Hulle hou hom aan
Soos ‘n diertjie
Met ‘n lam arm
In die agterkamer.
Daar ween hy
Oor ‘n verloopte lewe,
God het die oumensvel
Oor sy gesig getrek.
Hulle hou hom aan
Soos ‘n diertjie
Met ‘n lam arm
In die agterkamer.
Daar ween hy
Oor ‘n verloopte lewe,
God het die oumensvel
Oor sy gesig getrek.
Die amper-dood digter
Met arm verlam
Stoot skulpies en klippies
Oor elke herinnering
En die aarde
Word die see.
ek lê op ‘n bed in Rosepark-
Hospitaal. Ek lê en wag.
Ek wag vir die nag in Rosepark-
Hospitaal. Ek is hier
Afgelewer, ingestoot in hierdie saal
En ek makeer niks …’n bietjie bloeddruk.
Nie die einde van die wêreld nie
En ek kan ook nie aan die slaap raak nie
En die tante by die ou man hier langsaan
Kla ook oor die niks
En die verpleegster pak mes en vurk uit
hier voor my bed
En op die dowwe radio word rugby uitgesaai
En ‘n verpleegster met ‘n lêer
Kom in en gaan weer uit.
Die ou man kug die snot in sy keel
En ‘n kind hardloop in die gang.
“There is such a vast difference between a thought, and writing a thought. The gap between them can never be bridged.”
I have never read a book that so perfectly describes the abject uselessness of being an academic as does Johan Van Wyk’s “Man Bitch”.
“Literature that is moral is boring.”
Man Bitch is structured as a tryptych – Durban/Europe/Durban followed by a lengthy coda – Durban/Mozambique/Durban/Poland/Durban. The European sections of the book describe the protagonist Johan Van Wyk’s journeys as a traveling literature Professor. The inanity and emptiness of “Professing”; of literature itself as a means of making a living – is excoriatingly portrayed.
“I read Dostoyevsky’s Possessed, an old Everyman’s edition. I was surprised by the relevance to my own situation. I felt like his character, Stephan Trofimovitch, who was overtaken by historical events, and who felt that all the social changes amounted to was ‘that he was forgotten and of no use.’, I thought that, similarly, my life was useless, and my book was an attempt to remind the world of my existence.”
The real life of protagonist Johan Van Wyk takes place in the seedy bars, clubs and hotels of Durban where he meets a succession of women whose working hours are after dark but not once in the book does he refer to them as “prostitutes”. He loves these women, or at least experiences the nausea that would appear to be the most consistent symptom accompanying the condition of love; and the many women that he is variously engaged in relations with all confess to varying degrees of love for him. But what is this love? Perhaps the book’s most important project is to try to understand what love means in the context of a life as unrelentingly grim as is lived by these characters who share a great deal in common with the ubiquitous cockroaches that, according to Van Wyk, “only fucked.”
“Why does one write a diary, why duplicate what is already in the mind, and why if you are only writing for yourself, I asked myself as I walked back from the consulate. Memory needs refreshing, I thought. Back at the flat, an Indian in the lift told his girlfriend: “Kaffirs like ants here. Need a can of Doom to spray.” I opened my flat window; the breeze, the voices of an excited drunken crowd and sirens floated in. I heard the sounds of hell. I sat on the toilet, trampled a small cockroach, and thought that cockroaches cannot communicate. They only fucked.”
That the women Van Wyk loves are all black is important. (There is one exception – Polish Ewa – “and for the first time in years my fingers traced tenderly the outlines of a pale white body…”) That Van Wyk is a boer is important. When, after many years away, Van Wyk returns to Bloemfontein to visit his parents, he is physically repulsed by his own kind. “In the early morning, the geese woke me. I played tennis against a wall until the retarded boy from across the road, joined me. He told me how he assaulted a maid with a golf stick, for misplacing the keys to his fishing trunk. I felt nauseous. Even the innocent and the disabled had internalized the abusive behavior of the place.”
