The Elusive Moth  by  Ingrid Winterbach  trans.  Iris Gouws & the author  (Open Letter, May 2014)  Reviewed by  Emmanuel Iduma

The Elusive Moth
by Ingrid Winterbach
trans. Iris Gouws & the author
(Open Letter, May 2014)

Reviewed by Emmanuel Iduma

The Elusive Moth is an exploration of a strange kind: each inch covered is more or less a marathon. Ingrid Winterbach’s writing reads as a deliberately paced uncovering of broken things and lives within a ruptured space. The chronology remains warped. Although it is clear that the people sauntering within the novel are more than just ideas—rather, they are troubled people with indefinite impulses—they live their lives on the premise of inexpressible ideas.

The novel comprises twenty-three chapters, all describing incidents that occur when Karolina, an entomologist, goes to a small town to research the survival strategies of a rare moth species. The novel, then, is immediately haunted by rarity, the improbability of discovery. Winterbach’s impulse is to sustain the pulse of a search in progress. From the first page it is clear the search will never be completed—that pangs of exploration hang on the edge of each sentence, and every page bears the marks of elusion. This imperative is particularly evident in the narrative itself: told in dispatches, small chunks of paragraphs clustered together, as though Winterbach is recording the travails of Karolina’s life as they occurred.

Events occur sequentially in the novel: there is a buildup of sorts, a culmination of violence and trauma. Yet when the novel comes to a close, the events materialize as an array of moments. None of these events suffice as a climax; the intensities of Karolina’s life are in continuum. In many instances, Winterbach helps us realize the incompleteness of our lives, the berating elusiveness we share.


The South African writer Lettie Viljoen, who often publishes under the pseudonym Ingrid Winterbach, has worked as a full-time writer since 2002. She is also a painter, and, asked in an interview how visual art fits with her writing, she said:

It is difficult to do two things. If you are only a writer or a visual artist you don’t have to divide your time. I try to do both. I think because I have had more success, I have spent more time on my writing – tend to do more of that. But I think it is necessary to also do visual art. I am less harassed when I do that. It is a different kind of activity –more meditative. I think I need it as a kind of balance. I get uptight if I only write.

But The Elusive Moth works also as a meditation in the way the subtextual parts of the narrative fit together. In a direct way it fulfills Henri Cartier-Bresson’s words to John Berger (quoted in Berger’s Photocopies): “A drawing is an always unfinished journey towards a whole…” Her imperative as a visual artist comes through in her writing: a meditation, an unfinished journey towards a whole, an act of finding balance.

Winterbach’s writing is thick with metaphors, and her vision slips through uneasily. The frustration that keeps us going towards the final sentence is the simultaneous (and often aggressive) rush of perceptions. This is by no means a failure for the novel, although it requires perseverance; it is an indication of Winterbach’s attempt to scratch at the underbelly of language to find the meaning of sentimentality and elusion.


Originally written in Afrikaans, the English translation of The Elusive Moth is made available to American readers by Iris Gouws. Even in translation, and despite the knottiness at the heart of the novel, Winterbach’s writing illuminates a journey in progress. Regarding Karolina Ferreira, the novel’s main character, we are told:

She stood before the mirror. Her eyes stared back darkly. The dark eyebrows were heavy. Her shoulders had lost their soft, feminine curve. Her skin was pale, despite the natural darkness of her complexion. Her dark hair was badly cut. She looked like someone in the process of becoming. Unfinished. Incomplete.

Karolina’s interactions happen in a small town, where in one afternoon you could meet the same person twice: “It had a simple, rectangular layout. The long main street extended as far as the church. The other streets ran parallel to the main street, or at right angles to it.” At the time of the year she visits, the town is extremely hot and dry. It is a town from her past: her father had done some of his research work there and they had visited as a family for holidays. It is a town of black servants, off a major city, at the height of Apartheid. The town’s location “at the dorp Voorspoed, in the Free State” is only mentioned once; its character is entirely determined by the narrative. Most of her encounters take place in the ladies’ bar of her hotel, and a snooker room adjacent to it. The snooker room is “filled with strange vibrations, a place where one could go made and commit a crime, where one could lose one’s head and one’s good judgment, and be at the mercy of the collusions of one’s neighbor as well as one’s own unfathomable drives.” A group of people share a small breathing space without exhaling their private aches and intentions. This space will eventually disintegrate.

