Although Adriaan van Dis is a Dutch author of some repute, Betrayal is only the third of his novels to appear in English. I picked it up at the Edinburgh Book Festival on the strength of its translator, Ina Rilke, who has previously allowed me access to Dutch writers such as Otto de Kat and W. F. Hermans, and because, as I held it in my hand, Van Dis himself appeared in the bookshop – it seemed like fate.
The central character of Betrayal, Mulder, may be Dutch but the novel is about South Africa. As a young man Mulder was a member of a radical French organisation, Fraternite, trained to act as a courier to South Africa in the 1970s. His radicalism is, by his own admission, a youthful flirtation – “I was never much of a political animal, you know” – but a chance encounter with an old comrade, Donald, leads to him returning to South Africa:
“A chance to see what had become of their dream.”
He finds the present-day country just as segregated as it was 40 years ago: in the coastal village where Donald lives, the whites live on the dunes above the shacks of the black population “in high-walled villas…with electrified fencing glinting in the sun.” Crime is a constant threat – Mulder is advised to keep anything valuable in his washing machine. Many of the young men, with little else to do, are addicted to crystal meth.
The novel explores the frustrations of both men in relation to the country. Mulder’s attempts to venture down to the village end in a dog-bite and a case of lock-jaw; Donald meanwhile spends much of his time writing ineffectual letters of complaint to corrupt officials. His French wife’s unhappiness is such that Mulder hardly sees her; she locks herself a way in their fortified house claiming a migraine. Mulder cannot reconcile Donald’s desire for equality with the separate life he leads as a result of his skin colour:
“…and over on the coast you still don’t belong, not with the whites and not with the coloureds. You live in the kind of country you don’t want and which doesn’t want you either.”
Donald, on the other hand, feels that Mulder’s time in South Africa was simply an adventure, a diversion. Both, however, focus their attentions on a young man, the son of a local prostitute, who they feel has promise despite his drug addiction. They take Hendrick into Donald’s house and attempt to cure his addiction together. Here, in microcosm, Van Dis explores then issues of white ‘meddling’ in an attempt to improve the lives of the majority of the population.
This small-scale intervention is one of the ways Van Dis is able to add depth to his exploration of the problems of modern South Africa in what is a relatively short novel. He also benefits from having two protagonists, both hoping for a better South Africa but coming at the problem from different directions, something that creates tension between them throughout. The novel offers us no easy answers, only uncomfortable questions – questions that apply to all well-meaning interventions. It seems a pity that its publication has so far gone largely unnoticed.