Of The Book of Happenstance, a novel from the award-winning South African author Ingrid Winterbach, our reviewer wrote: “The Book of Happenstance is about memory and death, yet paradoxically so, for the novel is ebulliently alive, ironic and smart. The characters seem hyper-linked to Google and Wikipedia; the book is full of spontaneous eruptions of intelligence, and that is fun to read.” Here’s a delightful excerpt from a new translation hot off the presses at Open Letter Books. Read the whole Numéro Cinq review here.
The dead move along their own orbits, like planets. Like celestial bodies they encircle me in their elliptical courses. My mother, not urgently present in my thoughts for a long time, now appears in my dreams night after night. Her soft, elliptical path is at its point of closest proximity to me, and each of her appearances ushers in a great sadness. I see her lying in a small room, with only a bed and a tiny window. She is sleeping. She is abandoned, she is sick or dying. There is something indescribably desolate about her sleeping form under the blanket. There is something about the blanket which lends it an unbearable emphasis. I cannot hold on to the dream to reflect on it. Even worse is when I know that I have dreamt of her, but cannot remember the dream.
If Marthinus Maritz should describe an orbital course, it would be that of a distant, cold planet. Would he be one of the outer planets? Neptune with its howling winds? Uranus with its aeons of darkness, where time gets infinitely extended? Saturn, so light that it could float on an enormous lake? Or Pluto, the smallest, coldest, darkest, and most distant—the only solid outer planet, with its surface of ice and methane, a frozen rock?
Sof phones again late one night, shortly after we had sat in the car looking out over the sea in the manner of Mrs. C and Vercueil. At least this time I am not asleep. I am still immersed in my unravelling, in my laborious journey through evolutionary and geological history. I am still trying to make sense of the magma ocean, of iron pools, of the cooling earth crust, of the crystallising of the earth’s mantle. (How in God’s name should I conceive of all these processes?) My eyes are burning. Much more than a therapist (and here I have to differ from my lover), I need a geologist to guide me step by step through this inaccessible and treacherous terrain.
“Am I disturbing you?” Sof asks.
“No,” I say.
“I’m thinking of taking a lover,” she says and clears her throat slightly.
What can I say to this? Have you anyone particular in mind? Who is the lucky man, or woman? Nowadays anything is possible, and I am not yet familiar with the ambit of Sof’s sexual preferences.
“Who is it, Sof?” I ask.
“It is my children’s paediatrician,” she says, and gives an exculpatory little cough.
“I see. What does he look like? She? What kind of person is this—a kindred spirit, a concordant fellow being? Is there a future in it for the two of you?” I am tired, the nightly acquisition of complex knowledge is taking up much of my energy.
“He’s a cripple. I think he had polio as a child. He has reddish hair. He has heavy eyelids that flutter slightly when he speaks, as if he can open his eyes only with great effort,” she says with the unmistakeable tremor of erotic excitement in her voice.
“That has to be irresistible,” I say.
I know the type; I am familiar with the erotic persuasiveness of a russet complexion. (Perhaps I should never have terminated the relationship with Felix du Randt.) As regards the other afflictions, I do not need much convincing, since I have been beguiled by a variety of aberrations and deviancies—physical as well as psychological—myself. Consider the bony brow and the blunt death’s-nose. I should have re–mained true to Felix du Randt. He would have been a good man for me. He would have kept me on the straight path, the virtuous way. I would have been less exposed to temptation and spared many woes. My impressionable spirit would have been less contaminated. I am suddenly under the impression of the lifelong burden of emotional sullying (from the French souiller, to soil, Theo would have pointed out).
“It is!” Sof says. “It was the fluttering, half-mast eyelids that finally did the trick.”
“When was the deal clinched, so to speak?”
“What is the next step? Where will you meet? Will you go dancing? No, sorry, I guess that’s not an option.”
“I’m meeting him in his consulting room on Friday afternoon after five. We will take it from there.”
“Sof,” I say, “this is unexpected. I don’t know what to say to you. I wish you luck. Happiness, ecstasy if needs be.”
(If I had the choice now between the bitter excitement of a drawn-out erotic intrigue and the grind and risk of writing—to which Becket refers as the “bitter folly”—which would I choose?)
“I’ve just read an interesting article,” Sof says with a little cough. She is embarrassed; she wants to change the topic. “All writers are actually pursuing a single ideal, namely the universal.”
“I’ve always thought the universal to be suspect.”
“It is,” she says, “but it does not make the striving of writers less valid. All writers intuitively know this—the one who gets a grip on the so-called universal attains the upper hand. The trump card. Whatever. I thought it would interest you.”
During this time Theo sometimes leaves the office in the afternoon for an hour or two to attend auctions. He returns with a feverish glint in his eye. In this state of heightened excitement he listens to Schubert’s piano sonatas to calm himself down. He breathes deeply, closes his eyes, and surrenders himself to the music. Only then can he resume his work.
Did you see lovely things? I ask cautiously. (What is the ironic undertone doing in my voice?) Beautiful, he says, but does not elaborate.
Enamoured of something? His heart set on objects of beauty? With that I am well acquainted.
