The Story of Professor Walter Roald Etterforsker, formerly of the royal Kristiania university
In December 1913 Norwegian ethnologist Professor Walter Roald Etterforsker gets on a steamship bound for Africa. Etterforsker hopes to find a group of Afrikaners willing to accompany him to his homeland, where they will be exhibited in a ‘human zoo’, which forms part of the Jubilee World Fair celebrations of 100 years of Norway’s constitution. On the way down he meets various other men who are on their ways to Nigeria, the Union of South Africa, Moçambique, and the British East Africa Protectorate. Stopping on the Isle of Gran Canaria on New Year’s Eve for a party, Etterforsker meets fellow Norwegian Knut Engstrom, an investor in peanut farming in Morocco, who intends to process the fruits for TNT manufacture. Etterforsker’s journey continues, and at last he arrives in Lorenço Marques, from when he takes a train to Pretoria.
Etterforsker becomes violently ill and delirious on arriving in Pretoria, but recovers within a week, and begins a journey into the West Transvaal to discover authentic, wild Afrikaners. While there, on his birthday, being lost and close to running out of fuel in a borrowed 1911 Ford Model T, he and a companion (his translator) meet a man who they later discover is the Boer Prophet Siener van Rensburg, on a hill near Schweizer-Reneke, who helps them out of their stressful situation. Etterforsker, whose area of specialization in Norway had been Lappish Shamans, is deeply fascinated by the stories told about the Siener. They continue to tour the West Transvaal, and return to Johannesburg by the end of February, since the Norwegian Peanut Magnate has invited Etterforsker to a celebration at the Rand Club.
At this party Etterforsker meet Jules Porgès, a Ukrainian Jew who inherited a collection, and love, of Lappish artefacts from his Grandfather, and is also an extremely wealthy Randlord, who mined diamonds in Kimberley and gold in Johannesburg. Porgès, now an old man, is a partner of the Cornerhouse mining group, whose offices are in the famed Corner House, built in 1903, was the first skyscraper in Africa, and in 1914 was still the tallest building in South Africa. Porgès invites Etterforsker to view the Corner House on 1 March 1914. While there, Etterforsker is struck by some sort of epileptic fit, or vision, but suddenly is transported from the 1914s richly furnished building, into a time where the shell has been stripped to bare brick and concrete, and fluorescent bulbs line the ceiling. In the corner Etterforsker finds a collection of 6 artworks and some pages from a personal diary. The artworks resemble ‘primitive carvings’ but are apparently falsified. Etterforsker happens to have his notebook with him, and when the secretary of the Corner House shakes him out of his fit, he sees that he has taken detailed notes of what he saw; and while the secretary informs him that she only left him alone for 5 minutes, the number of notes taken by him could not have been made in such a short time.
Strangely enough, Allen Laing exhibited a series of 6 ‘primitive’-looking sculptures in the Corner House on the 1st of March 2014.
Etterforsker, having met the Siener, and now having had this severely disconcerting experience, fit or vision, loses focus with regards to his initial objective of finding Afrikaners for the Fair, and spends the rest of his time in the Union trying to make sense of what has happened to him. He returns to Norway empty handed, and is somewhat disgraced amongst his colleagues, owing to the great expense invested in him for such a fruitless trip. After the Fair he soon returns to South Africa, and as he boards the ship Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated in Serbia, sparking the First World War. Etterforsker is now separated from his family, and stuck in S.A., until the war ends.
The man who was translating for Etterforsker during his previous trip – an Afrikaans professor from UNISA – has become radicalised, and has joined a group of Afrikaners who hope to use WWI as an opportunity to throw off the yoke of British oppression. Because the Siener has made prophesies regarding these events, and Etterforsker desperately wants to meet the man (to find out what happened to him in the Corner House) he joins the Afrikaner rebels. The prophet accurately predicts the death of Boer General Koos de la Rey in Novemeber.
Meanwhile, Etterforsker, who has little money, moves with the Boer radicals to a farm near Krugersdorp, where he spends a fruitless year failing to help out on the farm, and failing to produce any productive research. On the 30th of November 1915 Etterforsker, feeling restless, goes to a small waterfall on the farm, and as night approaches he is seized by a series of fits that leave him incapacitated until morning.
On the 30th of November 2015, the eve of Allen Laing’s 25th birthday, he went to the waterfall on the farm across from the Nirox Sculpture Park in the Cradle of Humankind, with an artwork named the Stombok Ritual Action Camera Headpiece (STRACH), hoping to spend a midnight vigil alone, and to become a man (it never worked).
Etterforsker experiences moments of Laing’s ritual, and discovers papers, drawings and note from a personal diary. He is now more confused than ever.
As time goes on, Etterforsker is sent to Potchefstroom to deliver a message, where he discovers Laing’s Paraphernalia for Relaying Outwardly the Dignity of Micturition as Natural (P.R.O.U.D. M.A.N.) in another vision. When Etterforsker returns to Johannesburg he discovers Laing’s Caucasian Concilliation Contraption in the inner city of Johannesburg, and his Coffee Machine while visiting an elderly widow in Rosebank. (Etterforsker has been working as a secretary at a music school just to earn some money, the widow is the mother of one of the students there. She invited Etterforsker to her home, with intentions to seduce him).
Etterforsker moves to Pretoria when he secures a part time post teaching musical theory at UNISA, and there, after attending a party at the Country Club, from which he has to walk home, stumbles into another party in Long Street in Waterkloof, where he finds a suspicious intermingling of Europeans with Africans, as well as a number of men who are very friendly with other men. At this party, his sixth vision, or experience, transports him to a room filled with people, where Allen Laing, wearing a strange mask, claims to be Professor Doctor, and is making little wooden charms for all sorts of people.
In his final experience, Etterforsker wakes up one morning with a smooth glass tile beside his bed, and through it watches Laing performing live on Instagram, making his Rat City Designed by a Committee. The story ends with WWI still raging, with Etterforsker doubting his own sanity, and no nearer to any solutions.