Parricide on the Plaas: Reza de Wet’s ‘African Gothic’

Posted by rebeccaduncan on February 11, 2013 in Guest Blog, Rebecca Duncan tagged with , , , , , , ,

Last week, I introduced my research on Gothicism in South African fiction by pointing out the extent to which, throughout its history, the Gothic has erupted forcefully in periods of seismic social change. Since its genesis in Britain on the eve of industrialisation, literature of this kind has been informed by the anxieties which attend the unravelling of cultural reality. As the world ceases to be interpretable via old patterns of meaning, it drops out of sight and, in the blind darkness that takes the place of old ways, society’s nightmares seem to lie in wait. These worst fears find their way into the fiction we call Gothic, where they are rendered in terms both terrifying and excessive, and where, in the post-apartheid context, their representation often problematizes the ideology of oppression which characterises the South African past.

Today, I would like to narrow the focus of my discussion somewhat, and turn to a South African text written during the period that we, following Nadine Gordimer, have come to think of as an interstice in the country’s political history. ‘The old are dying,’ runs the Gramscian epigraph to July’s People, ‘the new is not yet born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appears.’ South Africa’s interregnum (Gordimer’s appellation has stuck fast) encompasses the slow dismantling of the apartheid state which began around the early eighties, and which extends well into the decade of official liberation. It is significant that parametres remain somewhat fuzzy here:  while the period of interregnum spans roughly ten years, South Africa’s national reality continues to shift, change and redefine itself in the present day. As we shall see in the coming weeks, the aftermath of apartheid’s fall teems with anxious questions – about identity in the ‘new’ nation, about complicity – and these have everything to do with a state of social flux. Even now, as we approach a twentieth year of democracy in the country, the social frameworks that have replaced old, oppressive systems (especially those, I shall later point out, installed following South Africa’s encounter with global capitalism) continue to perplex and mystify, and thus to breed unease. But now I am getting ahead of myself. The haunted technology and black market magic that characterise South African Gothic in the second decade of the new millennium are, in token if not in type of anxiety, far removed from the rural homestead – site of fear in the much earlier fiction I’m considering today.

Action, in this text, takes place in a semi-derelict farmhouse. Two child-adults, Frikkie and Sussie Cilliers, the son and daughter respectively of a deceased farmer and his wife, subsist within the rotting building, spending their time re-enacting scenes from their young lives and bartering away their inheritance in order to keep starvation at bay. Before I say too much more about ‘African Gothic,’ which is the title of this macabre play first published in 1985 by Reza de Wet as ‘Diepe Grond,’ it is important to make one or two points concerning the South African farm, or plaas, and the place it has held in the country’s literary imagination. In White Writing, J.M. Coetzee’s study of South Africa’s ‘culture of letters,’ the author and critic notes that, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Afrikaans novel ‘concerned itself almost exclusively with the farm and platteland (rural) society’ (1988: 63). Agrarian narratives of this kind, and more especially those which deal, as Coetzee points out, with a tension between the feudal structure of the rural economy and the nascent capitalism in South Africa’s urban centres, might be collected together under the heading plaasroman, or farm novel, as one dominant tradition within South Africa’s literary history. ‘By and large,’ Coetzee writes, ‘the programme espoused by the plaasroman is one of a renewal of peasant order’ (1988: 79); a return to a system of thoroughly naturalised ‘patriarchal authority,’ in which every man and woman, of every race, occupies and accepts a place in the hierarchy headed by the white paterfamilias (1988: 80).

Interestingly, Anne McClintock locates precisely the paternalistic ordering outlined here at the foundations of the imperial project in general, which, she argues, looks to the feudal family as a model for the organisation of racial difference (2000: 288). Just as the ancient and, significantly, semi-agrarian domestic constellation subordinates women and children, and then serfs and their offspring, beneath the ruling figure of the landed patriarch, so, in the colonial context, were indigenous populations ranked below a white imperialist. In this sense, it is clear that the hierarchical values enshrined, on Coetzee’s analysis, in the South African plaas resonate with the principles according to which South Africa as a whole came, in the first instance, to be segregated.  And, indeed, the ‘colonial gospel of the family’ continued to feature as a determining discourse in the country. It was inherited and adapted by the architects of apartheid, so that by the electoral triumph of Afrikaner Nationalism in 1948, the government of South Africa was, in McClintock’s words, ‘synonymous with white male interests, white male aspirations and white male politics’ (1993: 68).

