In Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, one of the greatest works of modern fiction that I haven’t got around to reading yet, a man named Gregor Samsa awakens one morning in his family’s apartment to find that he has transformed overnight into a gigantic insect.
A “vermin”, or Ungeziefer, as the opening sentence of the original German text puts it.
The story deals with Samsa’s struggle to come to terms with his new form – his armoured exo-skeleton, his feelers, his many, flailing limbs – and with his growing alienation from his family, friends, and the society which once took him for granted, and which he took for granted in return.
Now, as a human-sized creature, repulsive to those around him, shooed away, pelted with objects, he is alone with his fears,a fugitive, a forager, his body a mess of festering wounds.
“Metamorphosis” is not a comedy.
But it is one of the reasons why we today use the term “Kafkaesque” to describe the scenario of a waking nightmare, usually urban, usually brought about by bureaucratic bungling or the mind-numbing, perfectly logical sets of rules and principles on which totalitarian societies are built.
In Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9”, one of the greatest works of modern Science Fiction that I got around to seeing this morning, a man named Wikus van de Merwe accidentally spritzes himself with a cannister of extraterrestrial fluid, and…well, I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you, but suffice to say, he undergoes a metamorphosis.
He turns from a neatly-dressed, hair-nicely-combed, bright-eyed middle-level bureaucrat, working for the Alien Affairs Department of a mega-corporation named Multi National United, into a grimy, blood-and-grease-splattered fugitive, his wounds oozing, his eyes full of fear and rheum, as he finds himself cut off from family, friends, corporation and society.
When I first saw the name Wikus van de Merwe as a title on one of the many TV screens that drive District 9’s narrative, I thought it was a mistake, because I had thought his name to be plain and simple Wikus van der Merwe.
But it’s definitely DE Merwe, which is a less common variant of the surname, and I kept wondering why Blomkamp had chosen that particular spelling.
As the movie progressed, and as Wikus transformed from a human into something not quite human, or possibly superhuman, the “De” stuck in my mind to the point where I couldn’t help thinking of another famous South African with a “De” in his name.
Another South African who, seemingly out of nowhere, seemingly all of a sudden, “transformed” into something or someone else.
Frederick Willem De Klerk, ex State President, Noble Peace Laureate, statesman and negotiator.
I know, it’s crazy, and I know I’m reading way too much into a lekker, funny, adrenaline-pumping Fok, Skiet en Donner flick, but from that point on, District 9 became to me a movie about transformation, about metamorphosis, about the way people change not through moments of epiphany or revelation, but through actual physical jolts that make them see what is wrong with the world around them, and what they must do to fix it.
To me, District 9 is not at all a movie about Apartheid. It’s a movie about Post-Apartheid: about South Africa right here and now, about our struggle to come to terms with the hatred and violence of the past, and with the Rainbow dream that we once bought into, as “music from heaven”, to use the words of an academic who attempts to analyse and understand the alien influx on screen.
District 9 left me feeling shattered, elevated, proud to be a South African and a little ashamed to be one too.
Either way, it is one of the most gripping, moving, intense and thought-provoking movies I have ever seen, in any genre, shocking in the familiarity of its languages and its landscapes, gut-punching in its action, cathartic in its dark, cynical humour.
If you’re a South African, I urge you to see this movie. In fact, I urge myself to see it again. And someday, hopefully, to finally get around to reading Franz Kafka’s fokken Metamorphosis.