Winterbach ultimately navigates melancholy—not merely the deep feeling of sadness, but the inarticulacy that often accompanies such feeling. The looming cloud of an unknown and irredeemable future (like a door with broken hinge that cannot be closed) is projected on the characters. These characters are both harbingers of desire as well as bearers of their inability to have these desires met. This is summed in Karolina’s experience. A skilled middle-aged entomologist, decidedly celibate, forever indebted to her father who taught her all she knows about insects, in need of a form of succor and acceptance, at the brink of finding the logic (as it seemed) with which her life worked, and a terrific dancer.

Her dreams are desolate, and in the narrative they are windows into a world of desperation and elusion. The book’s first sentence recounts a dream she had long ago, “of a promenade by the sea with a row of palm trees growing down the centre, and the body of a man, hacked in two, with blood spurting from it.” This dream is realized, in part, when she comes upon the scene of an accident. Two men are involved, and “a jet of blood spurted freely, like a fountain” from a deep gash in the leg of the one who survived. Yet in her persistent dreams she moves between a re-orchestration of her past and a staging of her ultimate desires. These nightly encounters with her subconscious are evidence of her transformation—“As if each night she would round up everyone she had ever known or loved, abused or scorned or hated, in order that they may appear before her once again and she may thoroughly reassess and reconsider every possibility.” Soon these opaque dreams affect her waking thoughts. Her past resurfaces with its contents, things she had not given a thought for many years.

In the opening of the novel, she meets Basil September with whom she works in the veld daily. Basil, recently separated from his beloved, knew the properties of all the plants, tiny flowers, insects, dry bones and land shells they found among the tufts of dry grass in the veld. Meeting Basil had been fortuitous; a total stranger to her, she had picked him up on the way to the town. Fortitude gives way to prescience in their relationship. As they begin to meet the town’s inhabitants, she relies on his companionship, his judgment of character, and what he perceives of the future. Towards the end of her stay in the town—after a season of intimacies, friendships and tragedies—she wonders what was tenable without his presence and how she could part from him.

Karolina’s friendships are often anchored on the tenability of intimacy. Approaching the town, she enters a caravan to consult a woman crowned with “a nest of gilded hair reaching up to the roof who says some “absurd, unsubstantiated things.” The psychic woman sees a man who would love Karolina forever, and a close friend who would never let her down. Her intimacies are tenable in the natural way in which they occur; each friendship and romance is founded on the exigencies of the moment, on Karolyn’s need for clarity and balance. In addition to Basil, she befriends Pol Habernaut, a lawyer, who says to her in their first meeting at the ladies’ bar, “I shudder at the thought of all you may discover here,” and subsequently feels happy each time she sees him. During the course of her time in the town she begins a romantic relationship with Jess Jankowitz, a shy and self-conscious man: “time stood still when they were in each other’s arms.” She becomes a woman protected by the knowledge men seem to possess of the world.

Karolina’s characterization as a woman in need of male support seems problematic. She is weighed down by the falling weight of several men. These men are troubled in their own ways, and perhaps Winterbach’s aim is to investigate what stakes each person had during communal desperation.

It is a male-dominated world, yet Karolina’s quest for visibility comes to the fore. She works side by side with a man, becomes romantically involved with another who responds intelligently to her existential questions, and gets the general feel of the town from a third who is as uncertain as she was about the stream of happenings. As the novel progresses she is noticeable as a woman having to wade through an atmosphere “thick with male emanations.”

Karolina’s tenable intimacies point back to the psychic woman’s predictions. She spends brief moments with Adelia Farber and her husband, a couple touring the country who make a quick stop at the town. She is “unaccountably drawn to Adelia from the moment they met.” Adelia eventually writes Karolina after she returns overseas. Jess Jankowitz, at the end of the book, is spoken of in a continuous sense, as one who offers his enduring love, and as a constant presence in her life after she leaves the town. Although the hotel with the snooker room and the ladies’ bar would eventually disintegrate literally (by fire) and metaphorically (by a visitor’s suicide), Karolina’s intimacies are tenable in the ways they develop, mature and endure in the course of the novel, and this is one small victory over elusion.

