Nineveh by Henrietta Rose-Innes. Umuzi, 2011.
After releasing the novels Shark’s Egg in 2001 and The Rock Alphabet in 2004, Henrietta Rose-Innes in 2010 offered further proof of her talent with a strong collection of stories entitled Homing. Her latest novel, a tragi-comic psychological thriller entitled Nineveh, is an original work of elegant writing that looks set to cement her status as one of South Africa’s more promising writers.
Before the start of the narrative, the epigraph informs us that the “Nineveh” of the title alludes to a Biblical Mesopotamian city “that dwelt carelessly”, “a place for beasts to lie down in” (Zephanaiah 2: 14-15). Rose-Innes also cites the Lament for Ur (circa 2000 BC) for its mention of a “strange city” where “young men mourn in a desert they do not know”, while the author incorporates a proclamation by Charles Darwin (in 1854) that “[he] feel[s] like an old war-horse at the sound of a trumpet, when [he] read[s] about the capturing of rare beetles”.
These framing epigraphs offer a glimpse into an immediate, numinous (spiritual, mystical) “strange journey” into the “foreign gardens” of a largely dystopic Cape Town, where Rose-Innes explores what she calls “ambiguous locations”. These are places where things “get mixed up and wander from their ordained zones”; they are “Ninevehs”. The novel is a cautionary and penetrating passage into the dark heart of a postcard city, coupled with an intimate portrayal of a woman’s search for a place to call home as the city continuously remakes itself. The result is a feat of imagination that has the potential to make readers re-examine the social dynamics and materiality of the spaces they inhabit.
Nineveh centers on the experiences of a pest-control expert, Katya Grubbs, who heads her own business, “Painless Pest Relocations”. Unable to process the death of her mother, the intense yet insecure Katya commits to “ceaseless labour”, infiltrating “pockets of anarchy” in the city while following a “strictly no-kill policy”. Helped by her nephew Toby, an energetic youth with “spidery limbs”, Katya saves “[s]urvivors, squatters and invaders”, “rescuing” and “cleansing” the city’s “unloved” and “unlovely” “smaller beasts”. Throughout the novel, she is aware that “[t]hey’re objectionable only because they’ve wandered from their proper zones”.
Soon after some evocative opening passages that express how an embodied “writhing” tree “in mortification” stands uncomfortably next to a “perfect lawn”, Katya encounters Mr Brand, who wishes that she rid the luxury estate of Nineveh outside Cape Town of a variety of pests so that the apartments can be occupied. The novel then moves between Katya’s surreal and uncanny sense of home at Nineveh, and the difficult journey she must undergo in order to bury the ghosts of her past while finally confronting her estranged father, Len.
The titular space of “Nineveh” is the novel’s most eminent symbolic location. As “some kind of Mesopotamian fantasy”, it is an “abyss”, a pseudo-religious place of wonderment and a multi-layered residential structure on the city’s outskirts “plagued” by a “string of disasters”. Upon her arrival at Nineveh, microscopic “whorls” and “loops” are “already built into the fabric of the building”. An example of the portentous, semi-Biblical atmosphere Rose-Innes conjures up comes across strongly in the following passage: “A feather drops onto Katya’s shoulder as dusty wings clap across the space above her … She takes it as a good omen: the beasts are here.”
Beyond Nineveh’s perimeter, “everything is insistently alive and pushing to come in”, and we learn that Nineveh’s “battlements” loom “like an ice fortress” over the landscape. In keeping with the Biblical quality of the space, the “gatekeepers” at Nineveh, Reuben and Pascal, are referred to as spiritual or sentient beings, with Reuben in particular described as a “harassed administrative angel”, whereas Pascal sees Katya as “a benediction”, “[t]here to deliver [them]”. Fittingly, Katya must “slither, crawl and scuttle” like a veritable human beetle in “the golden city”.
