The Road of Excess by Ingrid Winterbach #7_2015

The Road of ExcessNovels translated into English from any language are amongst my favourite reads and especially those translated from Afrikaans. Many say that too much is lost in translation but if I have not read the original, why would that bother me? I think the translated work is a separate text and has value in its own right. I also prefer it if I can detect the rhythm and idiom of the original language in the translation rather than if it is sanitised and anglicised. Ingrid Winterbach has long been a favourite of mine; I find her work intriguing especially as it is very character driven. Despite being pre-disposed to love The Road of Excess, I did battle a little to know quite what to make of this book. It does not slot easily into any of the categories in my head but this is a good thing. The meaning is not easily deciphered.  I finished reading it about a week ago but have been musing over it ever since. It deals with family relationships, especially those between brothers, and how they ebb and flow over decades. As well as the angst suffered by the main protagonist, Aaron Adendorff, It also describes his artistic process in great detail. This I found fascinating despite being clueless about the technicalities involved. Yet overlaying these weighty issues are some crazy madcap situations where Aaron finds himself off on wild goose chases with a new neighbour, Bubbles, who inserts herself into his life, riding roughshod over all his objections.  This adds humour and zaniness to the narrative which has the reader amused and perplexed. Interestingly, it is set in Durban yet place does not feature much apart from describing the new/old road names in Umbilo and Glenwood.

Aaron Adendorff has recently been felled by the death of his much-loved second wife and a brush with kidney cancer that renders him unable to work. Painting is his life’s blood (he has often been accused of putting his art before his family) so he is compelled to start again; he knows this is essential to his being. He produces what he believes to be his best work and is devastated when Eddie Knuvelder is unenthusiastic. Eddie is the owner of the gallery where Aaron has exhibited his work for twenty years. Ingrid Winterbach’s character descriptions are marvellous, easily enabling the reader to conjure up the character in the mind’s eye; perhaps because she is herself a visual artist she is able to paint a picture with words.

“Eddie has a heavy, Hun-like head and a cynical, reserved gaze; the line of his upper lip indicates something tyrannical in his personality, while the full, broad lower lip suggests a more hedonistic inclination. His lips are a more intense red than those of the average person – clearly a good blood supply to the mouth.”

Throughout the novel, Aaron conducts a running commentary in which he either curses Eddie extremely graphically, (may damnation descend on his head, the damnable miscreant) or holds reasonable, imaginary conversations with him to persuade him of the worth of his latest work. Aaron is an interesting character too; he is tentative, unsure of himself with Knuvelder, wracked by self-doubt and insecurity while simultaneously sure he has produced his best work. He lives in what is a very insular world where he shirks from life, vigour and enthusiasm. His brother, Stefaans, is a recovering addict who virtually disappeared for twenty years. Now he is back and he bombards Aaron with smses and emails in which he conducts a “penetrating moral inventory” and also analyses their family in great detail. Aaron finds his outpourings difficult to deal with yet he worries about his brother in dreams and hallucinations. Stefaans makes literary references to works, with which some may not be that familiar, such as Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers. This and the many references to paintings that Aaron loves, had me turning to Google fairly frequently.

Then there is Bubbles who discerns Aaron’s unhappiness with Eddie’s treatment of him and offers to “smash his knees with a steel pipe”. She is a strange character with a secret life and a violent streak who dresses inappropriately but also quotes Milton. She appears to pop up when he is feeling most murderously towards Eddie, almost as a manifestation of his id, yet he is shocked at her suggestions to take him out. Another constant presence in the book is Mrs Sekete, who pals up with Bubbles to plague him. Again the descriptions of these characters are wonderful.

Eddie also inflicts two of the new, up and coming artists in his stable on Aaron which is another slap in the face. He is asked to drive them to Mooi River and the dialogue between them on this trip, which dips into conceptual art, the “tyranny of the object” and the fact that painting is dead (according to Jimmy Harris), indulges in all the pretentious jargon one can imagine. Aaron does not understand why art “feels itself obliged to address whole arsenals of social issues”. These different threads intertwine throughout and the narrative shifts from Aaron’s fruitless attempts to communicate with the gallery owner and Stefaans’ long, introspective analyses of the family; all the while, Aaron paints on.

I did not feel as engaged with this book as I have with Winterbach’s other books yet it is interesting to be exposed to the inner workings of the mind of the artist. It is an intellectual, cerebral work that may not appeal to all readers but this is counterpointed by the humour which prevents it from being weighed down. I am interested to know how others experience this novel so if you have read it, please comment.

3 thoughts on “The Road of Excess by Ingrid Winterbach #7_2015

  1. I think it is vital to support and engage with work in translation. In a small literary market like South Africa (or Canada), the availability of work translated into English not only increases the international potential (assuming rights can be secured) but helps ensure a broader market within our countries. Here in Canada readers often assume (Quebec) French literature is obscure but when a book becomes popular they don’t even realize that it was originally written in French. Not every translation will be perfect, but you do begin to learn which translators are well respected and gifted within languages or language groups. Recognizing the translator as a collaborator (often with the author but certainly with the work itself is also critical).

    Nice, honest review. I have not read any of Ingrid Winterbach’s work yet but she is on my radar and her works seem to be available outside of South Africa. Which is your favourite?

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  2. I agree with your points re translation. I should have mentioned that it was translated by Leon de Kock and have been told by some who have read it in both languages that it is an excellent translation. He also translated Marlene van Niekerk’s Triomf which must have been extremely difficult to translate as it had many untranslatable words. Triomf and her other tour de force, Agaat, are amongst my favourite SA novels.

    Hard to say which my favourite Winterbach is. I loved both The Elusive Moth and To Hell With Cronje, the latter being a subversive (for an Afrikaner especially) take on the South African War (Anglo-Boer War). She creates mysterious, magical worlds no matter what her topic is. The Elusive Moth is set towards the end of apartheid where change and metamorphosis are very relevant. I read it probably 15 years ago yet certain images are still vivid. I would love to hear your take when you get round to reading her.

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