His hands are not small, but well-formed, like his wrists. His nails are somewhat fan-shaped, the way I like them. He is no longer a young man. The well-defined, youthful male form has begun to soften. The eyelid is softer, it looks more vulnerable, as does the skin of the neck—I know how desirable I find that in my lover. The hair on his chest (what is visible of it) is beginning to turn grey. All these things appeal to me. I am here to assist him. The documentation of words no longer commonly used, that is our shared purpose.
I return to the cards. Eindera, regional term for eintlik—actually. Eindjie—archaic form of entjie—a little way (stap ’n eindjie met my saam, my lief—walk a little way with me, my love). Einste, originally eienste—decidedly the same. Eindtyd—the end of time, end of the earthly dispensation. Êit!—restraining exclamation: êit, kêrel, nie so onverskillig nie—easy, lad, not so reckless! Elkedaags and elkedags—outdated variants of everyday. Elkelike—regional term de-noting regularity. Elkaar and elkander (each other); elkend-een (everyone); elkendeur or elkensdeur (time and again); elkenkeer or elkenmaal (every time)—all of them outdated forms. Ellend (variant of ellende—misery).
“Die ellende staan blou in die blom,” I say. (Misery stands blue in the bud.) “A lovely expression. What would be the origin of ellende? Of the word, I mean.”
Theo explains that the Dutch ellende is derived from the Middle Dutch ellende,which means another country, or exile, also a disastrous condition, grinding poverty, and privation. This may be compared to the Old Dutch elelendi from the tenth century, the Old Saxon elilendi, and the Old High German elilenti, of which the el was abbreviated from elders, alja, and lende, landa—which literally means land elsewhere, that is to say, sojourn in a foreign country, exile, and its accompanying feelings of uprootedness.
“Thank you,” I say. “Now I understand that our earthly existence is essentially wretched.”
Theo smiles, but will not take the bait. I wonder how often I am mistaken about him.
We often listen to Schubert during this time. When Theo is relaxed, he sometimes whistles softly to the music.
A day or two later he shows me a ring that he has bought at an auction. It is an antique Indian ring, white gold, inlaid with countless small amethyst stones. He must have paid a fabulous sum for it.
“Is it a gift for someone?” I ask (cautiously).
“Yes,” he says.
“For your wife, perhaps?”
“Yes,” Theo says, “yes. It’s a present for my wife.”
“Then she is a lucky woman,” I say.
“Do you think so?” he says, and looks at me searchingly for a moment.
He holds the ring in his left hand with the tips of four fingers and a thumb. I notice that his fingers are trembling slightly. He is under the impression of the beauty, of the costliness of the ring, his face suffused with blood, his eyes gleaming with gratification. I can see that it gave him plea-sure to buy it. He turns the ring ever so slightly for the stones to catch the light. He slips it on the little finger of his left hand and spreads his fingers. He looks at it as a woman would look at it. I have seldom seen him so pleased, elated even.
At the end of July we have completed the letter D. From doodbabbel (babble to death), to deurween (to thoroughly bewail). From dadedrang (the urge to act, to do the deed), to dabbeljasgras (edible grass, on which the man from Am-ster-dam survives in the riddle). From diepborstig (deep-chested) to donkerbloedig (dark-blooded—with or from blood of a non-white, sic). From droeflik (a sorrow-filled state), to duiwel,sometimes duwel: the devil incarnate and carnal, the real, the one and only, undisguised and palpable, Beelzebub and Belial, the Foul Fiend, old Nick, old Scratch and Harry, the Evil One, lord of the evil kingdom and underminer of the salvation of our soul. All his folk names we have written up: Asmannetjie and Bokbaard (Ash Goblin and Goatbeard); Bokhoringkies and Bokspoot (Little Goat’s Horns and Goat’s Hoof); Broesa, Damoen, Drietoon (Three-toe); Gratebene (Fishbone Legs); Herrie, Horrelpoot (Club-foot), and Hans Jas (Hans with the Coat). Jasbok, Jonkers, Joos, Josie. Kantvoet (Lacefoot)and Klamhandjies (Little Damphands). Knakstert (Snaptail); Kopertoon (Coppertoe); Oortjies (Small-ears); Oupa langoor (Grandpa Longear); Ou Vale (Old Grey); Penkop (Peghead); Pikhakskene (Tarheels); Pylstert (Arrow-tail); Stofjas (Dustcoat); Swart Piet (Black Piet); Vaaljas (Old Drabcoat); Vaalkaros (Greykaross); Vaal-toon (Greytoe); Veins-aard (Trickster); Vuilbaard (Dirt-beard); and Woltone (Wool-toes). All the devil combinations we have written up.
“Duiwelsnaaigare?” I ask. Devil’s serving thread. Also called monniksbaard (monk’s beard), nooienshaar (maidenhair), perdeslaai (horse salad), or duiwelstou (devil’s rope), Theo Verwey explains. Duiwelsloënaar (devil’s denier), and duiwelsprenteboek (devil’s picture book). Duiwelstuig (devil’s instrument), and duiwelstoejaer (jack of all trades—my role as Theo’s sidekick and factotum).
The endless death combinations have been rounded off and written up. The cards have been alphabetised, brought up to date, catalogued. We move on, the devil and death and all the possible names and combinations we leave behind us. Too long we have tarried there.
—Ingrid Winterbach, translated from Afrikaans by Ingrid Winterback & Dirk Winterbach