This novel is the fourth of Afrikaans author Ingrid Winterbach’s to be translated into English. Its translator, Leon de Kock, provides notes on how she is steadily enjoying greater acclaim.
The Road of Excess puts Ingrid Winterbach in a new league – that of Afrikaans writers, including Etienne van Heerden, Antjie Krog, Marlene van Niekerk, Andre Brink and Breyten Breytenbach, whose works are routinely translated into English.
Winterbach is something of a literary-prize champion of champions, having won the cream-of-the-crop Hertzog prize twice, and scooping up three M-Net awards, too.
Like her other novels translated into English, The Elusive Moth, To Hell with Cronje, and The Book of Happenstance, The Road of Excess is written in what might be described as a “bookish” style: it relies on allusions to a constellation of works in both visual and literary culture, and it is also more conceptually driven than plot-motored.
Her books offer intricate circumstances in which loss, memory and rediscovery play into each other in highly contingent individual conditions.
Indeed, in Winterbach’s writing, it is only via the novel’s ability to relativise perspective, shuffle belief and knowledge systems, and play with point of view that the actual conditions of living – as opposed to the seriocomic myths by which people live – can be adequately revealed.
“Seriocomic” is in fact an apt word to describe Winterbach’s writing, since all her stories play their serious meditations on the nature of life, art, science and cosmology off against moments of excellently dry humour. Winterbach’s comic touch combines a compassionate form of satire with penetrating but gentle irony.
In doing all these things, her writing is lean, gathering its energy from understatement rather than its opposite. In this regard, her work often reminds me of that of JM Coetzee.
I put this idea to her, saying that I had described her work to an American recently as an Afrikaans version of Coetzee – meta-reflexive, playful, allusive and cerebral. She pooh-poohed the suggestion, saying that if she was anything like the famous writer, it was “Coetzee Lite”. She added: “I don’t think of myself as a cerebral writer. Possibly since I’m not a conceptual writer. And I’m much more seduced by surface – describing the contours of a face, the physiognomy of limbs and landscape. My narratives unfold in a very tentative, explorative manner.”
Well, you could have fooled me.
The Road of Excess tells the story of two brothers, Aaron and Stefaans Adendorff, the one an ailing artist, the other a recovering addict. Aaron, the novel’s main character, finds himself in a nervous state throughout the story (often comically so) because his gallerist, Eddie Knuvelder, appears not only to have abandoned him, but also to be dying.
Aaron’s new neighbour, Bubbles Bothma, is a “prankster” who quotes Milton one moment, and offers to have gallerist Knuvelder’s knees smashed the next, to “teach him a lesson”.
Aaron recently survived a bout of cancer, and he now faces both a sense of encircling mortality and the fear that his art medium – oil on canvas – has become hopelessly outdated. His gallerist appears to prefer, above him, two conceptual artists, who work with video and waste objects like engine oil and blood.
Meanwhile, the embracing theme of “going under” (the Afrikaans title, Die Benederyk, suggests an “underworld” of death and degeneration) plays out in brother Stefaans’s wide-ranging stories, memories and quips about the descent into the hell that was his drug addiction, his “road of excess” which, in Romantic poet William Blake’s famous line, “leads to the palace of wisdom”.
The Afrikaans version of The Road of Excess won the M-Net Prize in 2011. Her most recent novel, Die Aanspraak van Lewende Wesens, is under translation by Michiel Heyns. Winterbach’s novels, by all accounts, are an acquired taste, like single-malt whiskey. The connoisseurs love her.