||A Review of: Frankie & Stankie
by Nancy Wigston
This novel by South African-raised Barbara Trapido belongs to the
bildungsroman tradition: child is born, child grows up, child leaves
home. In this case, Dinah, in infancy dubbed Tinymite, steals the
narrative show from the beginning. By the unwritten rules of the
genre, we know that the spotlight will focus on Dinah and not on
her elder sister Lisa, a.k.a. Angel-face, later virtually eliminating
the older child in favour of the weedy, asthmatic, imaginative
younger sib. In one of Dinah's childhood games, the names "Frankie
and Stankie" emerge from her unique reading of an Italian
worker's song about a man called Carlo Franchi; from Dinah's brain
emerges a song of two reversible clowns, Frankie and Stankie. Because
this is post-war South Africa, and since the family are immigrants
from Europe, although liberal,' we also know, with the certainty
of a Jane Austen opening line, that Dinah will escape to a pluralistic
society. These are truths universally acknowledged.
If the journey, not the destination, counts most, the journey at
hand is the treacherous trek through childhood. The most gripping
bits occur early on. Young Dinah's asthma keeps her unnaturally
close to her mother, an anxiety-prone woman who likes to "off-load
gruesome stories." We recognize both parents immediately. The
mathematics professor father from Holland, always a "ready
smacker"; is an independent-minded holder of strong opinions.
In contrast, Dinah's mother is a German romantic, from a formerly
wealthy family, who grows thin and sickly after the father's
longed-for tenured appointment takes the family to humid Durban.
Their shared dis-ease brings mother and younger daughter close,
until Dinah enters the bewildering world of school, and her mother
is displaced by more powerful entities.
Trapido is a strong, intelligent stylist who poses her young
protagonist against the political backdrop of modern South Africa.
On every side, darker-hued peoples are being squeezed out of their
rights-to serve in the army, to live in desirable areas, to work
in any but the most degrading jobs. A coloured' child disappears
from Dinah's school. Eventually the odious Pass Laws codify racial
differences to a frightening and absurd degree. The voice that
informs us about racism hints that it's another European heirloom,
like the asthma-causing dust-mites in Dinah's mother's German
pillows. "The original pale-brown people of the Cape had called
themselves Khoi, but the Dutch settlers called them Hottentots. The
early Dutch had made so bold as to land because the Portuguese had
recently proved to them that the seas around the Cape didn't boil.
So the Khoi lost all their land to the Dutch and were turned into
landless labourers. They also lost their language. Except for those
peculiar clicks that got taken over by the Xhosa. Finally the Khoi
stopped being the Khoi and became the Cape Coloured people"
This sounds like a youthful inversion of the rubbish Dinah learned
in her school history books. Typical is the thrust at European
stupidity-"that the seas around the Cape didn't boil."
>From her first day at school, Dinah encounters monumental stupidity
in her classmates and disappointingly, in the teachers she likes.
It's clear that someone very like the London-dwelling adult Dinah
is writing this bifurcated narrative, yet it's jarring to encounter
the use of current terms like "street cred" when Dinah
reaches her teens in the late1950s. Trapido immerses us in the
details of Dinah's life, and such drenching can dazzle, like meeting
someone from your high school who remembers not only every person
there but also every course you took and all the people who taught
them. Yet the charm of one precocious girl's life is up against a
lot, given the circumstances. Heaven it may have been to grow up
clever, white, bewildered, and liberal in South Africa, yet hell
was all around.