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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

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


HUMAN, Thys. "A time of plenty; a time of want": Utopian and dystopian elements in Lien Botha's Wonderboom. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2018, vol.58, n.1, pp.109-123. ISSN 2224-7912.

As Jaco Botha's Miskruier (2005) and Deon Meyer's Koors (2016), Wonderboom can be classified as a "critical dystopia" rather than a "classical dystopia" in that it contains at least one utopian enclave, as well as the hope that the described dystopia can be replaced by a utopia. Mohr (2005:10) calls these texts transgressive utopian dystopias, since they incorporate certain utopian elements into the chiefly dystopian narrative, often questioning, undermining and transcending the binary logic of the classical dystopia. Although Botha's novel can be seen as an example of such a transgressive utopian dystopia, it does not function in exactly the same way and does not use similar textual strategies than other critical dystopias. This article examines the manner in which Botha's novel opens up a conversation with other classical and critical dystopias, as well as the novel's unique undermining and transgression of boundaries. The way in which the novel confirms the conventions of the classical dystopia, but also challenges them with utopian perspectives, is subjected to scrutiny. Like most literary dystopias, Wonderboom takes place in a social "somewhere else" that, to all outward appearances, looks much worse than the current society and which is the consequence of some or other post-apocalyptic event. Although the precise causes of the apocalypse are not clear, the socio-economic and political issues that South Africa are currently facing - poverty, crime and violence - are intensified in the novel. In the Western Cape, inhabitants like the main character Magriet Vos, are subjected to the dictatorship of Albino X, who strictly regulates and controls their thinking, behaviour and movement. Although Magriet and Joe Bloom initially enjoy Albino X's favour as artists, they are well aware of the fact that their fate can change in a split second and that they will then be killed. According to Gerhard (2012:17), resistance to control of the masses in dystopian texts often takes the form of a main character who makes every possible effort to call up, conserve and recount memories of the past. Throughout the novel, Magriet, for instance, keeps a diary of her personal memories and a record of the names of former friends, family members and acquaintances who can be of help on her expedition to the north. Baran (2013:27) points out that these memories can pose a possible threat to a dystopian regime, since they enable inhabitants to compare and to come to the conclusion that things can be different and better. However, Magriet's personal memories reveal that a nostalgic longing for the past is not necessarily "healthy" or advantageous. For one, it is impossible to unconditionally classify a previous time or regime as "better" within the South African context. When readers become aware of the fact that memory loss is slowly setting in with Magriet and that she is systematically forgetting everything, the implication ofthis realization (especiallyfor Magriet) is not singularly negative. Hunt (1987:114-138) claims that ecological decay and environmental destruction are often portrayed with reference to the symbolic destruction of the paradisiac garden. Like in many other dystopian presentations of the future, this paradise-like garden had already been destroyed at the start of Wonderboom: animals are rare or completely absent, while even plants are unusual. At a textual level the absence ofthe natural world is underlined by chapter titles such as "Trees are wanting", "Ghost Tree" and "Dismal, the dead tree", and by the fact that the letters of the word Paradise on the cardboard box in the image sequence at the start of each chapter disappears bit by bit. The only way in which Magriet still has "unlimited access" to the paradise-like garden, is by way of recollection and imagination, which is fundamentally threatened by her gradual memory loss. At the end of the novel it may seem to some readers as if Magriet'sjourney was unsuccessful, or at least incomplete. In my view, the end of the novel is anything but overwhelmingly negative. It is rather deliberately open and ambiguous - as is the case with most critical dystopias. Not only did Magriet ultimately succeed in escaping Albino X's control, but her amnesia to a large extent also frees her from the burden of memories and guilt that she as privileged South African and member of the Vos family carries throughout the novel. It makes a complete immersion into her desperate position impossible and serves as an important warning that the desire to return to her origins and her family was potentially misleading and even dangerously nostalgic. "[T]he Great Forgetting" therefore also offers Magriet a measure of grace and even facilitates a kind of rebirth, without the baggage of the past. Unlike Magriet, the reader of the novel is ultimately comforted by (the presentation) of the Wonderboom's leaftapis and is left with the impression that an entire forest of "word trees" have been planted by the author in the unfolding landscape of the text. In this way, the paradisiac garden is won back while reading, even if it is only figuratively.

Palavras-chave : Post-apocalyptic fiction; utopia; dystopia; dystopian literature; radical pessimism; hope; transgressive Utopian dystopia; classical dystopia; critical dystopia; Wonderboom; Lien Botha; expedition; memory control; amnesia; resistance; imagination; rebirth; ecological decay.

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