From this succinct formulation, and indeed, from my brief discussion of Coetzee and the colonial order, it should now be clear that in the history of South Africa, perhaps more intensely than in other social contexts over the last half a century or so, the paternal metaphor (for the operation of law and society) is especially discernible – and discernible, in particular, on the plaas, where the feudal values underpinning colonial racial hierarchy, and, indeed, the racial hierarchy itself are both visible. If however, the original plaasroman presented the South African farm as a wholesome seat of natural order – the heartland of Afrikaner culture where the reign of the white paterfamilias is both just and benign – then de Wet’s short play, while it draws on this pastoral tradition, is at the same time, deeply invested in its disruption. Her 1985 vision of the plaas is not idyllic but nightmarish, and reveals, in both a specific and a general, political sense, a South African institution in ruin. The nameless farm in ‘African Gothic’ has long since begun to disintegrate; the house is riddled with ‘cracks so big you can see right through them’ (2005: 55), ‘the wire fences are in disrepair and the gates – where there are still gates – are sagging on their rusted hinges’ (2005: 30). Since the death of their parents – austere members, we come to realise, of the Afrikaner agrarian aristocracy – Sussie and Frikkie have maintained nothing, allowing the order of things to collapse around them. And, indeed, this material decline belies another, far bloodier violation, which comes to light towards the end of the piece as the siblings find themselves playing host to Grové, a Bloemfontein lawyer  and apartheid proponent, who has come, amongst other reasons, to convince them to sell the property. It is only when Sussie and Frikkie trap Grové with them on the farm, and then insist that he take their father’s blankets and pyjamas (‘He’s dead, so you can use [them]!’ [2005: 54]) that the extent of their transgressions begin to shift into focus.

As they pull Grové from his bed, bind his wrists and ankles and hang him upside down from a meat hook, we realise this is not the first time the two have taken up against a representative of South Africa’s white male authority. ‘Like the last time,’ Sussie whispers excitedly as her brother ties the knots tighter (2005: 69). The ‘last time,’ we soon learn, it was their father, descendent of the Boergeneral (probably Sarel Cilliers), who they, in Sussie’s words, ‘put away’ (2005: 67). He and their mother now lie scattered beneath the farm, their bodies in the family graveyard incomplete: ‘Here’s Pa’s right hand,’ Sussie tells us, pointing to a place under the floorboards, ‘And here are Ma’s sharp eyes’ (2005: 69). Following this revelation, Frikkie proceeds to flay Grové alive with a ‘sjambok,’ the heavy leather whip infamous in South Africa as historic enforcer of apartheid ‘justice,’ until the lawyer looks, Sussie remarks as the play draws to a close, ‘like one of the springbok that Ma used to skin when she made biltong’ (2005: 71). Thus, de Wet’s plaas is a place in which the authority of the white patriarch is rendered palpable; during his life, we learn, Pa governed his family with bible and sjambok in hand. However, the farm is also the site on which South Africa’s paternal law, while it is realised most potently, is, at the same time, thoroughly breached. It is through this violation of ‘natural’ order  that de Wet’s play engages with the anxious condition of interregnum to which I referred at the beginning of this discussion, and also that it generates its sense of gothic unease.

After all, Fred Botting reminds us, ‘the usual subject of Gothic fiction can be defined as the transgression of the paternal metaphor ’ (2002: 310), a remark which locates de Wet’s parricidal piece in the dark literary trajectory which begins with Walpole and includes gothic fiction of the present day (2002: 310).  In narratives of this kind, the violation of the father’s law – most vividly rendered as his death at the hands of his children – reveals the complexity and ambiguity attendant on the crossing of entrenched boundaries: ‘Trangression,’ writes Botting, ‘is not simply a celebratory breaking of laws and taboos considered unjust or repressive, nor is it a straightforward liberation from rules and conventions binding individuals within a strict framework of duty or normative identity’ (2002: 310). One cannot, in other words, get rid of the tyrannical father – or, for that matter, of the racist, sjambok-wielding farmer – and simply get on with a new, better, freer life. The violation of a deeply-engrained social imperative almost always results in what Jerrold Hogle describes as a ‘tug of war’ between a ‘desire to overthrow … past orders of authority in favour of a quasi-equality,’ and an urge to replicate those near obsolete-structures in a bid to ‘attain the power’ enshrined in them for so long (2002: 3-4). Trangressors, Hogle goes on, ‘fear retribution from all the extremes [they] tr[y] to encompass’ (2002: 4), and, in the Gothic narrative of boundary-crossing, these threats take on monstrous or pathological form.

