There are people who think they know Cape Town. People who spend a few months here, or even just a holiday, thinking it’s so beautiful, so much like home (Europe), but you know with exciting new-world elements and just enough of a touch of Africa to make it exotic, and so many adventure activities like paragliding and kayaking and mountain hiking.
Or people who’ve lived here a year or two and think it’s all outdoor fitness activities and first Thursdays and flirting with skin cancer at Clifton but you know, it’s a bit cliquey. Or people who’ve lived here a decade and think it’s politically complex with a well established cafè culture and woke youth and functioning infrastructure but the worst traffic south of Lagos. Or people who come to study or work in the shadow of the mountain who see it as racist and colonial and untransformed.
It’s all of those things but they’re just a fraction of the whole. Parts of it are also uglier than Durban’s industrial arse-end and Krugersdorp’s mine dumps combined. There are entire suburbs populated by people who don’t run or cycle in spandex but carry large boeps beneath two-tone khaki shirts and consider exercise being a trip in the double-cab bakkie to the shooting range. It has communities that live with permanent rivers of sewage at their front doors for whom a decent cup of coffee is hot water with three spoons of Koffiehuis and four of sugar.
As for understanding the psyche of Cape Town, just say it’s one of those situations where the more you know, the more you realise you don’t know. After 30-odd years in this warped place sticking out like a coccyx at the bottom of a continent sitting with its arse in two oceans, the only thing I know is that you don’t even begin to start understanding Cape Town if you don’t understand the ‘Flats. And you can’t understand the ‘Flats if you haven’t lived there. And by ‘Flats I don’t mean just Mitchell’s Plain, I mean amongst people who were forcibly removed from the mountain – District Six, Constantia, Simon’s Town, Franschoek, Stellenbosch – and forced to make a life on ever-shifting sands. And by lived there, I mean, grown up there. So unless you’re a genuine bruin ou or vrou, you need to accept that at some level, you’re a tourist. Permanent, even lifelong resident maybe, but still a tourist.
There’s a parallel universe, call it an underworld if you like, which is the genitals of this city; its sex and its drive and its anarchy. Likewise, it’s covered, rarely seen. There are glimpses of course - two souped-up Jettas screaming past you at 2am on a Monday as they dice along the R300 while you’re making your way home from a Vortex party, a 28s general with a softserve and dead eyes at a family beach who you don’t dare look at directly but seems to make the sun go cold and your balls shift involuntarily, that woman with bling and heels and eyes and cheekbones sharp enough to carve your beating heart out your chest daring you to edge your car forward as she saunters across a red light on her way to a Golden Arrow bus stop. That fisherman in stained pants and ragged jersey staring through you to the end of the world as your argument about how two hundred bucks seems steep for a kreef dies strangled in your throat.
Those are among the people who are its landscape, not written about in glossy magazines and brochures. The kind of people Mia Arderne brings to life in her debut novel, Mermaid Fillet which, as a title, for this book, is utterly brilliant.
For all the underworld nature of Cape Town, and the genuinely Capetonian characters the novel allows to bloom in our mind, she shows how nuanced they are as individuals, so that the stereotypes of dropped suspension petrolhead, gangster, murderous matriarch, and button-kop fisherman are obliterated.
With local language and an unapologetic lack of a glossary, Mermaid Fillet exposes Cape Town’s sacral chakra in all its glorious complexity. People capable of sticking a hook through a man’s jaw and hanging him from a warehouse rafter, or of drinking themselves to death, or of making a living as a cold-blooded assassin, who love their children, play dominoes after church with gran at the kitchen table, suffer debilitating depression, revere their wives, abuse women, laugh, take family outings to the beach, celebrate Christmas.
The novel jumps around like a tikmonster at a shebeen on a Sunday afternoon, flights of fancy included. And as Noir Crime – as it is billed – the plot would be dispensed with in two chapters of an Ian Rankin novel, but the characters are expertly drawn with a spare pen and there is an immersive, unrepentant darkness to it that belies its weaknesses, grabs you by the gonads and makes you beg for mercy or more.
I say more. Because pain is real and necessary for diagnosis. There is something very hurt in the Cape, this place that reverberates up through the continent like a tuning fork, and Mia Arderne has a finger on it, pressing that wound.