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Book Review: The Lazarus Funeral Parlour

A slightly edited version of this review was published in The Weekender, 29-30 August, 2009. The newspaper's headline was "Religion creates a storm in small town."

The Waterberg gained an enduring reputation for the offbeat when Paul Kruger banished his political enemies to the remote, dangerous, and malarial corner of the Northern Transvaal – “Give him a farm in the Waterberg!” Since then, the Waterberg has inspired painters and photographers, naturalists and scientists, but no one has mined its ornery characters and traditional ways for a good old-fashioned tale of good versus evil. Or sceptic versus scammer. Until now.

Pamela Oberem, a veterinarian, has written several books on animal health. Straying far from that genre with this debut novel, she has concocted a yarn that is at once both playful and pointed.

Dominee Donges presides over a conventional church in the small bushveld town of Nylsdorp. He ministers to a motley assortment of parishioners, including three busybody “koeksisters”. His spiritual influence has waned somewhat in these modern times. His concern about the impoverished but theologically-inclined residents of Padimeng is not well respected by the white population. In addition, he must compete for attention with more popular culture – Idols, schoolboy rugby, videos, even pornography. He is distressed by this reality, often retreating to his own personal pleasures, most particularly his antiquarian collection of books that includes his favourite author Eugene Marais.

Into this placid life comes change, signalled by a crack in the church tower. This doesn’t auger well for the precarious state of faith in Nylsdorp. The Mobile Church of the Holistic Christ pitches its tent, providing an alluring alternate religion as well as appealing entertainment for the townspeople. Its leader is the Reverend Jesse Grant, a drop-dead gorgeous hunk of charisma. The earnest Dominee Donges watches closely.

With the sales of T-shirts, coffee mugs, Jesus cookbooks, the Bible (as annotated by Reverend Grant), and other religious baubles, the good Reverend leads a campaign of moral revitalization, healing the ailing, and converting the prominent Waterberg Commando building into a funeral parlour. Resurrections are guaranteed to the faithful.

One by one, the funerals of Nylsdorp’s recently departed are handled by Reverend Grant, and, surprise surprise, each body – on the path to resurrection – remains just short of a joyous return home alive and well. The case of a schoolboy who dies of his rugby injury catapults the events to the dominant news in town. The local newspaper, leaving its innocuous days behind, is now rather happily tabloid-like, headlining the miracles and selling papers. The citizens take a certain pride in Nylsdorp’s fame.

Dominee Donges is more convinced than ever that the Lazarus Funeral Parlour is one big con, Reverend Grant’s cynical manipulation of the trusting and gullible. As the dominee makes his case against such spiritual deceit to whomever will listen, we are treated to discussions of evolution and creationism, the dilemma of women’s rights in the modern world, and of course the ambiguities of faith, all with a bit of serious music, greasy food, and homemade drink as background.

With increasing despair, Donges finally writes a letter for publication in the local newspaper. In no uncertain terms, he denounces everything Reverend Grant has been doing.

Events and conversations provide a clear sense of place – abrupt thunder and lightning storms here, a bit of Boer War history there, veldfires and signboard excess, retrenchments and name changes. This is a Waterberg town of today.

The characters are vivid, and recognizable. The mundane is relevant. The pace is unhurried. The place is integral to the tale. The Lazarus Funeral Parlour is a straight-forward, true reflection of small town life and conflict.

One need not be attuned to theology nor the Bible itself to enjoy this warm-hearted novel. Indeed, the reader is advised to join in Oberem’s irreverent look at whites, blacks, Afrikaners, Indians, coloured, Christians, Muslims, Jews, gays, not to mention men and women. Be careful, this may be the start of a series of insightful Dominee Donges escapades.