This review of Karkloof Blue was published in der Freitag on 16 November 2015. Here’s an English translation for your reading pleasure.
Old wire cables
South Africa: In Charlotte Otter’s “Karkloof Blue”, irascible reporter Maggie takes on a timber company.
Karkloof Blue is the name of the rare butterfly whose habitat is threatened by the planned clearance of natural forest in the middle of plantations surrounding the city of Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal province.
A butterfly novel? If you happen to have any preconceived notions about “female crime novels” they will probably be popping into your head right about now. Unless of course you’ve read South African author Charlotte Otter’s dynamic debut, Balthasar’s Gift (2013), which will have wiped your mind clean of any potentially negative connotations.
When a troop of environment activists attempts to thwart timber company Sentinel’s plans, Maggie as a news reporter should really just be chained to her desk. She ignores this, of course, and she is joined by her brother Christo whom she looks after; inadequately in her view, hyper-protectively and condenscendingly in his. Christo’s psyche has been shaped by the Apartheid regime; after all, no-one escapes a barbaric system, not even the privileged. Traumatised, he deserts following his deployment in border disputes, is landed in prison, and ends up on a psychiatric ward. Now recovered after many years, Christo rescues butterflies; a pursuit that turns out to be not at all as naive or worldly innocent as it appears. Christo is essentially protesting against the human-centric hybris challenged by any broader consideration of the world’s continued existence.
The discovery of a mass grave buys the butterfly some time: Sentinel’s bulldozers and excavators are forced to stop. Who were the people buried in the forest? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission created by the ANC following the end of Apartheid uncovered many crimes, but many others never saw the light of day.
A Sentinel employee falls to his death. Suicide? Maggie is dubious. A female scientist is brutally attacked and her lover threatened. Maggie continues to investigate, races angrily through the night on her motorbike until she regains control of herself, remembering her son. Yes, she is a mother, but she represents the modern ideal of motherhood and femininity. While Maggie unravels the company’s greenwashing activities, the child stays safely with its father. The adults’ relationship no longer takes the form of being a couple, but of co-parents.
Charlotte Otter constructs a female protagonist who is not simply just strong or even heroic, but who is courageous, committed and vunerable. Maggie refuses to see herself as a victim, even though she ends up unable to avoid becoming heavily involved. She refuses to let her well-researched articles be watered down to benefit the local paper’s business interests in terms of paper prices. She refuses to muddle through under the radar like those who think it’s not possible to impact the weighty, well-funded machinations of the company whose profiteering is masked by token gesture green publicity.
Refused a handshake
Charlotte Otter, now living in Heidelberg with her family, paints the picture of a society in upheaval and in conflict with its past. She portrays the uncertainty in a country with massive social contrasts: barbed wire fences protect the houses of those in positions of privilege whilst the losers vegetate in shacks. And she portrays the minor degradations that women are exposed to on a daily basis, not just in South Africa. For example, the name of another reporter is cited at the top of Maggie’s article, despite the fact that the man in question is a journalistic dunce. Tribal leaders refuse to shake her hand. Even the politically neutral female scientist is forced to learn that “women with opinions are dangerous”.
Karkloof Blue tackles pertinent interconnections between the economy and the executive powers in South Africa, between institutional brutality and media reporting, between patriarchal claims to power and ecological necessity. Broken by the beat of a butterfly’s wing: complex, tough, ironic.