“Give the People What They Want”: Bodies on Display in Marlene Van Niekerk’s Triomf

DOI: https://dx.doi.org/

Abstract

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.


Keywords

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.

International Board of Editors

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

Joel David
Professor of Cultural Studies
Inha University (South Korea)

Michael Denning
Professor of American Studies and English
Department of English
Yale University (US)

Faruk
Faculty of Cultural Sciences
Universitas Gadjah Mada (Indonesia)

Regenia Gagnier
Professor of English
University of Exeter (UK)

Leela Gandhi
John Hawkes Professor of the Humanities and English
Brown University (US)

Inderpal Grewal
Professor of Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies
Professor of South Asian Studies, Ethnicity, Race and Migration Studies
Yale University (US)

Peter Horn
Professor Emeritus and Honorary Lifetime Fellow
University of Cape Town (South Africa)
Honorary Professor and Research Associate in German Studies
University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa)

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

David Lloyd
Distinguished Professor of English
University of California, Riverside (US)

Bienvenido Lumbera
National Artist for Literature
Professor Emeritus
University of the Philippines

Rajeev S. Patke
Director of the Division of Humanities
Professor of Humanities
Yale NUS College (Singapore)

Vicente L. Rafael
Giovanni and Amne Costigan Endowed Professor of History
University of Washington (US)

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

Temario Rivera
Professorial Lecturer
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)