This is the third novel to be translated into English from its original Afrikaans written by South African born but Australian resident Eben Venter. The translation is by Michael Heyns. It was first published in his homeland in the two languages, was shortlisted for the 2014 Sunday Times Fiction Award and took the prize for best novel in Afrikaans at the Kyk-NET Rapport Awards. It was first published by Scribe books in hardback in 2015. The book is adorned with recommendations from amongst others South African Nobel-Prize Winner J M Coetzee, UK based American author and University Professor of Creative Writing Patrick Flannery and extraordinary writer, director and gay historian Neil Bartlett- all of whom are enough recommendation to drive me to this work.
Eben Venter and friend
Central to the novel is the character Mattheus who has come back to South Africa from abroad to look after his terminally ill father. With his senses closing down the father comes to increasingly rely on the care of his son. Their relationship has always been strained. This is a man with whom Mattheus has always been in conflict. The father is a successful business man with strong religious beliefs, the son is unsettled and gay and together in a large house a kind of peace needs to be established. This is a subtle, yet powerful tale of relationships and masculinity, of obsession and thwarted dreams. Mattheus wants to make something of himself before his father dies (with help from his father’s chequebook) and work out some common ground with his partner, where both internet pornography and Facebook is affecting their ability to communicate with one another. How men communicate (or not) is a strong theme throughout the novel. There were times when I was reminded of Patrick Gale but the South African setting gives it a very different, unique dimension.
The novel is imbued with the heat of the region and a vivid sensory richness which that heat brings about. There is also tension as fears for personal safety are never too far from the characters’ minds. Also used effectively is dialect, which has a formality about it and a structure which can subtly add to the distance between the characters. Mattheus is not especially likeable and there is no doubt that both he and his boyfriend Jack struggle to cope with the responsibilities of adulthood. To convey this Venter uses the symbol of a wolf mask, as suggested in the title which throughout the novel is used both to cover up and to intimidate. I found this a book which simmered throughout with depths that reading groups might love to analyse. This was for me a rich, thoughtful novel and I am keen to read Venter’s two much earlier works available in English – “My Beautiful Death” (2006) and “Trencherman” (2008).
Wolf Wolf was published in hardback in the UK by Scribe Books. There is also an E-Book available, including a Kindle edition from Amazon.
An edited version of this review has appeared in New Books issue 85 and on the Nudge Books website.