I loved my sixth-grade lessons in entomology so much—How could I not? We went out on bug-hunting expeditions and collected our insects in cigar boxes!—that I suppose I’m predisposed to love Ingrid Winterbach’s Karolina Ferreira, which I read as The Elusive Moth, Iris Gouws’s and Winterbach’s translation from the Afrikaans.
The Elusive Moth contains lots of elements (beyond the bugs) that I always seem to enjoy. Karolina Ferreira comes to a small town to do moth-related field work, giving us the outside observer; she’s given a ride to an herbalist named, appropriately enough, Basil, on the way, which adds an element of chance meetings. They proceed to watch more than just plants and insects: they see a tryst in a cemetery and the hotel where Karolina stays features a ladies’ bar, which features a singer, plus there’s a snooker room where members of the local police force often hang out. All this gives them plenty of chances to monitor the local human population at least as well as the bugs and herbs. I’m not sure who’s more comprehensible.
It’s heat, drought, and a slow-growing sense of menace that let The Elusive Moth soar, though: there are hints of secrets (the affair) from the very start but underlying hints of racial tensions are a broader concern. Meanwhile, Karolina regularly dances with a “fellow” named Kolyn who has short pants, sneakers, and hairy legs; he’s nothing like Karolona’s new Buddhist boyfriend… Karolina and Kolyn dance together beautifully, she dips so her hair nearly touches the floor, she experiences “a strange, impersonal ecstasy,” and all the drinking, dancing, and game playing starts to take on a carnival feel that reminded me of nothing so much as Dawn Powell’s Dance Night (previous post), another book about a small town, though there’s more of a feel of escape wishes there.
The Elusive Moth felt sneaky and stealthy, though I knew from the start that Karolina (who’s burned most of her possessions) would necessarily be as elusive as her moth, Hebdomophruda crenilinea, which is “a small inconspicuous moth, difficult to find, pale as a shroud.” (This particular moth, BTW, is so elusive that it’s listed on Wikipedia but doesn’t have its own page.) It’s the odd little things I enjoyed so much—the singer Pol, for example, is the first to resemble an amphibian, then others do, too, and so they drink more alcohol to warm their chilling blood. And about halfway through the book, “Every variety of urine intermingled in the toilets” near the bar and snooker room, so Winterbach goes on to describe the colors. Talk about fieldwork on humans! There are also flying ants, thoughts of death and mortality, unraveling psyches, mentions of bad haircuts, a mysterious play, and much, much more, a lovely combination that won Winterbach the M-Net Book Prize and Old Mutual Literary Prize, during the 1990s, when she wrote under the pseudonym Littie Viljoen. Gouws’s and Winterbach’s translation, which includes a few Afrikaans words that made perfect sense to me within context, has a nice matter-of-fact, almost reportorial, feel to it.
Disclaimers: Thank you to Open Letter Books, a press with whom I always enjoy discussing literature in translation, for the review copy of The Elusive Moth. The book won’t be released until July 2014.
Up Next: Roberto Bolaño’s Distant Star, which I liked very much but don’t quite know how to describe, and then Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.