Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2011
Lost Ground is the novel Michiel Heyns was always going to write: one that brings together all his many talents – a highly pedigreed writing style (“horror kept in abeyance by the effort of lucid narration”), brilliantly witty satire, a nuanced and convincing rendering of place, people and time, a gay counter-narrative, and the type of dialogue that only a committed eavesdropper can produce. It is, in short, the best of The Children’s Day combined with the best of The Reluctant Passenger, The Typewriter’s Tale and Bodies Politic.
It’s also, unusually for Heyns, a work of crime fiction. But then, perhaps all fiction is crime fiction: we are scarred, and look for the origin of our scars. Heyns’s narrator reminds us that “nobody holds it against Shakespeare that he used the tragic death of two young lovers as a story opportunity. It’s of the nature of stories to deal with sad situations, and of the nature of storytellers to seek out sad situations.” Since Heyns’s narrator is, like him, a storyteller – well, a journalist – Lost Ground is also metafiction: a story about how stories are made and, most importantly, how in trying to tell these stories, we end up telling ourselves.
When Peter Jacobs returns to his Karoo hometown of Alfredville in 2010 after a 22-year absence, it is ostensibly because he’s interested in the creative nonfiction “possibilities” presented by the murder of his beautiful and aptly-named cousin, Desirée. With the smug superiority of someone who, rather than simply “buggering off” in the last days of the old regime, left in a move of “principled emigration”, Peter thinks the New Yorker might be interested in his “angle”: Desirée has clearly been murdered by her jealous black husband in an Othello-type scenario, and the story will doubtless explicate racial attitudes in post-apartheid South Africa.
As it turns out, the crime investigates Peter more successfully than Peter is able to investigate the crime. (“Home-town boy solves murder on second try,” jeers the murderer, eventually.) In a perfect irony that runs throughout the novel, Peter is incapable of seeing that it is, in a sense, his own murder that he is investigating.
His cousin is his doppelganger: in beauty, glamour, and witting or unwitting sexual manipulation (“very lovey-dovey one day, very fuck-you the next”), she is his twin. She was murdered in the very house where Peter lived as a boy. Like Desirée, Peter has lived for the last several years with a partner who is a black man. James, an actor of Jamaican origin, is at this very moment involved in a London production of Othello.
Mirror upon mirror. Like Othello, Desirée’s husband Hector, a struggle veteran, has won her with the glamour of his war stories, but the marriage has been weakened by a third party. Hector is the obvious suspect. His father-in-law, a regular Brabantio, holds the popular view: “You don’t expect rational thought from someone like that. He felt inferior, for all his airs and graces, and thought she was in love with every man she spoke to.”
Except that Desirée is no innocent Desdemona. Like her cousin, whose attempts to research her death covertly are laughed off by the townsfolk (even the car guard approaches him with a version of the story), Desirée has left a trail.
Desirée’s not-so-secret trail of intrigues leads Peter back to his own sexual past. The cousins, it turns out, have elicited love and jealousy from the same two people. Tall, blonde, beautiful and with an inbuilt sense of their own apartness, the cousins have been oblivious to the heartbreak they have caused.
Desirée was bludgeoned to death with a replica of Michelangelo’s David, wrapped in an anti-macassar. Even the murder weapon offers a symbolic clue to the potent combination that lies (indirectly) behind the murder: a sublimated homoerotic impulse, and a small-town yearning to “own” cultural and aesthetic achievement.
We always want we haven’t got. Why has Peter come back to Alfredville, really, if not to recapture some of the “lost ground” of the title? Though, as he observes, “Proust himself would have had a hard time with Alfredville.”
Heyns describes with utter precision the understated charm of this fictional town, which shares characteristics with Barrydale, Montagu and Riversdal: “Now, running through the empty morning, I feel a certain appeal in the very emptiness, something melancholy in its meagreness and yet comforting in its permanence. It’s a landscape without clutter, without noise, without much ambition, neutral, perhaps even negative.”
The urbane, cosmopolitan narrator pretends at first to be completely disaffected from his past and detached from his present. He is scornful of the town’s parochialism, its casual, entrenched racism (“he used our bathroom and everything,” says his aunt of her black son-in-law), its tradition of domestic violence, its bad decor and worse cuisine. (I cannot recommend the rusk-eating scene or the summary prediction of the Sunday lunch menu too highly – Heyns at his satirical best.)
