22 May 2015

What to Do with Lobsters in a Place Like Klippiesfontein by Colette Victor

What to Do with Lobsters in a Place Like Klippiesfontein by Colette Victor
What do crustaceans have to do with apartheid?
What to Do with Lobsters in a Place Like Klippiesfontein by Colette Victor is a novel of post-apartheid era South Africa, outlining the struggles, quarrels and joys of a remote South African town.

The lobsters could not be more representative of the ‘fish out of water’ idea.  The crevice-dwelling-crustaceans are far inland, uncared for, barely alive and sit apathetically throughout the novel, half asphyxiated in the heat, with nobody even wanting to eat them. In the rest of the world, lobsters are commercially important, although in Klippiesfontein they represent something darker — they are brought to the town by the local shopkeeper in order to impress a woman and improve his status, and they acts as a decent dramatic device, keeping the tension alive until the closing act.

Around and about these clawed crustaceans, non-South African readers will be entertained to meet the local Afrikaners barricading the local shop and the rather ineffectual family who run the shop — notably Oom Marius whose decision it is to leave a black boy in charge.

There are gentle passages describing daily life in What to Do with Lobsters in a Place Like Klippiesfontein which serve to link much more interesting set-pieces, and so what starts as a rather tractable and warm-hearted read explodes into action from time to time.

One such scene takes place in the local church, when the pastor informs the congregation that the black assistant is to run the local store while its white owner is in Cape Town, supervising his wife’s cancer treatment.

It is a great scene, and is exactly the way storytelling should be done — a strong handful of characters in a dramatic situation — in this case a church — which rises to a head as the tension ratchets yet further up with each exchange — novel writing at its finest.

Klippiesfontein, the reader becomes aware, isn’t just far from the sea, but far from civilisation in general.  This town is even far from history insomuch as most of South Africa seems to have moved on, while in this backwater they are maintaining the strictly segregated situation which damaged the country for decades.

Most of us remember the apartheid era in South Africa and What to Do with Lobsters in a Place Like Klippiesfontein is a reminder that intolerance is still a way of life for many, and that old habits may die hard, particularly in out of the way places.  Klippiesfontein doesn’t go for the force of truly apartheid era screams of complaint like Andre Brink’s Dry White Season (1979) or Richard Rive’s Buckingham Palace, District Six (1986) — or indeed any one of scores of apartheid era novels which have no option but to go straight for the guts, and expose the horrors of institutionalised racism.

Instead we have the metaphor of the lobsters who would stand nicely for anybody suffocating in the glass tank of a remote and prejudiced small town.

There is certainly a good book locked somewhere within the covers of What to Do with Lobsters in a Place Like Klippiesfontein, although what kind of book it may be is harder to say.  Surely one doesn’t want to read a gentle comedy about racism?  I wouldn’t think so, and it isn’t quite that.  It’s one of the problems of literary fiction that it tends to draw a few strands together, often not managing to satisfy all of them.

What to Do with Lobsters in a Place Like Klippiesfontein is not committed to setting the scene for dramas of social justice and neither is it a farce, which exposes bigotry.  Instead, What to Do with Lobsters in a Place Like Klippiesfontein aims squarely at reader experience, and works well as it resolves the various intimately related dramas which it tries to draw.

Indeed, the author Colette Victor called What to Do with Lobsters in a Place Like Klippiesfontein a ‘bittersweet comedy’ in an interview with her own Brussels Writers Circle, although that description tells you more about what you are not getting than what you are.  The bitterness presumably refers to the tales of murder, abuse, poverty and the extreme asperities of life that the black community have historically faced, as generally summed up in the back stories of the women and children of Klippiesfontein.

The sweetness is similarly located in the lives of the younger characters who work ceaselessly and optimistically against the grain.  The characters of Petrus and Precious are both nicely drawn and the sweetness is brought to bear when they are together — most notably in the middle section of the book, when they are barricaded in the shop together, while the local white ruling class lounge all day, blocking their entrance.

It’s this racist class of locals which also provide the comedy:

Did they honestly believe, with their little flags and so-called military precision, that they could go back in time to when the white man was God?  Just look at them in their shorts, their thick socks pulled up to their knees.  Jesus, Bertie even had a comb sticking out of his. Ridiculous.

Perhaps it is impossible for a writer in or from South Africa not to address the issues of apartheid and the violence of that era. What to Do with Lobsters in a Place Like Klippiesfontein is of course written in English, and must also address the tricky fact that the country it is describing has eleven national languages and countless dialects, variations and voices, and it does this in the normal English way of dropping in the odd word or phrase in the hope of creating an impression.

Truer comedy still may be found in real life in South Africa today — take the remote Northern Cape province town of Orania, where Afrikaners dream of building their own state.  In Orania whites are rebuilding their empire in what at times seems its savage satire of the former South Africa — all the residents are of Dutch and German heritage who make up about 7 per cent of South Africa's population.  It is of course a whites only town and hen new people come to Orania, they are interviewed by a group of people to make sure that they have sufficient understanding of what the town is about

This super-sinister level of real-world darkness is absent from What to Do with Lobsters in a Place Like Klippiesfontein, which despite the tragic back stories of Precious and Petrus, takes a more gentle view of the situation.

Apartheid was more than a way of life in its day, however, and it remains so for some, and What to Do with Lobsters in a Place Like Klippiesfontein reflects this. Apartheid was of course a system of government that resulted in the death, displacement, and oppression of hundreds of thousands, and Colete Victor’s novel seems to suggest that despite what the rest of the world thinks, the changes are still very much resisted in certain quarters.

Race laws touched every aspect of social life, including a prohibition of marriage between non-whites and whites, and the sanctioning of white-only jobs, and the kick-off event to the local drama in Klippiesfontein is the fact of a youngish black boy being offered the temporary management of the local store. 

It may be another footstep on the oft-trodden ground of South-African racial history, but What to Do with Lobsters in a Place Like Klippiesfontein is a strong one.  It tells a good story well, and reminds us that as everyone knows, there's only two things that can properly end racism: and they are laughter ... and/or fire.

Although nobody burns in What to Do with Lobsters in a Place Like Klippiesfontein, you really will have to read it however, to find out what happens to the lobsters.

What Do With Lobsters in a Place Like Klippiesfontein at CARGO

Colette Victor