Other small victories are apparent. Throughout the novel, Karolina dances weekly with an elusive fellow, Kolyn.

Nothing but the dance remained to connect Karolina—by the most tenuous of threads—to the deepest, most passionate, unfettered aspects of her psyche. Only within the narrowly circumscribed movements of the dance could she (on rare and unexpected occasions) raise the column of liquid fire in her spine, and experience a strange, impersonal ecstasy.

The body often defies indeterminacy, open as it can be to rigorous examination. As such, this return to the body as the fulcrum of desire is hardly surprising. Karolina’s constant dilemma seems to be to uncover the specificities of her fettered psyche. The “elusiveness” of the book’s title is less in survival strategies of a rare moth species she seeks, and more in the reticence of her thoughts—all of which give way when she dances. In this way, dance becomes an act of liberation, a path towards clarity.

The novel opened itself to me as a meditation on community. A community, as Blanchot writes in The Unavowable Community, “lays itself open to its own communion.” This immediately suggests a Eucharistic communion: the breaking of bread and the drinking of wine from a shared vessel. It is, in fact, the breaking of one’s self, and the sharing of that broken self with others. It is also abandonment to what Blanchot calls an “exigency of community,” an urgent imperative to go beyond the self, a redundant psyche, into a collective one. This is why from the earliest moment we are told that Karolina is in “the process of becoming.” The process is one that makes a continuous demand, a constant return to the place of insufficiency and need to commune with others, regardless of the circumstances that make that difficult.

Blanchot is clear about the stakes for an individual’s traversal into community (and this is painfully evident in Karolina’s story):

A being does not want to be recognized, it wants to be contested: in order to exist it goes towards the other, which contests and at times negates it . . . experiencing itself . . . as an existence shattered through and through, composing itself only as it decomposes itself constantly, violently and in silence.

Karolina’s de-composition is apparent as the heightening of tensions in the community she has committed herself to. This de-composition is the loss of balance, the shakiness at the heart of her intimacies. Her place in the world is contested, not identified, by men who seek sensuality from her and who implicate her in their games (of which she is a willing and witty player). As her stay in the town is extended, the marks of her presence are etched deeper, and she moves closer towards the strange otherness of a newfound community. Perhaps this community’s essence is apparent for Karolina in the snooker room, a place where she cannot resist visiting, a place that negates her individuality and a place where she goes to unravel her psyche.

The Elusive Moth highlights an important distinction that has been made between Global Literature and an internationalist literary project. The editors of n+1 write in their seminal essay, “Global Lite”:

Global Lit tends to accept as given the tastes of an international middlebrow audience; internationalism, by contrast, seeks to create the taste by which it is to be enjoyed. The difference, crudely, is between a product and a project . . . The project can only be one of opposition to prevailing tastes, ways of writing, and politics. Global Lit, defined more by a set of institutions than a convergence of projects, treats literature as a self-evident autonomous good, as if some standard of literary excellence could be isolated from what writers have to say and how they say it.

I situate Winterbach’s work within this debate to emphasize the motions within her work. It is a “convergence of projects,” a continuous loop of impulses. The clinical precision of many contemporary African novels that attempt to tell stories with agreeable endings is absent here; instead the novel’s gaps and brackets remain open, confirming a torturedness central to its formation. Winterbach’s handling of material might not suffice for the sort of crowd that judges awards, attends literary festivals, or makes literature into a sellable global commodity. (It is hardly surprising her novels are published by a nonprofit literary translation press, an independent within the global literary publishing industry).

This is time for Ingrid Winterbach to be more visible. Her prominence is not dependent on fame in the United States; as an Afrikaans writer, her work is read and venerated within South Africa. She has already received the prestigious Hertzog Prize in 2004, famed as the most important prize in Afrikaans literature. Instead, by increased visibility, I ask that we demand more critical attention to her translated work, to complement the work done by her translator and publisher—for the sake of an international literary project that, although written in a certain vernacular, gestures at a borderless audience. Winterbach’s book promises itchy warmth and introspection for any reader tortured by the exigencies of finding balance.


Emmanuel Iduma is the author of Farad and co-editor of Gambit: Newer African Writing. He is studying for his MFA in Art Criticism and Writing at the School of Visual Arts, New York.