[Fiction issue] ‘The Story of My Cousin’ by Koos Prinsloo, newly translated by Michiel Heyns

In The JRB Fiction Issue this year, we are delighted to feature two short stories by Koos Prinsloo, published for the first time in English, translated from the Afrikaans by award-winning author and translator Michiel Heyns.

Prinsloo was an Afrikaans journalist and author, known for his autobiographical, postmodern writing. He was born in Kenya in 1957, and moved to to South Africa with his parents in 1962. His debut collection of short stories, Jonkmanskas, was published in 1982. Prinsloo’s work was often controversial: in 1988 his collection Die hemel help ons was adjudged the winner of the Rapport Prize, but he was never officially given the award, as a sentence in one of the stories was viewed as disrespectful to then-president PW Botha.

Prinsloo died on 4 March 1994, aged just thirty-six, from Aids-related causes. His books JonkmanskasDie hemel help onsSlagplaas and Weifeling were published as a combined volume, Verhale, in 2008.

The two stories published in this issue of The JRB, ‘The Story of My Cousin’ ‘The Story of My Father’, are significant because they are among the first fictional texts about HIV/Aids in South African literature.


The Story of My Cousin

My cousin Bennie is dying. He weighs less than a hundred pounds, according to my mother the other day on the telephone. Yes, shame, she says. (Bennie is the second son of her sister, my Auntie Boytjie.) It’s the first time my mother has spoken to me about it. It was actually my father who three months ago (also on the telephone) broke the news to me. Perhaps it was easier for him, he’s not a blood relative. Yes, Auntie Boytjie (as a child she was a terrible tomboy, so she got this nickname) is visiting Bennie in the city and wants to take him ‘home’ to the town of his birth. It’s apparently all out in the open now, my father said then and added almost resignedly: Yes, that’s the way it goes. These things happen in life.

Not that I hadn’t known about Bennie for a few months already. The truth to tell, last year when my mother phoned after Uncle Dawid’s funeral (his heart had failed) I had got wind of something. Bennie is as lean as a rake, she said. (Half reproachfully because I hadn’t been at her brother’s funeral whereas Bennie had? He and I live in the same city after all.) Bennie was apparently in hospital with a stomach ulcer, she said. Not that he was ever exactly fat. Tall and lean, yes, like my mother’s father. He and I have always taken after our grandfather physically, it was said. Slender. Bennie was just much more sporting than I. Provincial rugby and tennis and so on. I never even made the interschool swimming team.

It was Willem, the doctor’s reception sister, who spoke out of turn about Bennie. He threatened me with dire consequences if I opened my mouth, but since he’s no longer working there (I suspect he’s now running some or other massage outfit) and since my cousin Bennie ‘is no longer the man he was’ (remember, he weighs less than a hundred pounds, according to my mother), I suppose I might as well tell what I know.

Willem the nursing sister and Philip (Bennie’s lover for the last eight years) ‘gunched’, as Willem puts it, after they met in the doctor’s reception room. Willem knew about Philip’s relationship with Bennie, but then Willem spares nobody and meets his dream man every second week. That week it was Philip’s turn on the white horse. The fucking with Philip (since Bennie fell ill, Philip’s sex life was non-existent; that, in any case, is what Willem says Philip said) didn’t last very long either, and Willem is now furious with him. My cousin Bennie, on the other hand, is a wonderful person, says Willem. I drew my conclusions and kept my trap shut until my father phoned and said the family knows about Bennie.

What I did not know is that for some months now he hasn’t been working. Philip told me that today in the doctor’s waiting room. I was quite taken aback. We had seen each other four years ago when he and Bennie came to pick up biscuits that I’d brought back from Auntie Boytjie after a chance visit. All that I can remember from that one evening’s overnighting with the family is my Uncle Shit asking: ‘So, are you enjoying things here in Kaffirland?’ Oh yes, and what my cousin Bertus, Bennie’s elder brother, looked like: slip-slops, shorts, big belly and ferocious bush of a beard. (His sense of ‘style’ was established years ago in the Bush War.)

Philip and I of course have known each other from years ago when we were students. What I will remember for ever and what never fails to move me is how he wept about his father after I’d fucked him one night. That was twelve years ago, a week before I met my first lover at a piano recital and two years before the slaughter in America commenced.

The first time I saw Philip with Bennie was on Beachwood beach, where they were lying behind some bushes perving men. Then, years later, one New Year’s Eve in a club. We were all drunk and Bennie hugged me (he was no longer wearing a shirt) and wished me a prosperous new year. Everyone’s bodies were sticky with champagne. That was also the last time I saw him. Odd that I should in fact know Philip better than my own blood cousin. As children Bennie and I saw each other only here and there over a Christmas holiday. He was always part of the gang of cousins who were either trying to fuck me or pelt me with stones.

