Knee-high to a Beetle
By Henrietta Rose-Innes
When you’re a kid and close to the ground, you have a natural affinity with the smallest creatures, the wrigglers and strivers that tunnel their way through the foundations of the world. I was always poking into spaces between grassroots and bricks, charmed to find them occupied by mantises, ants, grass-snakes and assorted goggas. Once, I watched a swarm of exuberantly furry orange caterpillars overwhelm a tree in my mother’s garden. It was a startling image that burrowed its way into my brain and lay there for decades, pupating, until it emerged on the opening page of my novel Nineveh.
It’s lowly creatures like this that my protagonist Katya (proprietor: Painless Pest Relocations, the humane eradication service) traffics in. She’s employed by the powerful Mr Brand, developer of a glitzy housing estate outside Cape Town, to rid his property of a plague of rare and troublesome beetles. It doesn’t help that the whole place is sinking into a swamp – helped along by an array of subversive forces, of both human and insect varieties.
The estate is named “Nineveh”, after one of the great cities of human history: the great Assyrian stronghold, famously destroyed – in the Biblical account – for its hubris. The epigraph that begins the book is from Zephaniah 2:15, the verse relating Nineveh’s downfall:
‘This is the rejoicing city that dwelt carelessly, that said in her heart, I am, and there is none beside me: how is she become a desolation, a place for beasts to lie down in!’
This is meant as an image of utter despair, but I rather like the idea of wild creatures moving in and repurposing our ruins, at least until something else is built in their place. The power of the smallest to undermine the greatest is heartening; the sense that what seems oppressively monumental can be toppled – or at least tweaked – by the most despised. What results is not “a desolation”, but new, unbidden constellations of life. “Nineveh” stands for this rise and fall, this flux.
It’s where most of us live in now: rapidly changing urban worlds, where every inhabitant – large and small, powerful and weak, human and other – must perpetually adjust to shifts in circumstance, negotiating life with our neighbours in complex and unpredictable ecosystems. There’s anxiety in that, but also possibility.
Nineveh the novel is not about destruction. Although it deals with in part with rootlessness, fear and insecurity, it’s also the funniest and in some ways the most hopeful thing I’ve written. There’s comedy in a vision of grubs and tadpoles battling with single-malt-swilling businessmen for control of a real-estate empire. (That comic energy is personified in the anarchic, malodorous figure of Len, Katya’s disreputable dad, indestructible as a cockroach.)
I just hope that not too many of my readers suffer from entomophobia, excessive squeamishness with regard to frogs, or intolerance of pigeons and meerkats; and that their memories of being knee-high to a beetle remain as fond as mine.