But with each passing day, the town’s grudgingly acknowledged appeal and in particular, Peter’s friendship with Bennie Nienaber, work together like appointments with an analyst to reveal what lies beneath his disdain: lyrically tender and funny recollections of his teenage years, moonlit Karoo summer nights, skinny dipping with a school friend, motor biking, pretending to like girls when they really loved one another. “Gryp jou geleentheid” was the school’s motto; Proust’s “The true paradises are the paradises we have lost” is the novel’s epigraph.
Paradise is a place of innocence: when we are there we don’t know that we are there because we don’t know ourselves. Unconsummated relationships and unrequited loves fall into this category, but so do lost loves of all kinds. In Lost Ground, the narrator’s emotional centre is torn between a recently ended adult relationship in London and a tantalising adolescent crush that resurfaces in Alfredville. Along the way, the secret gay history of the Karoo emerges.
The narrator remembers a farmer who preferred the company of his “boss boy” to his wife; and whose only son died “in the bed of his Mexican catamite”. These days, Alfredville’s new vet rather hopes the narrator might be stalking him, but prefers to keep his gayness a secret (the animals don’t mind, he jokes). We’re told that the lesbian owners of the new wine bar in town will throw you to the tarmac if you offend them. And the Queen’s (yes) Hotel is run by someone Peter remembers from school: “Fairy” Ferreira, who has scandalised the locals by having his black lover actually live in the hotel. I hope Heyns will one day return to this story to report on their wedding, which is announced towards the end of the novel.
By contrast, the narrator’s discretion about his own sexuality seems, on the surface, an urbane choice. But his restraint is really just denial by another name, and it has blinded him to his own significance in the story he’s trying to tell. To the humble, poor and beaten Bennie Nienaber, their friendship was the one great achievement of his life. This relationship, narrated both in real time and in flashbacks, leads to the moving and dramatic climax of the novel.
Lost Ground is a self-conscious novel in which the narrator often wrestles with his own choice of words and who expostulates: “I’m not here to write a whodunit, I’m here to write an account of a wife’s murder by her husband.” More specifically, the novel is aware of itself as a text that must find its place among other texts – Coetzee’s Disgrace, his Diary of a Bad Year, Krog’s Country of My Skull and Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart are all read or referred to by the narrator. Heyns’ novel is wittier than its intertexts. There are, for example, two key witnesses of the crime who cannot speak: Cedric, a Maltese, and Kerneels a wire-haired mongrel.
Without obviously “ticking boxes”, Heyns knows just how to characterise contemporary South Africa: there’s the new black mayor of Alfredville who rides in a Mercedes with a blue light flashing; there’s a car guard from the DRC who was a practising advocate in his home country and who can quote Voltaire (“We must cultivate our garden”); there’s a black woman psychologist who reads JM Coetzee and who makes it her business to point out every assumption the narrator labours under.
The novel uses the most mundane truth of contemporary South Africa – that no one trusts the police force anymore – as an integral part of its structure. None of the characters in Lost Ground contemplates for a moment handing over evidence or making a statement to the police. And in these days of botched prosecutions, wrongful arrests, rapes in holding cells, scrapped and postponed cases, miscarriages of justice and fabricated evidence, the reader completely identifies with them. (In a fascinating cross-reference, Heyns lists Antony Altbeker’s Fruit of a Poisoned Tree, about the Inge Lotz murder, in his acknowledgements).
But even without a reliable investigating officer, people still want to tell; they want to lay their truth before a neutral, judge-like character. Peter Jacobs seems to fit the bill. One by one they approach him until he can no longer maintain his aloof, distantly curious persona. Stripped of his cosmopolitan veneer, his “so fucking superior” attitude, and unable to maintain his signature disengagement, the cool, cynical eavesdropping outsider breaks down in public: “I feel the relentless pull of loss, of the losses I have caused and the losses I have suffered, the drift towards annihilation that nobody and nothing can stay. But I hold onto Nonyameko’s hand, for all the world as if I could thus anchor myself to some saving vestige of identity.”
Whether you read it as a whodunit or as a portrait of the nation, Lost Ground is utterly compelling – exquisitely written, profound, hilarious and hauntingly familiar.