TEXT review

Heart of lightness

review by Amy Brown

Paul Williams
Lacuna, New South Wales 2013
ISBN 9781922198082
Pb 209pp AUD25.00

If Heart of Darkness weren’t Conrad’s work, but instead a jolly collaboration between JM Coetzee and P. G. Wodehouse, it might have resembled Paul Williams’ latest novel, Cokraco. Part metafictional conceit, part romantic romp, all satire: Cokraco is as difficult to define as it is enjoyable to read.

Twenty-three-year-old Melbourne academic, Timothy Turner, has been offered a lecturing position in the English Department of the remote University of eSikamanga. Turner’s PhD subject, Sizwe Bantu (‘The Greatest African Writer of All Time’) is rumoured to have a residence in eSikamanga, so in accepting the position Turner embarks upon a pilgrimage to find his idol.

On arrival, Turner is disappointed. One of his students carries a (fake) AK47, his colleague Mpofu’s office has been set alight, and worst of all his (incidentally, lobotomised) Head of Department’s bookshelves are ‘plumped’ with Bloom, Kristeva, Derrida et al. ‘Be warned: this is the world of Literary Criticism, and these are Literary Critics’ (13). Bantu defines ‘KritiK’ as ‘a person who rubs his or her legs together to make a noise. . . Arch enemy of the writer’ (13). Far from being in his element in ‘Bantu Country’, Turner senses something sinister. What happened to his predecessor, Dr Makaya? Why is no Bantu taught at the University? Why are his Honours students ‘doing silly creative writing instead of studying real literature’?

Via a second-person present-tense narration, satirical footnotes and sporadic excerpts of Bantu’s own work (scrupulously referenced in a fictional bibliography), Williams gives Turner a histrionic, yet surprisingly engaging, internal monologue. As a character he is both ridiculous and sympathetic, no more so than when he unpacks his Bantu collection, including a ‘large varnished rubber cockroach’ in homage to Bantu’s seminal ‘cockroach stories’.

The subtitle of Cokraco, ‘a novel in ten cockroaches’, is an understatement. In addition to the cockroach species titling each of the ten chapters, the book is riddled with the motif. From the Coetzee epigraph, ‘Storytelling . . . / more venerable than history, / as ancient as / the cockroach’, to the infestation eating Turner’s breakfast cereal, to Bantu’s postcolonial poetry, ‘I Yam the cockroach who everyone ignores’ (18) and the students’ adaptation of The Tempest, ‘The Time Pest’, the insect is used at every angle.

As the Coetzee epigraph suggests, the cockroach becomes a metaphor for languages and narratives, particularly those from the English canon – enduring to the point of being pestilential, crawling uninvited into all manner of discourse, evolving in order to survive. Lines from other writers creep, cockroach-like, into Bantu’s verse – more cento than plagiarism [1]. Williams emphasises the futility of attempting to maintain a discourse unsullied by influence.

The cockroaches are, of course, also colonists. In Bantu’s ‘Death of a Cockroach’, his protagonist ‘the Modern Afrikanist’ is overrun by the creatures he had once admired and used in his paintings:

There were too many of them, or maybe they had grown immune, adapting to their hostile environment, and they looked a new breed, a more determined wave of invaders who had strategised and schemed, and planned their campaign of defiance... He had plenty of material for his art now, and what’s more, a crisis, a disruption to his art, which would itself make great art, but he needed time, reflection and distance in order to produce it. And of this he had none. (187)

It would not be giving too much away to reveal that the Modern Afrikanist, overcome by paranoia, sprays himself liberally with cockroach killer and meets a sticky end.

‘Death of a Cockroach’ is an example of Williams’ adroit and playful use of metafiction; it is followed by a footnote declaring that Bantu’s work derives from an “obscure” short story by Paul Williams. Narrator Turner goes on to interpret Williams’ story. The earnestness of Turner’s footnotes, one of many signs of his hopeless obsession with Bantu, is humorously convincing. Williams’ satire of academia brings to mind Maria Takolander’s ‘Roānkin’ stories that form the second part of her excellent collection, The Double (Takolander 2013). Where many of Takolander’s narrators are pompous about their academic obsession, Williams’ Turner is nearly defeated by his own.

I would like to explain in more detail Turner’s epiphany in the final chapter, but am reluctant to spoil the surprise, for, while predominantly a satire aimed at creative writing academics, Cokraco also works as a madcap mystery. Deliberately hammy in places, Williams’ pacing and description still manages to generate effective suspense – of the B-grade horror film variety. His taut and vivid descriptions of the South African setting add to the tension and eventual release.

When his Honours students ask him to play the white oppressor, Prospero, in their adaptation of The Tempest, Turner thinks:

You are aware of the baggage you carry, that they carry: that this superficial friendliness is not real, that underneath this banter is a century of resentment against white men, of which you are one. You have to tread carefully. But your instinct is to say to hell with treading carefully. Culture is not god. Culture is a mould growing and feeding on people, a deceptive green furry substance. You believe that underneath all racial, gendered, cultural, religious and political impositions, there is a fundamental sameness, common ground and this is what you need to tap into here. (45)

Cokraco could be read as Williams’ observation of the dictum: ‘to hell with treading carefully’. While its cultural and linguistic political commentary is far from subtle, the execution of the satire is sure-footed. Williams’ technical knack for humour gives his latest novel the potential to appeal beyond its obvious niche market of creative writing academia.




Works cited


Dr Amy Brown is a New Zealand poet and novelist, who lives in Melbourne. In 2012, she completed her PhD at the University of Melbourne, where she now teaches creative writing. Her first book, The Propaganda Poster Girl, was shortlisted for a New Zealand Book Award in 2009. Her latest book, a contemporary epic poem titled The Odour of Sanctity was published in 2013.


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Vol 18 No 1 April 2014
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo