Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Caught in the Underbelly

By Mary Corrigall

Eberard Februarie never wakes up in the morning feeling refreshed. His skin is dry and taut, his muscles ache and he typically surveys the dystopian world he inhabits with pounding in his head, a consequence of his penchant for night-time booze-ups.
This sense of physical degradation doesn't simply mirror the debased crime-ridden society he encounters as a member of SAPS but is an external manifestation of the inner impact of his profession.
He can't lift the lid on the agony that haunts the deep recesses of his consciousness; if he did, he would fall apart and would no longer be able to survive or weather the abysmal realities that his job puts him in contact with daily. As he wades through the dark trenches of the world of crime, his corporeal character is weighed down by the truths he cannot face and the toll of a lifestyle, which ironically is supposed to counter it.
As a cop tasked with solving violent crime, he is the buffer between society and its undesirable underbelly, but in a morally corrupt society, where the boundary between right and wrong keeps shifting, Februarie has lost his way. He seems more at home among the debased.

Angel, a prostitute, is his only source of comfort. He attempts to rescue her from depravity and the clutches of her abusive pimp, so it is clear that he hasn't been completely swallowed by her world, but there is an inescapable darkness that lingers within him and ultimately he cannot keep her safe.
The cynical, hard-living (usually masculine) detective is a staple of the crime genre. His tough demeanour is not just a consequence of coming into frequent contact with the darker side of humanity - or inhumanity - but a result of living without any illusions. In this way this tragic figure, who is expected to restore balance to society by tracking down and stamping out the morally corrupt, is destined, trapped by, a distorted view of the world. It can only be this way.
But how can this feature be reconciled with, or how does it reflect on, this popular view espoused by academics and authors that the emerging local crime genre in SA has become a more viable vehicle to reflect the socio-political conditions in the country than serious political fiction?
That the crime genre is an idiom embedded in a dystopian perspective, perhaps, makes it an ideal conduit to explore the disillusionment with the ruling party, the post-apartheid situation; but it also means that public discourse remains locked into a tool that perpetuates this view.
This actuality becomes even more complicated when it takes on a racial slant; local crime thrillers are largely produced and possibly read by a white audience. Has this genre become fertile ground for a kind of bland and unchallenging form of Afropessimism that is supported by a literary model that can only offer a negative view of the "state of the nation"?
There may not be any validity to these questions but they do provide an interesting prism through which to read Brown's Solace. Certainly, it makes it more challenging a read to put these ideas to the test with his novel, which doesn't really ever come to grips with the world that seems to be taking such a toll on this coloured detective, who is assigned to investigate the murder of a young boy whose body has been found in a synagogue.
We learn that Februarie has been assigned the case in the hope that it won't be solved - it is common knowledge that he is teetering on the edge and enjoys his tipples more than he should. The murder of a homeless boy probably wouldn't receive much attention, but the placing of the body in a synagogue in such a way that it could be read as the religious sacrifice of a Muslim threatens to disrupt the city of Cape Town.
It is a divided society, separated along religious lines, that is in a precarious state. Largely, it is a few militant or extremist individuals who have the power to pre-empt a collapse into chaos and violence - they seem to hail from the Muslim side, though there are those with cool heads and middle-of-the-road positions who still hold some sway. Religious allegiance, and in some cases fanaticism, is the flipside of this debased society, perhaps a consequence of it. Religion provides a retreat from the moral depravity, offers solace even - a reference to the title. However, as violence still threatens these cloistered realms, they are not impenetrable havens.
There is a political angle to the case, too; the government is trying to pass a new law dubbed the Social Values Act, which gives the government control over what kind of acts may be permitted in the name of religion, what is deemed acceptable. If the city explodes into religious-based violence, lawmakers will be able to justify its existence.
Naturally, Februarie's investigations point him in the direction of his superiors and those at the top echelons of the government, rather than the seedy bowels of Cape Town, which Brown takes pleasure in describing. It seems it is the ones who appear the most respectable who are the most debased. Prostitutes, pimps and guns for hire are just the bottom-feeders.
As per the crime-genre model, Februarie solves the murder and thereby neutralises the extremists in the city who are itching for an excuse to start a fight. However, as he crosses the line during his investigations, there is a sense that he has become more sullied, more degraded. There is no redemption for him, except, perhaps, in the arms of a woman, Yael, who has no doubt sunk to equal depths.
In this way, Brown presents a bitter-sweet conclusion that suggests that the city has been temporarily cured of the malevolent forces pulling the strings, thus averting a completely pessimistic outcome. So, perhaps, other aspects of the genre, create the space to resolve conditions in our society that resist easy resolutions. And so it is that the genre both allows writers to wallow in their disillusionment while finding a way to transcend it, if only temporarily. Though Februarie is the sacrificial lamb to achieve this end, he, too, finds moments of solace.  - published August 19.


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