After Grandpa’s death in the autumn of ’68 (he survived the first stroke by a mere half-hour) and Grandma’s passing three months later, I literally did not see Bennie again for two decades. I inherited a delicate gold tie-pin of eight carats from Grandpa. What Bennie got, he was then twelve years old, I don’t know, but he must have got something, for he bears Grandpa’s names. (His elder brother, Albertus, was named after the paternal line.) All I remember of this time is that the family gossiped furiously about Uncle Dawid and Aunty Rita, who started plundering the wardrobe like scavengers even before Grandpa was buried.

That is why I was more than just taken aback when twenty years later one Sunday afternoon in the rose garden at Emmarentia I recognised a man in Wayfarers as my cousin Bennie. This was way back in the old days before the municipality’s iron gates and the murders. And the epidemic. I got Bennie’s number later that week from my mother and invited him for supper. The evening went down extremely ‘cordially’ and all that he let drop was that he’d been overseas. America, evidently, and the West Coast specifically. (Question: Why do the blondes in San Francisco not wear miniskirts? Answer: They’re scared their balls will hang out.)

I never visited Bennie at home, but apparently it was painfully clean, according to one of my female cousins who’s been there, says mother on the phone. Too tidy, you know, my mother says.


And so, today, I bumped into Philip at the doctor’s. What struck me is his athletic body, the slightly theatrical sway of the hip. Once a queen always a queen, I thought. The year in which we met one night in the park he was the college’s victor ludorum. We hugged, conventionally, according to the code of the ghetto. He couldn’t wait to let rip with his story: melodramatic pauses included.

‘Look, Uncle Shit and Auntie Boytjie did a very ugly thing,’ he said. (Pause.)

I was going to say that I knew about Bennie, but Philip, his eyes red (Too little sleep? Had he been crying? Inflammation?), wanted to and was going to be heard.

Look, so Bennie’s birthday is early in November and his parents sent a plane ticket. That was after he’d been there two months earlier, but couldn’t stand it with the family. (My father confirmed this: He couldn’t stand it with Uncle Shit and had to be back here for medical treatment.) Bertus’s wife’s sister took him to the airport. (So the whole fandamily was in cahoots.) Bennie had been bedridden for eight months by then, but that Philip would divulge only later. (Willem, of course, says Bennie had hardly properly left town, this was the first time he went there, before Philip made an entrance at the Dungeon with a new little number.)

Before Philip knew where he was, the sister-in-law’s sister and Bennie’s elder brother turned up at the flat one afternoon with a policeman and a court order (out: within twenty-four hours!) forbidding him the flat (in Bennie’s name).

‘Yes, Bennie paid the instalments and my salary went into the groceries.’

And Bertus?

‘He let me gather my stuff, and he wasn’t unpleasant. He just said I had to remember they lived in a small town and the people gossip. As if they didn’t gossip in the city as well …’

In Bertus’s bodybuilding manual … when was it? 1968? Ransack (my mother’s word) your memory, the writer tells himself. But his memory is full of holes, corroded by subjectivity and whittled away by time. What, in any case, would he be able to ‘plunder’ of Bennie’s life? Just one meagre story? In Bertus’s bodybuilding manual it said that you had to keep your hands off yourself. (Perhaps it said that you should limit your wanking. Only twice a week, or so.) And just look at Bennie’s muscles now.

The second shock was the will. Philip’s name was nowhere to be found any more. They probably forced Ben to sign, says Philip, ‘and with all due respect, you can ask the doctor yourself, he saw Ben before he left, Ben was no longer the man that he was.’

Dementia? Was the will Bennie’s revenge for Philip’s infidelity with the trashy nurse? Who knows? Other people’s books are closed to you, as my father would say.

‘But how could Auntie Boytjie (my blood family) allow it?’ I made an effort to lend support.

‘Listen, you know Uncle Shit. When he shouts “Jump”, Auntie Boytjie jumps.’

I was going to laugh, but with downcast eyes Philip seized the moment: ‘And that after I’d been washing and caring for Bennie since April …’ (Long pause.)

I sighed. Would that he hadn’t said it. He suddenly looked up for the punchline: What’s the worst for him is that they had the flat’s locks changed, says Philip.


The doctor, Chubbycheeks, is not exactly impressed with my family either. Apparently they still turn up regularly to collect medicine that they stuff down Bennie’s throat (Zidovudine? Didanosine?) And all that he needs now, the doctor declares, is enough morphine.

The passage across the Styx lasts a week. Some say it’s a river-without-end. Ferryman Charon rows rhythmically. Black water. Listen. Do you hear the dogs barking? Yes, come closer, dearly beloved. Coins at hand. The instruction is simple: force open the clenched jaws of the corpse, and, carefully now, yes, like that, neatly place the fare on his scaly fungus-flecked milk-white tongue.


While lying on my right side so that the doctor could inspect the little fever blisters between my buttocks with his powder-white rubber gloves (he said that the two big ulcers had healed nicely and prescribed more Aciclovir), I all of a sudden thought again of the whole palaver around my cousin and of one of the things Philip had shared with me in the waiting room: Bennie had told his mother and father that he’d got it from a blood transfusion.

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