Sometimes crass and vile but also relentlessly honest: A review of Man-Bitch

In Durban, there is a man, a story, and a kind of fever. The man – or, to be precise, the character – is unlike anyone you have encountered before, his whole life, at least in the window we know it, an erotic haze of forbidden dreams. Ten years after it was written, Johan van Wyk‘s story of pain and passion is still too hot – and honest, searing and incendiary – for any respectable publisher to touch. The prelude to his story: the critical reception to Man-Bitch as described by Shanta Reddy.

 

For months, much of Durban’s intellectual community has been gripped by battered photocopied versions of an unpublished novel by the respected Afrikaans poet, Johan van Wyk. And the word has been spreading.

Book shops have asked Van Wyk to read from his book and the country’s leading writers have been knocking on Van Wyk’s door. The book, Man-Bitch, is an account of Van Wyk’s relationships with a number of black women, some of whom take money in return for his love. A Sunday newspaper recently published an article sensationalising Van Wyk and his novel.

He has since received death threats and there have been strident calls from certain quarters for his dismissal from his post at the University of Durban-Westville.

So here’s an author who loves sex – no problem. In true red-blooded hormone-bursting style, he’s attracted to beautiful and sexy women – nothing wrong with that. He wants to be loved for who he is – nothing out of the ordinary. He can barely exercise control over his spending – with the weak rand and the high cost of living who can? He’s outgrown his parents – don’t we all at some stage? He’s middle-aged and balding – no cause for concern.

So why the self-righteous outrage at this Man-Bitch? The answer is multi-layered and interwoven. But it starts with the fact that Van Wyk is white and Afrikaans-speaking and many of the beautiful, sexy African women, with whom he associates are members of the world’s oldest profession.

Van Wyk is uncomfortable with the words “prostitute” or “sex worker” and the layers of stereotypes and connotations they invoke.

Likewise, the easy association of an Afrikaans-speaking male with the routine Christ-worshipping, apartheid-supporting persona persists for many of us. It’s as crisp and clear as any other stereotype. Like the common assumption that poor Africans and women who have sex for money (and especially poor African women who have sex for money) are filthy, disease-ridden and immoral.

We might acknowledge their presence but they are South Africa’s untouchable caste.

It is also difficult to separate the artist from the work of art. How, we wonder, lying on our hire-purchased Sealy Posturepedic, can a middle class, Afrikaans-speaking university professor and father of two abandon his home and family in Glenwood to live in a seedy building in Gillespie Street, even if it is a declared monument? Why does he spend more time with the children of his streetwalker lovers than with his own flesh and blood? Where did good education and religion go wrong? The questions don’t stop pricking at the bourgeois balloon.

Then there are the images, created with cinematic clarity that a reader must deal with: the worms that tickle his arse, the maggots in his fridge. His descriptions are sometimes crass and vile, but they are relentlessly honest. He refuses to seek refuge in middle class euphemism. He is never politically correct nor boorish – reare and exquisite attributes in any man. More so in a professor.

But what do we do with these images? How do we become reconciled with the idea of a man who has chosen this life?

For me the images are purified by their spontaneity. Van Wyk’s attention never waivers from detail of the here and now – this Durban, this cockroach, this orgasm.

What remains however, is the truth that while he has freed himself from suburban regime, he is still in a state of unfreedom.

He is caught between desire for a conformist relationship with a woman (he wants to be the sole provider; the only man in her life, the master to whom she must explain the spending of money and the time she spends away from him – ironically killing the sense of freedom which he found appealing in the first place) and a greater and more absolute defiance of the role that conventional morality has assigned to him (father, pedagogue, wise man, white.)

His thoughts oscillate between the freedom he has earned and the indecision that weighs him down as a result of that freedom. He floats around in a haze of depressed anxiety, awaiting the bounty that sexual and moral liberation is supposed to bring.

His exasperation sometimes courts death (“Then I went to bed lying curled up in the dark and crying, muttering “It would be good to be dead, but how to get there?”). One gets the sense, sometimes, that he cannot deal with this vertigo of freedom.