Such is the case in de Wet’s play: having murdered their father, representative of South Africa’s racist patriarchal order, the Cilliers siblings find themselves in a state of conflict and paralysis. While they are adamant they will maintain the petty sense of liberty they have achieved on ‘putting away’ their autocratic parents, they are also haunted by their ghosts which continue to exert an irresistible influence.  Sometimes these parental phantoms occur as apparitions: Sussie reports seeing her mother distorted and amplified in death, towering above the blue-gum trees, and hearing her nails raking on the tin roof.  More often, however, the past generations make their disturbing presence felt in the form of possession: Sussie’s voice, for example, vacillates between a childish wittering not appropriate to her thirty four years, and, as De Wet’s character description confirms, ‘the persona of her stern and puritanical mother’ (2005: 17). Frikkie too, on murdering Grové, seems in some sense to merge with his dead father, reiterating criticisms that, we have learnt, accompanied the old man’s beating of his son. Indeed, it is ancestral persistence that prevents Sussie and Frikkie from taking further advantage of their, as it stands, rather limited freedom.  Sussie in particular remains bound by the desires of her long-gone parents and cannot, for example, venture beyond the front gate: ‘There are many places I can’t go,’ she tells us, and later, portentously, ‘I know what they [the parents] want’ (2005: 38). Both siblings also find themselves unable to disentangle from the codes and traditions of history, and do, they tell Grové, everything just as it was done by their Afrikaner forefathers. This paradoxical state, in which they actively destroy the orders of the past, even as they remain faithful to them, recalls precisely the situation Hogle has outlined (and, as you might have spotted, also the oedipal dynamic as it is described, for example, in Totem and Taboo). The siblings’ inability to escape the structure of the farmhouse, and the less tangible, ideological structures incarnate in the collapsing building, condemns Sussie and Frikkie to repeat the same instance of killing over and over again, never moving on, but frozen always on the brink of change, at the moment in which the reigning patriarch falls. This is why Grové dies, and does so wearing Farmer Cilliers’s clothes; this too, is why the siblings play a daily game they call ‘Boetie and Sussie put Ma and Pa away’ (2005: 69).

In ‘African Gothic,’ the only reality available to the characters is in the past. The future – what lies, we might say, beyond the front gate – is utterly inaccessible, and it is here that we come, at last, back to the interregnum, and to the Gothic’s relationship with the anxieties of the cultural moment.  There was, writes Elleke Boehmer of South Africa the 1980s, ‘a widespread perception of an imminent, incipient or ongoing disintegration in the order of things’ (1997: 50). This general sense that reality in the country was slipping out of focus, that the future was somehow, in Boehmer’s words, ‘a space of which it was impossible to imagine the shape’ (1998: 45), is registered in the literary imagination as ‘a suspension;’ ‘a kind of havering’ (Boehmer 1997: 44 emphasis mine). It is with just this fearful uncertainty that de Wet engages in ‘African Gothic,’ and does so, as the title of her play suggests, via a deeply disturbing gothic aesthetic – a literary vocabulary in which, perhaps appropriately, we are refused access to a stable interpretive framework; to a culture of clearly defined categories wherein past is separate from present, real from imaginary, sanity from madness,  and also, significantly, self from other. Indeed, it seems that the uncanny, impenetrable South Africa of the interregnum might even require such a literary mode; in what kind of narrative, other than one which elides boundaries and evokes, at the same time, visceral anxiety – sweat, wince, recoil – are we to tell the story of a time in which the world un-made itself ?

On that, rather inconclusive note, I’ll wind things up for now– we’ll return to the ‘unstable’ gothic aesthetic in the next post, where I’ll be considering things like trauma and perpetration, and  a novel about a girl who has more scar than skin.

Stay tuned.


Boehmer, Elleke. 1998. ‘Endings and New Beginning: South African Fiction in Transition. In: Derek Attridge and Rosemary Jolly (eds).Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid and Democracy, 1970- 1995. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Botting, Fred. 2002. ‘Aftergothic: Consumption, Machines and Black Holes.’ In: Jerrold E. Hogle (Ed). Gothic Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Coetzee, J.M., 1988. ‘Farm Novel and Plaasroman.’ In: White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa. New Haven and London: New York University Press.

De Wet, Reza. 2005. ‘African Gothic.’ In: Plays Two. London: Oberon.

Hogle, Jerrold E. 2002, ‘The Gothic in Western Culture.’ In Jerrold E. Hogle (ed).Gothic Fiction.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

McClintock, Anne. 2000. ‘The White Family of Man: Colonial Discourse and the Reinvention of Patriarchy.’In Les Black & John Solomos (eds). Theories of Race and Racism. London and New York: Routeledge

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