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.


apartheid, bodies, empathy, scopic regime, voyeurism

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Kritika Kultura
Department of English
School of Humanities
Ateneo de Manila University

The Philippine Commission on Higher Education (CHED) declares Kritika Kultura as a CHED-recognized journal under the Journal Challenge Category of its Journal Incentive Program.

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Jan Baetens
Faculty of Arts
Katholieke Universiteit te Leuven (Belgium)

Joel David
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Inha University (South Korea)

Michael Denning
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Department of English
Yale University (US)

Faculty of Cultural Sciences
Universitas Gadjah Mada (Indonesia)

Regenia Gagnier
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University of Exeter (UK)

Leela Gandhi
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Brown University (US)

Inderpal Grewal
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Yale University (US)

Peter Horn
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University of Cape Town (South Africa)
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University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa)

Anette Horn
Professor of German Studies
University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa)

David Lloyd
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University of California, Riverside (US)

Bienvenido Lumbera
National Artist for Literature
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University of the Philippines

Rajeev S. Patke
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Yale NUS College (Singapore)

Vicente L. Rafael
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University of Washington (US)

Vaidehi Ramanathan
Department of Linguistics
University of California, Davis (US)

Temario Rivera
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Department of Political Science
University of the Philippines

E. San Juan, Jr.
Philippines Studies Center (US)

Neferti X.M. Tadiar
Professor of Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies
Barnard College (US)
Director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race
Columbia University (US)

Antony Tatlow
Honorary Professor of Drama
Trinity College Dublin (Ireland)