Van Wyk’s monotone, his unhurried, dispassionate descriptions of the dystopia he finds himself in, echoes the best of Georges Bataille’s fiction (Madame Edwarda; The Dead Man) while his ruthless self analysis (of the protagonist “Johan Van Wyk” as well as of the author “Johan Van Wyk”) brings the early Céline to mind. This brief novel is on par with Raymond Radiguet’s “The Devil In The Flesh”. Nothing in South African literature prepares one for the scalding jolt of reading this book. Van Wyk has written from outside the paradigm of the geographically South African literatures that have appeared to date.
“Love is a kind of hell.”
This is not a cheerful book and the unrelenting detail of the filthy environment can bog one down and yet the overall achievement of Van Wyk is to populate this landscape with real human beings and a real sense of collective humanity. He is one of very few so-called white South African writers who has achieved this when writing about so-called black characters. Reading Van Wyk exposes the inhuman cyphers that pass for “blacks” in Brink and Coetzee as just that – cyphers. “Man Bitch” is also fascinating in its rich evocation of the underbelly of the city of Durban and it would be appropriate if the book is filmed by Claire Angelique, whose autobiographical film “My Black Little Heart” is a perfect companion piece for this unique and essential novel.
“I returned to South Africa through a misty Swaziland. The rivers were overflowing, and raindrops were gliding like sperm on the front windscreen. There was a feeling of elation, when the city of Durban became visible with its neatly painted high-rise buildings and shopping centres. I did not have money for a taxi, so I decided to walk to my flat. I walked past a tramp looking dead and rotting in a flowerbed next to the pavement. Back in my flat, the power was off, and the place was filled with a strong smell of death. I opened the fridge, and realized that it was blood from meat that smelt. I opened a bag of cashew nuts, to discover that it was full of maggots. On the switchboard, I saw that the electricity had tripped out. It must have been lightning. I was tired and collapsed on the bed, and then took a cold bath.”
First published in 2001 by Van Wyk himself, it remains scandalous that this book has not been picked up by a major South African publishing house.
a tortoise could not scratch his back
he could not find a crack
so he died giggling
from all the wriggling
where are the post
for the host?
he went into a mood
out came an egg
with only one leg
is in the dustbin
the broom got rid of the groom
“The anti-apartheid struggle has come to show its real face. It was a struggle by finance to rationalize this society for the benefit of the few who export and those who manage it.”
Johan Van Wyk
interview, October 2001
published in “selves in question: interviews on southern african auto/biography”, edited by Judith Coullie, Stephan Meyer, Thengani Ngwenya, and Thomas Olver, University of Hawai Press, Honolulu,2006, isbn-13: 978-0-8248-3047-2
Johan van Wyk was born in Jansen Street, in the suburb Dagbreek of the mining town, Welkom in 1956. The family moved to Mozambique in about 1968, and he continued his schooling at Bothashof in Salisbury (now Harare), Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The family returned to South Africa around 1972/3 and he enrolled as a first year at the Rand Afrikaans University in 1974. He changed to study at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1975, leaving the university at the end of 1976, fleeing the country as objector to military service. His first volume of poetry Deur die oog van die luiperd was published in 1976. He lived in Swaziland in a tent for a few months and was arrested during a return to his parents farm in 1977. He was in military prison3 for a day and during a breakdown was taken to the military hospital where he was for a few weeks. He was returned to prison where he eventually agreed to join the army, knowing that without basic training he would be sent back home, which would give him the opportunity to seek outside help from psychologists and enroll at the university again. He was eventually discharged from military duty based on his psychological condition. He returned to university and completed his BA and Hons degree. He then enrolled at Rhodes University for an MA degree, which was eventually changed into a Ph.D. The MA had as its topic Die dood, die minnaar en die Oedipale Struktuur in die Ingrid Jonker-teks. His second (Heldedade kom nie dikwels voor nie 1978 ) and third volumes of poetry (Bome gaan dood om jou 1981) appeared. He was appointed as a junior lecturer in Afrikaans at the University of Durban-Westville in 1983. He left in 1988 and was appointed again in 1990. In 1989 he compiled, with Pieter Conradie and Nic Konstandaras, the anthology SA in poësie/ SA in poetry. After returning to the University of Durban-Westville, he soon became the director of the newly established Center for the study of Southern African literature and languages until promoted to the position Head of the School of Languages. In 1996 his fourth volume Oë in ‘n kas: Aantekeninge van ‘n onbewuste appeared. He married Elizabeth Brazelle Grobler in 1985 and had two children, Andreas and Katrina, with her. He also has a child, Tembelani, with Spilile Ndlela. His English novel Man Bitch (2001) is about the people of the Point Area, in Durban. He had a stroke in 2002, and about two months later was attacked in his flat by a lover. His output diminished dramatically after this. The photo book Trollop slaap te veel was published belatedly in 2006.
