Klaaglied vir Koos by Lettie Viljoen

Louise Vijoen, Department of Afrikaans and Dutch, University of Stellenbosch

Part 4 of the author's "Postcolonialism and Recent Women's Writing in Afrikaans," which first appeared in World Literature Today and which appears here with the kind permission of the author and Dr. William Riggan, editor of that publication. Copyright, of course, remains with the author and World Literature Today. Many thanks to Eric Dickens for suggesting the inclusion of this important essay.

Lettie Viljoen's first novel Klaaglied vir Koos [Lament for Koos] was published in 1984 during a time of increased militarisation and political repression by the South African government. The narrator in this short novel is a white woman whose husband unexpectedly leaves her and their four-year-old child to join in the armed struggle against apartheid. She angrily confronts the reader with these facts on the first page of the novel as she registers her fury at being left behind by her husband, declaring it to be the starting point of her narrative. (It is interesting to note that anger has been inspirational for more than one Afrikaans woman writer. A few years earlier the poet Antjie Krog declared in one of her poems: "Ek skryf omdat ek woedend is" ["I write because I am livid"] (1980: 23).) After spending time in hospital to recover from the shock caused by her husband's departure, the narrator slowly puts her life together again. After living through a nadir of emotional estrangement and inertia, she slowly comes to terms with her feelings of rejection and inadequacy, regaining her independence and the confidence to live her own life.

The psychic trauma that provides the stimulus for the writing of the novel foregrounds the narrator's feelings of inferiority, guilt and inadequacy. The novel demonstrates that her trauma is related to the way in which her subjectivity is constructed in terms of gender, race and class relationships. Her gender identity is mainly constructed in terms of the differences between her and her husband. He is described as intellectual, capable of thinking in macro-political terms, intolerant of contradictions or ambivalence, prepared to go to war and sacrifice the safety of his bourgeois home and nuclear family to achieve his political ideal of freedom for the oppressed. According to her own analysis she is a vessel filled with ideological content by her husband who dreams of a whole that will accommodate ambivalence and contradiction, wants to entrench the confines of their nuclear family rather than break it open, thinks of opposing the regime but not of leaving their home and joining the war as he did. In comparison to his she finds hers a small life of no consequence (p.41), although she is subconsciously warned by an image of herself and her husband like siamese twins in a bottle that she should free herself from constituting herself as her husband's 'other' (p.53). The narrator's racial identity is constructed in terms of her relationships with black people and also manifests in feelings of inferiority and triviality. She feels that her own life as a white woman is less meaningful and consequential than those of black men and women involved in the struggle against oppression. She sees their culture as more sustaining, their people's history as richer in texture and less perverse than the sparse facts of her own history as a white person (pp.12,38).

Relationships determined by class also feature in the construction of the narrator's subjectivity. As the white owner of a solid bourgeois home, she stands in a relationship of economic as well as racial power towards the homeless couple Frans and Bettie, the destitute woman Sylvia whose house burnt down and the gardener Nevil who all knock at her door to ask for food or shelter and who depend on her goodwill for their survival. At first she hides from them in her house, frightened and silent (p.15), but eventually she is prepared to leave the safety of her bourgeois home to negotiate with them and even to join them: "Gaan ek voortaan nie meer van binne die huis onderhandel nie maar saam met die befoktes, die haweloses, die besittingloses, saans so my huis omsirkel, in waaragtige meelewing" [Henceforth I am not going to negotiate from inside my house, I am going to circle my house in the evenings together with the fucked, the homeless, the possessionless, in genuine empathy] (p.66). She finally achieves the solidarity with the dispossessed that her husband so desperately desired: "Eén met die laagstes...die sosiaal uitgeworpenes" [One with the lowest... the socially rejected] (p.66). Thus she succeeds in breaking out of the constricting patterns preordained by gender, race and class in pre-democratic South Africa.

The narrator registers her rebellion against the various forms of domination which gives rise to her feelings of inadequacy and inferiority on a narrative level. The novel disengages itself from traditional narrative patterns (interpreted by feminists as patriarchally determined) by subverting linear causality, closure and authorial control. The narrative outwardly follows the linear progress of the seasons but gives priority to the chaotic and unresolved inner life of the narrative as a structuring device. The novel also takes as its terrain the personal, the intuitive, the subconscious and the microphysical domain rather than the public. Whereas the narrator's husband fights the political struggle on a public level, she conducts her struggle in a private domain (symbolised by the bourgeois house and garden). Whereas her husband analyses the political situation in South Africa on an intellectual level (p.18), she experiences it intuitively in terms of an image. While recovering in hospital she sees the image of an ant's nest which she relates to the large number of oppressed workers in South Africa (pp.11,20,27) with whom she feels a subconscious solidarity when performing her domestic tasks (p.27). Thus image and fantasy often take the place of intellectual analysis and event in her narrative. At certain points in the narrative the concentration on the private and personal becomes a preoccupation with the microphysical. This is evident from the scientifically detailed descriptions of sexual organs during intercourse, especially the male organ during erection and ejaculation (pp.2, 7). The discourse of sexual submissiveness one finds elsewhere in the novel (she lies "down for" her husband, p.6) is subverted by these moments of masculine, scientific discourse in which the colonizing male gaze is momentarily returned. Thus the construction of the narrating subject at the intersection of race, gender, class and writing is interrogated on a thematic as well as a structural level.

Postcolonial Web Africa OV Rupublic of South Africa OV next Bibliography