But it’s not all bleak. Van Wyk is immensely entertaining. The cling-wrapped penis episode is an eye opener (apparently it’s better than a Viagra-condom combo: it’s cheaper; stays on longer; allows for prolonged pleasure and is an excellent contraceptive). What more could the new, improved globalised South Africa want?

Despite the book’s title, it’s not all about sex. The women who trade their bodies for money exist on more complex levels than we are prepared to acknowledge.

They fight to realise the same aspirations and dreams that the average home-owner merely steps into by accident of birth. They are intelligent, street-wise and more in touch with the Rainbow Nation than any politician. On the street, stories are told and lessons are taught more effectively than in any Outcomes-based education system. Man-Bitch takes the humanity of the “bitches” very seriously and I would venture that Van Wyk’s portrayal of them is more dignified than the unctuous and paternalistic studies one gets from well-meaning but antiseptic university researchers.

The book is profoundly and powerfully philosophical. Without uttering a phrase of economics, it’s one of the most powerful critiques of our economic system I have ever encountered. Van Wyk’s narrative wrenches the reader’s breath away. Man-Bitch is about more than a mid-life crisis. He hasn’t just abandoned his family, reputation and home in a secure neighbourhood in a search for sexual excitement. (Which, in any case, he doesn’t always sustain – the odd erectile dysfunction interrupts). He’s looking for meaning too. For wisdom, which he defines, with captivating eloquence, as “reason without institution”.

People are calling Man-Bitch everything from “sensationalist pornography” to “the best critique of neo-liberalism yet written” to “nothing more or less than art”. Because it is necessary to separate the author and the protagonist (in order to read without stereotypical prejudices) and to unite them (in order to fully appreciate the philosophical impact of this book), the book unsettles easy judgements. But the message that burns so brightly is that our lives are not our own until we choose to disintegrate into who we want to be – irrespective of the consequences. Van Wyk has done this. Our streets are filled with the living dead but Van Wyk has defended the life of his soul.

Sensational it may be, but that’s not reason enough to discard it as cheap pornography. We listen to rap artists and rock stars chant the words “bitch, fuck, devil, whore” and don’t bat an eyelid. We see pornography on soapies but don’t turn the telly off. His expressions are sometimes grammatically incorrect and simple. His lovers cannot converse fluently in English. Yet, admirably, his challenge to conformity rears its head again when he includes their compositions in Man-Bitch.

Insofar as shocking but widely read literature goes, Man-Bitch can be compared to the likes of Lolita, Incest, Tropic of Cancer and the depraved masterpiece The Story of O. Lolita was banned. Tropic of Cancer was not published in America until it became a worldwide best-seller. Incest was not published until after Nin’s death, for fear of reprisals. We don’t cast aspersions on any of these books and now we call them literature.

We may be unable to fathom the reasons for Van Wyk’s exclusive attraction to African women. It may be foreign to what our institutionalised, pro-forma thought process would make us accept as proper, righteous and moral. “Progressive” women I’ve spoken to scoff at this professor’s attraction to African women. They concede  that physical beauty plays a role, but argue that one can only be attracted to an intellectual equal. Both the assumption of an intellectual imbalance and the blindness to communication beyond language, and beyond English, sentence many of us to being foreigners in our own country and in our own bodies. Other critics point to the obviously exploitative nature of his buying the “love” of women in need.

What this Man-Bitch brings home is that the words “sexy” and “beautiful” are both relative and fluid. Van Wyk challenges, yet again, the Western idea of beauty. For him the image of an appealing woman is different to the image historically forced onto him and also something which changes over time. Man-Bitch is a record of a man’s journey through the barriers of convention. It is inspiring and jolting.

I was jarred and unsettled for days after the first reading. The second reading focused me on the reality that our only duty is the duty to be free.

It is absurd that no publisher has yet had the courage to publish this book and sad that the public is missing out on an honestly written and truly remarkable story of a spirit that is at one with conformicide.

 

First published in The Independent (21 April 2001)

 

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