What the various descriptions serve to foreground is the novel’s highly inventive conflation of human and invertebrate organisms, subtly questioning mutually exclusive, limiting representations of “human” and “insect” life. Toby is “mantis-like”, his friend Tasneem has a “rounded body” that is “beetle-like”, while Katya’s sister, Alma, has twin boys who are “tight grubs”. When Katya’s unruly and violent yet ultimately sympathetic father, Len Grubbs, appears almost exactly halfway in the book, she is left wondering if she will ever “find a home, a life, which he can’t worm his way into?” These corporeal, embodied turns of phrase lend the novel a sense of looming menace; familiar idiomatic expressions are interspersed with descriptions of human beings as insect-like.
Rose-Innes displays an ability to sketch three-dimensional characters. Whether Katya is overwhelmed by the “chaotic power” of her father or by the “ease of movement” of the stocky Mr Brand, she is “at once a kid with skinned knees and frogs in her pockets”, child-like, vulnerable and at the mercy of men. She is an altogether sympathetic protagonist, drawn with the kind of compassion that makes her emotional turmoil affectively powerful. Rose-Innes manages to perform a stinging critique of suburban domesticity and myopia through the characterisation of Alma, also a damaged character. Literally putting up high walls as deliberate barriers to keep out the undesirables – while she tries to live a normal life governed by “order” – she is acutely unhappy and, tellingly, her garden is “defeated”.
Painful details of “haphazard and accident plagued” travels, a family smell “too intimate and shameful” to talk about, and the “crawling darkness” of a “frightening, physically dangerous” patriarch (Len Grubbs) complement insights into the main characters.
To match its characters and action, Nineveh presents a polychromatic city far less accommodating than we are often led to believe. Whether on or off duty, Katya comes into contact with the wealthy, but far more of her interactions – and indeed the focus of Nineveh – is on the city’s marginalised people, its downtrodden, grimy and grubby underclass that ekes out forms of bare life, stripped for all practical purposes of citizens’ rights.
Unsettling accounts of the “menageries” and “tiny battles” raging in the belly of the beast are powerfully delivered; the struggles of “unloved” and “unlovely” human beings for food, shelter and warmth in the “contested territory” of Cape Town’s “overlapping”, “three-dimensional” and “fiercely patrolled” streets are narrated with sensitivity and a subtle kind of rage.
Through descriptions of the “suffering and indignation” of vagrants losing their temporary shelter, the novel conveys a sense of scorn for “progress” and “modernity” which comes at the cost of the powerless:
The vagrants came out stumbling, confused, blinking, like old soldiers led at gunpoint from caves. Their mattresses and blankets were dumped on the pavement, misshapen fungi pulled from the soil … Now the excavating beasts have clamped their jaws and rested their topsoil-beared chins on the ground. Something new will be rising up here soon.
Nineveh invokes the image of a city-space as cavernous and cadaverous, a “filthy hole” and “sunken pit” with “sweating flesh”, constantly eating away at its own “distorted” spatial configurations. Mirroring such descriptions are Katya’s oracular visions of “downness”, of “space under the surface”; she has “sudden vision[s] of the deeps beneath the city, alive with a million worms”. The novel’s position on a city lost under expanses of greed is clear from the following statement:
So little of the original Cape Town remains. Just the heavy star of the castle pinning down its surroundings like a brooch – or rather, a policeman’s five-point badge. How silly to imagine that anything built now will stand for years to come.
“The spaces between human events”, Rose-Innes’s narrator remarks, “open up and elongate and the individual becomes smaller”. Close to the end, we read that “[e]ven human skin… is porous and infested, every second letting microscopic creatures in and out. Our own bodies are menageries. Short of total sterility, there is no controlling it.”
The novel conveys a sense of the fabric of human experience as tactile, and it exposes how our sense of groundedness within certain locations is constantly under erasure. The writing probes liminality and in-betweenness; the narrative peels away layers of meaning to demonstrate the permeability of boundaries between different parts of the self and, by extension, the other.
Readers familiar with the work of Ivan Vladislavic or Michel de Certeau, particularly his essay “Walking the City”, will find much to savour, and Nineveh compares favourably with spatially aware fictions set in Cape Town such as K. Sello Duiker’s Thirteen Cents and The Quiet Violence of Dreams, as well as Zoë Wicomb’s You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town. Although some might find this artistic, inventive novel difficult, obtuse or deliberately opaque, open-minded readers should discover astute storytelling that allows us to look at the city of Cape Town and its multitude of inhabitants with new eyes.