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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

versão On-line ISSN 2224-7912
versão impressa ISSN 0041-4751


VAN SCHALKWYK, Phil. A revaluation of Eben Venter's Wolf, wolf within the context of his oeuvre. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2017, vol.57, n.2-1, pp.412-440. ISSN 2224-7912.

Generally well-received in Afrikaans and South African literary criticism and far from completely undervalued in terms of literary prizes, the work of Afrikaans author Eben Venter is, however, in need of reappraisal. Some important literary accolades still evade him, despite the generally accepted merits of his writing, most notably his bold engagement with South African reality (viewed also with an international lens) and his engaging exploration of style. His most recent novel Wolf, wolf (2013) received mostly positive reviews in South Africa and was awarded the first KykNet/Rapport Book Prize, but Venter himself was rather disappointed with the local reception as compared to the greater enthusiasm with which the English translation has been welcomed abroad on account of its close examination of highly relevant topics such as the relationship between autocratic father and (gay) son, the rise of social media and, in particular, pornography addiction. In this article I attempt a revaluation of Wolf, wolf within the context of Venter's oeuvre. With reference to Julia Kristeva's (1980) essay "From one identity to an other" I show how the "symbolic" order (the laws of the father/language) and the instinctual "semiotic" aspect of language are strikingly brought together under the same roof in Wolf, wolf, with the result that the transcendental ego is shown to come to register its crisis (Kristeva 1980:141). The 32 year old Mattheüs mindlessly views gay pornography in his bedroom when he is not taking care of his father, the strict patriarch Benjamin Duiker who is dying of cancer yet insisting to maintain a "transcendental mastery over discourse" (Kristeva 1980:140) by making tape recordings addressed to his son. Mattheüs' compulsive, secretive porn-viewing, together with his concealed cohabitation with his boyfriend in the privacy of his room, constitute a subversion of the laws that hold sway in the father's house. Venter explores the reluctant, conflicted alignment of the son with the paternal order, and the effect which the loss thereof has on Mattheüs. The semiotic in Wolf, wolf coalesces in the motif of the well-known children's game, "Wolf, wolf". Jack, the boyfriend of Mattheüs, first introduces this ominous counting-out game, hinting at both life and death, into their stagnant relationship when he arrives at the gate of the mansion, disguised as a wolf and ready to move in, in spite of the heteronormative father's express prohibition. Unable to accept his son's gay identity, the ensuing transgression is the final straw and results in Benjamin excluding Mattheüs from his will - the culmination of the theme of in- and exclusion explored in Wolf, wolf. This theme is consolidated in an earlier passage in the novel describing a memory from Mattheüs' childhood: He once entered the masculine sanctity of his father's study unannounced, thereby interrupting the bawdy discussion going on between Benjamin and another car salesman, upon which he was met, for one pivotal moment, with his father's undisguised "gaze", totally excluding and "othering" him (Venter 2013:10-11). Against this background, and building on Van den Berg's (2016) Lacoue-Labarthe inspired research on mimesis in Venter's dystopian Horrelpoot (2006), I explore the way Venter's work has evolved away from an attempted transcendental mastery of language associated with the symbolic - to a large extent still underpinning Horrelpoot (translated as Trencherman) with its strong mimetic relationship with the father text Heart of darkness (Joseph Conrad) - toward the confident, independent stance represented by Wolf, wolf. This activates another crucial dialectic identified by Kristeva (1980:138-139), i.e. the "rhetorician" and the "stylist", which sheds light on, amongst other things, the battle between father and son in Venter's work. Whereas the rhetorician mimics the tradition - as Venter to some extent does in his novels - in order to win the father's favour or to undermine him in a sly way, the stylist, Kristeva (1980:139) maintains, "no longer needs to seduce the father by rhetorical affectations. As winner of the battle, he may ... assume a different discourse; neither imaginary discourse of the self, nor discourse of transcendental knowledge, but a permanent go-between from one to the other, a pulsation of sign and rhythm, of consciousness and instinctual drive [...] Stylists ... sound a dissonance within the thetic, paternal function of language". Part of the proliferation, instead of censorship, of discourse on sexuality, as described by Michel Foucault (1978) in part one of his The history of sexuality, Venter's Wolf, wolf manifests the need for a kind of literature which according to Susan Sontag (2005) in one of her late essays, "At the same time ... (the novelist and moral reasoning)", is able to say: "[T]his is the important story". Unflinching in its attention to that which has been selected (Sontag), and marked by both personal involvement and uncompromising exactitude in the artistic execution (as in post-realist painting), Wolf, wolf confronts the reader with the reality of pornography as (supposedly) taboo subject, resulting in powerful defamiliarisation, most notably given the way in which the animalistic gains prominence in this novel through the focus on the wolf. The wolf/wolflike, in Jungian terms associated with the shadow and the trickster, is representative in (western) mythology and narratives of that which is denied and excluded, the things (mostly of a sexual nature) we are warned against in a fairytale such as "Little Red Riding Hood". Crous (2013), in his review of Wolf, wolf, claims that the wolf motif in this novel is unmotivated and poorly integrated, but that is exactly the point: the wolf (motif) threatens the order, also that of the novel, and suggests in a way that recalls and supersedes Foucault (1978), that sexuality, or certain expressions or aspects thereof, may ultimately resist regulation and containment, in practice but also discursively - specifically in this digital age. Pornography, in conjunction with the wolf motif, thus relates to the more general theme of in- and exclusion explored in Wolf, wolf, specifically with respect to Benjamin and Mattheüs and the struggle between the symbolic and the semiotic. Although Wolf, wolf does present valuable insights on pornography and the addiction to it, the achievement of this novel does not reside in what it tells us in this regard, but rather in what it enacts discursively. The foregrounding of pornography is important in itself and serves to highlight the theme of in- and exclusion, opening it up for discussion: Since pornography can still awaken fierce impulses and reactions relating to in- and exclusion, and is indeed considered taboo in terms of language/discourse - yet (privately) enjoyed by many - the textual tension between the symbolic order and semiotic wedge is strongly emphasised.

Palavras-chave : Afrikaans literature; literary prizes; literary evaluation; Eben Venter; Wolf; wolf; father and son; Julia Kristeva; symbolic order; semiotic; rhetorician; stylist; Michel Foucault; sexuality; homosexuality; gay; pornography; discourse; representation; exactitude; digital.

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