedroom to the library, so he can pass his final days there.
The library is the old man’s fortress against a changing world, a fortress within the fortress that is the grand old house, walled and guarded by security patrols in their upper-class Cape Town suburb. The world outside those walls is much changed from when Benjamin was a young man. That was a world in which a man could – in which Benjamin did – come home and explode at his wife for overcooking the roast. Mattie remembers her waiting until his father had stormed out before uttering the first swear words he ever heard her say: “Piece of shit!” He recalls: “... she mumbled it into her chest, where it collected and became toxic”.
The old world brimmed with violence, not just patriarchal but racial too; for nearly five decades, white men ran a black country under a brutally discriminatory regime.
Mattie and Jack were just children when apartheid ended in 1994. They share none of the older generation’s certainties, its clarity about what (and who) fits where in the world or what it meant to be a man. They want to do the right thing by each other and by society, too, but there’s no rule book for the dilemmas they face: “the race thing” (as Jack puts it), the gay thing, the family thing, the money thing. Wolf, Wolf is named after a children’s game. “Wolf, wolf, what’s the time?” the children shout, until the one playing the wolf responds, “Time for dinner!” Someone will be eaten.
The novel unspools in a series of third-person narrations that serially reflect the subjective reality of the three men at the story’s centre. Mattie’s story remains the pivot on which the novel turns. But by switching perspective among the three men, the author lets air into what might otherwise have become an unbearably claustrophobic tale.
It is a hard book to put down – the use of the present tense makes it feel even more urgent. It is not surprising that Cape Times named it one of the 10 best books of 2013 or that it was shortlisted for the 2014 Sunday Times (South Africa) prize.
The translation by Michiel Heyns from Eben Venter’s Afrikaans is strongly flavoured with expressions and patterns of speech from the South African language. A review in the South African Sunday Independent praised Heyn’s ability to capture the feel of the original text but mourned the English language’s inability to convey the paternalism and duty embedded in the Afrikaans. Whatever is lost in translation, I’m confident that as a reader in English, what we gain is well worth it. CG
Scribe, 272pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 7, 2015 as "Eben Venter, Wolf, Wolf". Subscribe here.