Literary Saloon
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.

the Best
the Rest
Review Index




to e-mail us:

support the site

buy us books !
Amazon wishlist

In Association with Amazon.com

In association with Amazon.com - UK

In association with Amazon.ca - Canada



the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Marlene van Niekerk

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Triomf

Title: Triomf
Author: Marlene van Niekerk
Genre: Novel
Written: 1994 (Eng. 1999)
Length: 524 pages
Original in: Afrikaans
Availability: Triomf - US
Triomf - UK
Triomf - Canada
Triomf - France
  • Afrikaans title: Triomf
  • Translated by Leon de Kock
  • Awarded the M-Net-Prize, CNA-Prize, and Noma-Prize

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

B+ : strange lump of a book about South African white trash family

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 18/9/1999 .
Entertainment Weekly B 27/2/2004 J.E.Dahl
L'Express . 20/6/2002 André Clavel
L'Humanité . 6/6/2002 Marc Trillard
London Rev. of Books . 20/1/2000 Elizabeth Lowry
Le Monde diplomatique . 9/2002 Pierre Lepape
The NY Times Book Rev. A 7/3/2004 Rob Nixon
The Spectator . 13/11/1999 Richard West
TLS . 26/11/1999 Molly McGrann
The Washington Post . 2/5/2004 Matt Steinglass
World Lit. Today . Spring/1995 Barend J. Toerien

  Review Consensus:

  Very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Triomf' is exquisitely written, but hardly a barrel of laughs." - The Economist

  • "Despite its 500-page bloat, van Niekerk's vivid portrait of a spectacularly dysfunctional family emerges as ultimately sympathetic." - Julia Elizabeth Dahl, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Cruel paradoxe: d'un côté, un pays qui s'éveille à la démocratie et, de l'autre, une famille qui sombre corps et âme. Ce naufrage, la romancière le peint avec une violence terrible. Mais, aussi, avec une tendresse poignante, une compassion qui transforme cette allégorie politique en parabole évangélique." - André Clavel, L'Express

  • "Son livre, Triomf, se reçoit comme une gifle, un coup de poing, un formidable coup de tabac dont le lecteur sort proprement sonné. (...) Rarement est-on allé aussi loin, sans doute, dans la description de la médiocrité et de la veulerie humaines. (...) Une étude de l'inhumanité ordinaire, en fait, une plongée dans le désastre moral où tombent ceux pour qui la vie s'est montrée trop chienne." - Marc Trillard, L'Humanité

  • "Elle a créé un mythe qui exprime la totalité d’une aventure humaine, dans toute sa complexité physique, psychologique, historique, culturelle, religieuse, dans une langue qui s’élève à la hauteur de sa vision -- brutale, tumultueuse, étouffante parfois dans sa cruelle précision." - Pierre Lepape, Le Monde diplomatique

  • "South Africa's only world-class tragicomic novel, the kind that stabs at your heart while it has you rolling on the floor. (...) Except in the final pages, where the writing tilts toward farce, van Niekerk keeps her bunch of derelicts safely this side of caricature by allowing them a density of history and emotion." - Rob Nixon, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The novel's effect is cumulative. The Benade family initially repels the reader, until the moment when the family's complicity is understood; they are damaged, frightened, uneducated people of poverty and circumstance, bound together since childhood by a family secret (not uncommon where they come from) that threatens to blow the roof off. (...) Marlene Van Niekerk's portrayal of the grotesque family relationship is well done -- claustrophobic, brutal and inescapable -- as a specimen of the neglected white South African underclass." - Molly McGrann, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Triomf's vision of incest as the logical extension of racial separatism makes for bitterly funny political allegory. As domestic drama, too, the Benades' orgies of abuse are darkly entertaining, even moving. (...) In Triomf, once the Benades have been transformed from apartheid's brutal epigones into apartheid's half-witting victims, their political and cultural pronouncements begin to align suspiciously with those of right-thinking South African liberals. (...) Triomf may be the signal Afrikaans novel of the 1990s, but it is not the best South African one" - Matt Steinglass, The Washington Post

  • "Apart from being a wonderful, page-turning "read," the work is strongly imbued with Afrikaner attitudes of the apartheid era. Van Niekerk crushes these attitudes remorselessly, particularly those involving unquestioning racism, white exclusivity, and the allocation of women to the lower rungs. The work is a kind of picaresque novel, a hilarious but also a probing account of the goings-on in a family of four" - Barend J. Toerien, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

- Return to top of the page -

The complete review's Review:

