The Elusive Moth – Ingrid Winterbach (translated by Iris Gouws and the author) – M-Net Literary Prize, Old Mutual Literary Prize

Due for release next month “The Elusive Moth” comes to us from South Africa, originally written in Afrikaans, it was the winner of the M-Net Book Prize (considered South Africa’s major Literary Prize an Award that Ingrid Winterbach has won four times – once under a pseudonym) as well as winning  the Old Mutual Literary Prize. The translator passed away before being able to complete this work, it being completed by the author herself.
“Come on! Shock me! Show me how everything is connected, and how perverted it is!”
Our story centres on the female protagonist Karolina, who is visiting Voorspoed, a remote location which brings back childhood memories. Whilst travelling there, to research a species of moth, she picks up Basil. He was saved from death’s door by a tribe who wrapped his bullet wounds with leaves and mud and nursed him back to health. Since then he’s studied natural indigenous medicines and can foresee a person’s imminent death. On their travels to Voorspoed Karolina visits a fortune teller, she then dreams every night of the men she has met – which one is the one to “love her always” and during the day she dreams of every woman she’s ever met – who is her “lifelong friend”?
The plot includes a mysterious saying by Basil “I have my money on the red one?” as well as weekly dances with the local Kolyn, a person you get the impression is involved in some clandestine activity, he’s too silent, too mysterious.
Just about every day Karolina visits the local Ladies Bar and Snooker Room, where she mingles with all the locals, a sharp undercurrent of male sexuality, violence and racial tension. The book opening with a quote from Walter Lindrum about the importance of attentiveness and listening when approaching a billiard room. The games they play each day has numerous references to the green felt, the yellow light, the tensions, all obviously a metaphor, but what? A game?
She drove through the hazy landscape in the hour immediately preceding sunrise. This desolate stretch of veld had been an arena of bitter conflict and bloodshed in the history of the country. Behind and to the right of her rose the mountain (obscured by the mist) where the Boers and the English had fought one of their bloody battles.
She slowed down – from the corner of her eye she had seen a sudden movement in the road ahead, some distance away. Thinking at first it must be an antelope, she made out a dark human form running across the road towards the right, pursued by two or three men. They proceeded down the steep embankment at the side of the road, then vanished into the veld, obscured by the mist.
There was a stationary car on the left-hand side of the road, its doors thrown wide open. It looked like a police car, and a single passenger was seated in the back. Her heart beat uncontrollably. Immediately after she had passed the point where the men had run across the road, one, two, three shots rang out behind her, then the gentle silence descended again, on this erstwhile place of confrontation.
Although the undercurrent of racial tension simmers throughout this work, there is plenty of exploration of the female angst:
In her paintings she was trying to portray herself as a hero, but it seemed it was not easy for women to be heroes, she said. One could not portray a woman in the heroic style in the same way as one could a man. Anything experienced by a man – however deviant – is immediately regarded as an extension of human experience, whereas the experience of a woman remained deviant, eccentric, idiosyncratic.
And:
“Oh, men!” said Adelia. “Men are obsessed with the phallus from the moment they’re born. They want to stick it in everywhere all the time. There is nothing in this world they don’t see in terms of the phallus.”
To add to the mystery surrounding this work we have Jess, bringing his Buddhist sayings and teachings to the veld. A constant reminder on the meditation on death. We have graveyards, predictions of death through urine readings, indigenous cures, depression, suicide, and of course racial violence which seems to take a back seat.
Although a number of the male Afrikaan’s characters are abhorrent, the one failing I found was the black characters are meekly sketched, they play a background role. A number of times I found the writing stilted and disjointed, occasionally a paragraph appearing from nowhere with no explanation or connection to the story. The swearing (although limited) appears suddenly and almost out of context, forcing you to double check that it actually fits into the plot and the mood.
Not a word to give any indication that things were constantly brewing underneath the surface.
Although I’ve opened this review with a quote asking for everything to be “connected” there is a distinct lack of connection throughout.
All the characters fell victim to their own best intentions, to a corrupt, exploitative regime.
We also have an exploration of Karolina’s relationship with her deceased father, from whom she became estranged, but for who she owes her passion for entomology. A reflection too on her strained relationship with her sister and her (also) deceased mother. One thing I didn’t really understand was the “elusive moth” motif, there are numerous references to the “twenty-nine orders” so why only twenty-three chapters? And the metamorphosis of a moth is not really an underlying theme, unless I completely missed something.
A novel which meditates on death, the fickleness of human existence, our relationships and the importance of living in the present moment:
The landscape was the great constant, the human groups moving across it were small and irrelevant, insignificant, coincidental, peripheral.

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