Betrayal by Adriaan van Dis

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Betrayal by Adriaan van Dis

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A European returns to South African to find a different world from the one he dreamt of back in the 60s. This is as much a study of how political change can mean more of the same in disguise as it is a story about a secret past revisited. The good news is that it’s successful at both.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: August 2013
Publisher: MacLehose Press
ISBN: 978-0857051844

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Dutchman Mulder renews his acquaintance with his old friend Donald as he returns to South Africa, a land he knew well in the days of apartheid. Life may have moved on and apartheid ceased but some things have worsened. Have Mulder and Donald made any difference at all? As they recall their shadier youth, they have one more chance to struggle for someone's freedom against all odds and violent society.

Adriaan Van Dis is a Dutch writer and TV presenter who uses one of the more difficult written genres with which to communicate: the novella. Difficult because a world of meaning has to be conveyed in a limited length. Although it's not as condensed as a short story, each sentence must still serve a purpose and here Adriaan shows he's more than a match for the art.

Betrayal is reminiscent of Graham Greene's work as well as the more recent novels of John le Carre as Adriaan evokes the world of the ageing loner revisiting his past.

As Mulder travels back to a country for which he felt so passionately as a youngster he realises that different isn't necessarily better. The black townships still suffer and squalid conditions still prevail for those not black enough. Women selling their bodies may not be deemed respectable but for some, it's necessary, even if the guarantee of more food doesn't include a guarantee of survival.

Gradually we learn more about Mulder and Donald during flashbacks that season the present, providing twists and surprises. This is vastly aided by the fact that back in the day Mulder was known as Marten, differentiating nicely between time zones and between the younger man and stroke-damaged melancholic he's become. However, despite illness and age, there's life in the old dog yet, causing the story to shift a gear in the second half.

It doesn't take us long to realise this novel isn't going to appear on the South Africa Tourist Board's reading list, but that's not a drawback. The authenticity leaps from the narrative as we read about what's become of the darker areas (in tone, not ethnicity) providing an insider's view as the disasters (man-made and natural) unravel around us.

Adriaan brings us a story of deprivation without preaching or suggesting quixotic solutions. Instead, he shows us the results of the complex contributions flawed humanity, politics, power and resource distribution have made. Subject matter like this generally gives birth to a dirge of a story but in these hands, it's become a compelling fable for those with eyes to see and compassion to feel.

If this appeals and you'd like to explore more of the history of South Africa, we recommend Whitethorn by Bryce Courtenay. If, on the other hand, you want to check out the comparisons how about A Delicate Truth by John le Carre?

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