       The Benade family -- Pop and Mol, son Lambert, and Treppie -- live in the Johannesburg suburb of Triomf. Despite the grand name, 'Triumph' is anything but; built on a bulldozed black township, it's a sad last stand. The Benade family is poor, and has limited hopes and abilities. They're white trash, pretty much. Mol worries that the ground underneath Triomf -- indeed all of Jo'burg -- is all hollow, and in a way it is: there are no firm foundations any more, and while the ground doesn't literally collapse beneath them pretty much everything else does.
       The time is the months leading up to the 1994 elections in South Africa that mark the dawn of the post-apartheid era. It's due the day after another big event in the Benade household: Lambert's fortieth birthday. Pop and Treppie have promised to get the boy a woman for the night (they've been saving up all year), and he has grand visions of what that might lead to, expecting to be able to convince her to stay with him -- or flee the country with them, as they consider escape from a country changing quickly around them.
       The significance of the elections has been repeated often enough: as Lambert says: "Well, uh, it's a turning point in the history of our country !" But it's a while before someone comes with the proper rejoinder:

     "Jesus Christ ! You need to find your own bladdy turning-point. Come on, now !"
       But that's easier said than done: Lambert and family are so deep in a rut that even when they look to the skies they can barely see the stars. They're also not equipped to improve their lot. Lambert is a bit slow on the uptake, and prone to seizures and fits ("'cause he's too clever, 'cause his brain's too busy", Mol rationalises it). Pop and Mol are getting old and tired. Treppie isn't stupid, but he's a mean bastard. They thought their way to fortune lay in refrigerator repair, but that didn't quite work out. They don't have much -- but they do have each other, though much of the time it seems that just makes things worse. Indeed, this family is entirely too close for comfort: there may only be one woman in the house, but that's not quite enough of an excuse for how they make do in certain respects.
       Marlene van Niekerk's novel is a raw account of these sad and sorry lives. The characters are shown in all their ignominy (and their occasional reaches to some fundamental humanity), trying desperately to maintain some hold but, again and again, unable to. Treppie is sharp and aggressive, Lambert in and out of control, Mol and Pop resigned, just hanging on.
       Triomf is a close-up look at these lives, never straying from the tight focus on them (as they also almost never stray from Triomf itself). One can practically smell their breaths on every page -- which, after over 500 pages (and considering how bad their breaths are), can be quite a bit to take. Van Niekerk's meticulous chronicle feels true-to-life -- but these are hard lives to take. Yet in capturing all their highs and lows and showing the very gradual shifts and changes the book does often impress. There's fine comedy here (a few hilarious scenes), and one feels for their struggles. It's also an interesting reflection of a tottering country, moving very uncertainly (and, in part, somewhat reluctantly) into the future.
       In focussing on the small, everyday, where winning fifty rand is a big deal, van Niekerk creates a very complete picture of this family (which also has a secret or two that ultimately has to surface). She lets the characters speak for themselves: they are not very articulate, but ultimately understand each other -- and are understood by the reader. Occasionally the book plods along - at their pace rather than the readers -- but ultimately one gets accustomed to it.
       Early on Lambert:
looks at the cracks in the wall where the plaster fell of, at the cracks all around it. One by one he looks at the cracks, how they run up the wall, until he can't see them any more, until they disappear into the high-gloss paint.
     But he knows, under the paint they go on and on, invisible to the eye. Once it gets going, a crack in plaster is something that keeps running. Once it starts, you can never stop it.
       And that's how the book is too: van Niekerk describes all the visible cracks (and the new ones that keep coming, as more holes keep getting smashed into being), and one eventually senses the many unseen ones as well. It doesn't all come crashing down -- but, tellingly, at the end of the novel the Benades do get their house repainted. The cracks remain (and -- that's their fate -- the paint job will take them a lifetime to pay off).

       Triomf is a different kind of South African novel. Race hardly figures into it -- at least in the sense of black v. white contests -- , though politics does (as the white-nationalist parties compete to get votes among the Triomf-population, clearly the kind who would support them). It's also a family-novel -- gloriously, tragically dysfunctional though this family is.
       Not always an easy read -- the translation has a nice rhythm to it, conveying the slang (there's also a four page glossary) and the voices, but it takes a while to get used to -- and quite a long one, Triomf is a compelling and disturbing glimpse of recent South Africa. Strangely fascinating, and artfully presented.

- Return to top of the page -


Triomf: Reviews: Marlene van Niekerk: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books from and about Africa

- Return to top of the page -

About the Author:

       South African writer Marlene van Niekerk was born in 1954.

- Return to top of the page -

© 2004-2008 the complete review

Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links