To imagine a rhinoceros


To imagine a rhinoceros

How do you write a story about poachers and a species on the brink of extinction without lecturing or moralising? How do you experience reality through the eyes of a rhino?

THE German philosopher Immanuel Kant reasoned that we could never know an object itself, das Ding an sich, only its appearance, the way we observe it through our senses.

The French painter René Magritte painted a pipe with the words: “This is not a pipe." Because the word is not the thing and the map is not the territory.

This reminds me of rhinos. On the verge of extinction, they have become symbols, representatives of an existence we can never fathom. It's always been that way. Humans have been preoccupied with the idea of rhinos from time immemorial.

In 1515, a rhinoceros was en route to Europe for the first time. By ship. The beast was captured in the foothills of the Himalayas and was intended as a gift to Pope Leo X. Unfortunately, the ship sank off Italy. What has been preserved is Albrecht Dürer's drawing, his idea or representation of a rhinoceros, made following a description of the animal. This woodcut recently featured in two remarkable South African books: In Johan Myburg's Narreskip and in Eben Venter's Decima, where it graces the cover.

Myburg wrote a poem about the way in which all that remained of that unfortunate rhino was Dürer's representation of it, based on hearsay. That it was felt rather than seen.

Venter told VWB about his novel:

Still, I want to say this: the truth about the state of rhinos in South Africa — I specifically write about the highly endangered black rhino — this you get to read in the media daily. The alarming decline in rhino numbers, the devious unreliability of rangers in wildlife parks, the bribing of judges who hear the cases of accused poachers, the killing of kingpins soon after they appear in court, the men at Level Three who give the poachers their jobs. That class of things, truths, do figure in my novel, but I don't really write about it. I don't want to, either.

Yes, that's the challenge fiction writers face: how to seamlessly absorb numbers, statistics, case studies, and let the story take its course.

Not that Venter is interested in “seamless": his book has as many seams as the suit of armour on Dürer's rhinoceros. It's simply not that kind of story: rather, the book is Winterbach-like (high praise) a random juxtaposition of scenes, thoughts, memories, with the author clearly in the picture.

The framework of the manuscript shows and the illusion is broken time and again when the reader is reminded of the presence of a writer fabricating characters and events. He becomes a character himself: a displaced man who sometimes visits his native land. All farm memories are tainted, he says, remembering the hands of the black women in the kitchen, away from the circle of diners. Fine as spiders' web is the articulation of his childhood memories of his mother, with a certain Proustian sensibility:

In the frosty daybreaks on that farm in the Eastern Cape where I grew up, my mother would make it the first task of her morning routine to open the curtains to the brightness and the beauty of the distant winter veld. Oh, the sound of those tiny wheels on their brassy rod there where I lay, still tucked in, the cheesytomatoey macaroni still somewhere in my stomach, and the love lingering too, the love on the breast of my mother as my head rested there momentarily, and still I could hear her whisper in my downy boy’s ear: Lekker slaap. The warmth of her, then, there.

The main character is not a human, but an animal. Venter calls her a megaherbivore. Decima consists in equal parts of rhinoceros and the idea of rhinoceros. The author lets the reader experience reality from underneath her skin. She is not humanised. She is pure sense: she experiences, processes, and remembers in her body. Venter uses the collective word “storm" for her herd or group. She wants to experience and survive. Decima does not decimate.

Venter places the loneliness of the rhino cow whose mother was killed by poachers when she was a suckling calf alongside the loneliness of his mother: alone in her home, with her small rituals.

Of course, the poachers evoke some understanding in the reader, because nothing is ever simple or clear-cut: “I am not a poacher. My brothers, my whole family, we’re all in this. You live here in Hazyview, but there are no jobs. There are people here who earn between R1,000 and R2,000 a month. We have children to feed. There is 70% unemployment around Kruger National Park.”

It's also a crime thriller because the reader wants to know how the planned raid will go down. And we experience the poachers' fear of death: many of them are killed in the process.

It's a novel with much between the lines. Unspoken but present is the knowledge that Afrikaans, like rhinos, is under threat. It's almost too obvious and predictable to condemn hungry people for exterminating rhinos (his mother feels their family jewels should be cut off) and equally, it's almost too elitist to lapse into nostalgia for a language that's dying, especially a language that belonged to the oppressor. But the author's love for his mother tongue shines through. He wrote the novel in English and translated it into Afrikaans, those words that could be translated: 

And so, as I enter Uniondale, which is this side of the Swartberg divide and not strictly Great Karoo, I again entertain thoughts, not caring whether anyone might hear or even agree with me: the Afrikaans of my mother’s tongue cannot be banished or made to disappear or be endlessly vilified, just as, with much effort and at the same time so effortlessly, these bossies were named, their essence brought forth from that dry land, to live and perish and rise again with their names intact, beeskloutjie and brakslaai and spinnekopbolletjie and haasballetjies, or, if you must: oxhoof, saltleaf, small spiderball and hare-ball, and so on, names forever rooted in the language whence they sprung, with their spiky limbs and the husks of their seeds.

There is a large cast of characters such as rangers, researchers, kingpins and medicine people. There are fascinating facts, even though Venter claims he wanted to stay away from facts, for example about the combination of (ex-president of the US) Theodore Roosevelt and his son. In Africa they wiped out more than 500 animals in a hunting frenzy.

Nor does the author/narrator elevate himself above the destruction: “Even as a pikkie-wet-behindthe-ears I wandered into the Karoo veld with a .22, potting dustgrey veld birds out of their fuckin’ wits, every living and growing thing for us, to be eaten and worn and to breed and crossbreed, bird of paradise feathers plucked for our church hats, leather tanned for our shoes, our belts, our backs." Because, according to God's command in Genesis, the animals are ours to use and destroy.

Roosevelt single-handedly wiped out nine white and 11 black rhinos and he described the animal as stupid, combative, weak-sighted, obtuse, and mischievous.

In contrast, Venter excels at making the rhino Decima emerge as a sensory being. The reader experiences her sentience. Valerius Catullus, a poet of the first century, is quoted as saying: “I sense it, and I am tormented by it."

It's a formidable novel that pulsates with loss. And the idea of rhinos.

You can read Eben Venter's article about the book here.  

What, where and how much?

Decima by Eben Venter was published by Penguin and costs R232 at Graffiti.

What are we listening to?

“Rhinoceros, Albrecht Dürer, 1515" - ClarkArtInstitute

♦ VWB ♦

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