The Elusive Moth
by Ingrid Winterbach
Translated from the Afrikaans by Iris Gouws and the author
Open Letter Books (2014), 198 pages
In Ingrid Winterbach’s The Elusive Moth, one small South African town becomes the scene of a longstanding and complex legacy of racial conflict. Tension drips from every word as Winterbach paints a picture of injustice and intrigue as observed by an outsider and bystander. Her prose fast and clipped, Winterbach illustrates the complexities of a small community on the eve of an explosion.
Karolina Ferreira arrives in the small Free State town Voorspoed to research a species of moth known for its resilience and rarity. On the way she offers a ride to Basil, a young man who visits the town regularly to study herbal remedies. The two quickly become friends in the insular and closed-off community, working together and helping each other put together the puzzle pieces of a growing revolt in the nearby black township.
Karolina has brought significant emotional baggage to Voorspoed, including a fraught relationship with her distant family. En route to Voorspoed, she has her fortune told by a woman by the road, and the nameless man and woman in the prophecy hang heavily in Karolina’s mind. Haunted by a desire for her father’s approval, the memory of her mother’s adoration for her sister, and the isolation she feels from her sister, Karolina arrives in Voorspoed in need of more than just time and space to research moths.
Her four months in the small town are marked by an uncertainty as to her own future, whether she wants to return to the city she came from, and reflections on what has motivated her to pursue a career as an entomologist. In vivid dreams she explores her past relationships in sexually charged scenarios that leave her with more questions than answers. Men who scorned her, men she failed to love, and men she's only just met seem to jockey for power and proximity to her in these dreams. In the morning, she attempts to solve what she believes to be a crucial puzzle as the imagery and emotion fades back into the night.
In many ways Karolina’s muted interior crisis is secondary to the drama unfolding in Voorspoed. Around the snooker table of a local hotel, Karolina and Basil become wrapped up with the town’s elite, including an all-knowing attorney, a cruel police captain and his men, and a mysterious magistrate. As a strange woman in a male-dominate setting, Karolina is able to build a rapport with the regulars, drinking whiskey with them during the week and dancing on the weekends. Through this slight connection to the town’s inner circle, Karolina becomes aware of the routine violence that characterizes race relations in Voorspoed.
Winterbach’s prose creates a sense of foreboding from the very beginning. The reader is swept along as tension builds, and each moment feels like it could be preceding a dark turn of events. Karolina is always an outsider, although one close to the inner workings of the town’s many schemers. Pol, the town’s pre-eminent attorney who takes an immediate liking to Karolina, shares his cryptic views of both Voorspoed’s aggressive police force and the men organizing the oppressed residents in the segregated township. Pol’s insights illuminate a community besotted by crumbling marriages, weakly suppressed impulses, and destructive bigotry.
Originally published in 1994, The Elusive Moth creates a micro-view of South Africa in the final years of apartheid. Karoline confronts the violent past of the region and opposes the heavy handed tactics the police use to keep the township under control, but she does nothing to change the course of events. When a drive back to Voorspoed from a nearby town is interrupted by a man being chased across the road and into the wild, she is upset but ultimately does nothing. The co-existence of normality and danger defines Voorspoed.
...In the ladies’ bar and in the snooker room -- where one could go mad and lose one’s head -- the demise of souls was plotted and might even be brought about tonight … Against this backdrop of intrigue and innocent Afrikaner jokes Karolina and the Kolyn fellow continued to dance until deep into the night.
But tucked into the tumble toward one final outburst of violence is a reflection on the power of nature and the resilience of South Africa. Painted panels in the hotel depict the landscape, skies wide and land stretching beyond the small struggles of man in the foreground. “In each of the panels human activity was reduced to insignificance, dwarfed by the presence of nature. The landscape was the great constant, the human groups moving across it were small and irrelevant, insignificant, coincidental, peripheral.”
Despite weaving a complex picture, Winterbach stays well away from overly sentimental exposition and doesn’t get caught up in heavy-handed moralizing. Instead she let’s the reader be swept up in the climate of tension and foreboding that permeates everything in Voorspoed, from a simple game of snooker to gathering clouds on the horizon. The result is a moving book that doesn’t feel overpowering, but nonetheless creeps into the reader’s mind and haunts them in a subtle way.
Fiction, Translation, South Africa