more info about johan van wyk on his website
Shanta Reddy takes a look at the book behind the scandal as author Johan van Wyk receives death threats for his controversial novel, Man-Bitch.
For months, much of Durban’s intellectual community has been gripped by battered photocopied versions of an unpublished novel by the respected Afrikaans poet, Johan van Wyk. And the word has been spreading. Book shops have asked Van Wyk to read from his book and the country’s leading writers have been knocking on Van Wyk’s door. The book, Man-Bitch, is an account of Van Wyk’s relationships with a number of black women, some of whom take money in return for his love. A Sunday newspaper recently published an article sensationalising Van Wyk and his novel. He has since received death threats and there have been strident calls from certain quarters for his dismissal from his post at the University of Durban-Westville.
So here’s an author who loves sex – no problem. In true red-blooded hormone-bursting style, he’s attracted to beautiful and sexy women – nothing wrong with that. He wants to be loved for who he is – nothing out of the ordinary. He can barely exercise control over his spending – with the weak rand and the high cost of living who can? He’s outgrown his parents – don’t we all at some stage? He’s middle-aged and balding – no cause for concern.
So why the self-righteous outrage at this Man-Bitch? The answer is multi-layered and interwoven. But it starts with the fact that Van Wyk is white and Afrikaans-speaking and many of the beautiful, sexy African women, with whom he associates are members of the world’s oldest profession.
Van Wyk is uncomfortable with the words “prostitute” or “sex worker” and the layers of stereotypes and connotations they invoke.
Likewise, the easy association of an Afrikaans-speaking male with the routine Christ-worshipping, apartheid-supporting persona persists for many of us. It’s as crisp and clear as any other stereotype.
Like the common assumption that poor Africans and women who have sex for money (and especially poor African women who have sex for money) are filthy, disease-ridden and immoral. We might acknowledge their presence but they are South Africa’s untouchable caste.
It is also difficult to separate the artist from the work of art. How, we wonder, lying on our hire-purchased Sealy Posturepedic, can a middle class, Afrikaans-speaking university professor and father of two abandon his home and family in Glenwood to live in a seedy building in Gillespie Street, even if it is a declared monument? Why does he spend more time with the children of his streetwalker lovers than with his own flesh and blood? Where did good education and religion go wrong? The questions don’t stop pricking at the bourgeois balloon.
Then there are the images, created with cinematic clarity that a reader must deal with: the worms that tickle his arse, the maggots in his fridge. His descriptions are sometimes crass and vile, but they are relentlessly honest. He refuses to seek refuge in middle class euphemism. He is never politically correct nor boorish – reare and exquisite attributes in any man. More so in a professor.
But what do we do with these images? How do we become reconciled with the idea of a man who has chosen this life?
For me the images are purified by their spontaneity. Van Wyk’s attention never waivers from detail of the here and now – this Durban, this cockroach, this orgasm. What remains however, is the truth that while he has freed himself from suburban regime, he is still in a state of unfreedom.
He is caught between desire for a conformist relationship with a woman (he wants to be the sole provider; the only man in her life, the master to whom she must explain the spending of money and the time she spends away from him – ironically killing the sense of freedom which he found appealing in the first place) and a greater and more absolute defiance of the role that conventional morality has assigned to him (father, pedagogue, wise man, white.)
His thoughts oscillate between the freedom he has earned and the indecision that weighs him down as a result of that freedom. He floats around in a haze of depressed anxiety, awaiting the bounty that sexual and moral liberation is supposed to bring.
