Review: What to Do With Lobsters in a Place Like Klippiesfontein by Colette Victor

The World is Your Lobster

 

Katie Hopkins’s hate speech would test even Voltaire’s commitment to defend to the death her right to speak, and with the Charlie Hebdo attack and the controversy surrounding the recent American PEN prize, it often feels like our ability to cope rationally with painful issues has been dealt a number of near-fatal blows. Freedom of speech in the public sphere has morphed into the right to say what you like regardless of consequences or accuracy. Which is why a book like What To Do With Lobsters in a Place like Klippiesfontein is such a refreshing burst of clear-eyed analysis and proves that when it comes to exploring the complex issues of the age, you can’t beat a good story.

Located in South Africa two decades after Nelson Mandela’s historic presidency, when many of his promises are fondly remembered in the face of a difficult reality, the town of Klippiesfontein is a microcosm of the racial, social and gender inequalities that no amount of truth and reconciliation could erase. Daily life centres around the general store run by respected Afrikaner Oom Marius, his wife Tannie Hettie, and their black cleaner and dogsbody, the apparently mute Petrus.

The comic title refers to the incident that opens the book, where Marius, in the full throws of a midlife crisis and lusting after a female customer, buys a tank of lobsters as a way to impress her. No one in Klippiesfontein has ever seen a live lobster before, let alone eaten one, and Marius’s folly looks set to become a farce. But just when we think we know where this is going, the ground shifts and his wife, Tannie Hettie, learns she has cancer, forcing Marius to leave Petrus in charge as he accompanies her to Cape town for treatment.

This one decision unleashes a very dangerous idea: that a black South African can run the general store. White supremacists blockade the store, townsfolk take sides and Klippiesfontein descends into civil war. Friendships end, marriages are torn apart and violence inevitably follows.

It would be very easy to paint a good-versus-bad, progressive-versus-regressive picture of white and black communities attempting to get along in post-Apartheid South Africa. It would also be easy to sidestep the whole thing using analogy and metaphor – see the recent rise in popularity of South African fantasy and science fiction writing – but Colette Victor doesn’t do either. She tackles the topic head-on and while her sympathies are clear, this is a novel not a political tract, and those work best when the reader is shown multiple perspectives. Victor’s roving third person narration gives the reader equal access to those blockading the shop and those barricaded inside. Community tensions pull in a number of directions at the same time and Lobsters… is both confident enough and impartial enough to examine all sides.

Freedom of speech isn’t easy. There have been a number of news stories recently concerning the expiry of copyright on Mein Kampf. Anyone who wants to is now free to reprint it. So should they? Is it better to silence extreme voices lest their filth infect others? Or should we open them up to the disinfecting sunlight of public scrutiny? Are all opinions equal or are some more equal than others? Novels don’t answer questions; they pick them apart and show us all the angles. Despite the unbearable lightness of the title, this is a serious and timely novel.

Totoro

 

What To Do With Lobsters in a Place Like Klippiesfontein  by Colette Victor

Cargo Publishing, RRP £8.99, 224 pages