His exasperation sometimes courts death (“Then I went to bed lying curled up in the dark and crying, muttering “It would be good to be dead, but how to get there?”). One gets the sense, sometimes, that he cannot deal with this vertigo of freedom.
But it’s not all bleak. Van Wyk is immensely entertaining. The cling-wrapped penis episode is an eye opener (apparently it’s better than a Viagra-condom combo: it’s cheaper; stays on longer; allows for prolonged pleasure and is an excellent contraceptive). What more could the new, improved globalised South Africa want?
Despite the book’s title, it’s not all about sex. The women who trade their bodies for money exist on more complex levels than we are prepared to acknowledge.
They fight to realise the same aspirations and dreams that the average home-owner merely steps into by accident of birth. They are intelligent, street-wise and more in touch with the Rainbow Nation than any politician. On the street, stories are told and lessons are taught more effectively than in any Outcomes-based education system. Man-Bitch takes the humanity of the “bitches” very seriously and I would venture that Van Wyk’s portrayal of them is more dignified than the unctuous and paternalistic studies one gets from well-meaning but antiseptic university researchers.
The book is profoundly and powerfully philosophical. Without uttering a phrase of economics, it’s one of the most powerful critiques of our economic system I have ever encountered. Van Wyk’s narrative wrenches the reader’s breath away. Man-Bitch is about more than a mid-life crisis. He hasn’t just abandoned his family, reputation and home in a secure neighbourhood in a search for sexual excitement. (Which, in any case, he doesn’t always sustain – the odd erectile dysfunction interrupts). He’s looking for meaning too. For wisdom, which he defines, with captivating eloquence, as “reason without institution”.
People are calling Man-Bitch everything from “sensationalist pornography” to “the best critique of neo-liberalism yet written” to “nothing more or less than art”. Because it is necessary to separate the author and the protagonist (in order to read without stereotypical prejudices) and to unite them (in order to fully appreciate the philosophical impact of this book), the book unsettles easy judgements. But the message that burns so brightly is that our lives are not our own until we choose to disintegrate into who we want to be – irrespective of the consequences. Van Wyk has done this. Our streets are filled with the living dead but Van Wyk has defended the life of his soul.
Sensational it may be, but that’s not reason enough to discard it as cheap pornography. We listen to rap artists and rock stars chant the words “bitch, fuck, devil, whore” and don’t bat an eyelid. We see pornography on soapies but don’t turn the telly off. His expressions are sometimes grammatically incorrect and simple. His lovers cannot converse fluently in English. Yet, admirably, his challenge to conformity rears its head again when he includes their compositions in Man-Bitch.
Insofar as shocking but widely read literature goes, Man-Bitch can be compared to the likes of Lolita, Incest, Tropic of Cancer and the depraved masterpiece The Story of O. Lolita was banned. Tropic of Cancer was not published in America until it became a worldwide best-seller. Incest was not published until after Nin’s death, for fear of reprisals. We don’t cast aspersions on any of these books and now we call them literature.
We may be unable to fathom the reasons for Van Wyk’s exclusive attraction to African women. It may be foreign to what our institutionalised, pro-forma thought process would make us accept as proper, righteous and moral.
“Progressive” women I’ve spoken to scoff at this professor’s attraction to African women. They concede that physical beauty plays a role, but argue that one can only be attracted to an intellectual equal. Both the assumption of an intellectual imbalance and the blindness to communication beyond language, and beyond English, sentence many of us to being foreigners in our own country and in our own bodies. Other critics point to the obviously exploitative nature of his buying the “love” of women in need.
What this Man-Bitch brings home is that the words “sexy” and “beautiful” are both relative and fluid. Van Wyk challenges, yet again, the Western idea of beauty. For him the image of an appealing woman is different to the image historically forced onto him and also something which changes over time.
Man-Bitch is a record of a man’s journey through the barriers of convention. It is inspiring and jolting. I was jarred and unsettled for days after the first reading. The second reading focused me on the reality that our only duty is the duty to be free.
It is absurd that no publisher has yet had the courage to publish this book and sad that the public is missing out on an honestly written and truly remarkable story of a spirit that is at one with conformicide.
this article first published here