André Brink Biography

Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

André Philippus Brink is the first Afrikaans writer to have achieved an international reputation. Because of his competence in English, he can undertake his own translations. Brink recoils from the common bigotry that marks South Africa and speaks against racism in a voice of persuasive commitment. He once wrote that it was “a very simple, if very disgusting fact” that “essentially more than 90 percent of Afrikaans writers are more or less pro-establishment, pro-system, pro-government.” For such views he was one of the first Afrikaans writers to suffer the censorship and bannings regularly imposed upon English-language authors. Yet he deliberately avoided martyrdom or exile, preferring to exist in his country as an academic while making his concerns and protests entirely apparent in his novels. This situation caused him to comment on the nearly intolerable situation he faced as an Afrikaans writer, an existence in which he was “by the very nature of his position, a cultural schizophrene.”

After obtaining master’s degrees in both English and Afrikaans at Potchefstroom University, Brink spent two years in Paris. The political, literary, and intellectual freedom there, which astounded him, enabled him to work on an innovative novel, Lobola vir die lewe (pledge for life). Although mild by international standards, it horrified the Calvinists for its mention of sex, and so began the national condemnation of Brink’s work.

His desire to modernize both Afrikaans and the Afrikaner motivated his involvement in the launching of the magazine Sestiger (“Sixty-ite”) in the early 1960’s. The magazine was directed less against the political restrictions of the society than against its constraints on artistic liberty. Both the topics and the language of its articles seemed radical for the time. Brink editorialized that an artist must be “a spiritual saboteur.” Because that kind of proclamation in the context of South Africa was unusual, if not dangerous, it was surprising that the journal survived even two harassed years. Its demise in 1965, contrived by an angered establishment, did not terminate the association, and the more innovative Afrikaans writers continued to be grouped as the “sestigers.” This term eventually became a sort of national swear word.

Brink has been a prodigious worker. Jake Cope calculates that by the age of thirty Brink had written twenty-five books of all kinds, including travelogues, plays, and numerous translations into Afrikaans of popular literature. At this time Brink produced his first clearly political novel, deriving from the “July raids” on subversives by the police. Some of Brink’s friends were brought to trial on charges of sabotage. The book was refused publication, and during 1968 and 1969 Brink again retreated to Paris. He decided that he must return, however, incensed by the realization that “no Afrikaans writer has yet tried to offer a serious political challenge to the system.” His view of his countrymen was both scornful and specific: “One can hardly expect any truly great writing from . . . Afrikaner word-mongers who are . . . pro-apartheid.” In a revised form, Looking on Darkness was published in 1973. It describes the forbidden relationship between a “colored” man and a white British woman and exposes its inevitable criminal consequence, the cruel brutality of the security police. Looking on Darkness became the first Afrikaans novel to be banned by the predominantly Afrikaner censorship board.

Brink’s next work, An Instant in the Wind, has a...

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André Brink Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

André Phillipus Brink was the first of four children born to a local Afrikaner magistrate and a schoolteacher on May 29, 1935, in the Orange Free State, South Africa. The Afrikaners are descendants of seventeenth century Dutch and Huguenot immigrants who settled three main areas in what is today South Africa. Brink’s parents shared their home region’s strict Dutch Reformed Church’s Calvinistic religious beliefs and evinced the Afrikaner suspicion of and disdain for the Bantu (black) and Cape Coloured (mixed race) peoples of Southern Africa.

Growing up in a household where his father’s judicial work moved them from place to place in the Free State, Brink was exposed at an early age to the Afrikaner Nationalist Party politics espoused by his father and his friends, especially their distrust of the British rulers of South Africa, a remembrance focusing on past grievances, including the Boer War of 1899-1902, wherein Afrikaners were killed in great numbers and placed in the first of the world’s concentration camps. His father and mother were, in their own way, exemplary citizens—dutiful, highly religious conformists careful about doing or saying anything out of the ordinary, and his siblings followed their lead. Brink was the only family member who would openly rebel against apartheid.

Brink went on to study Afrikaans and Dutch literature at South Africa’s highly conservative Potchefstroom University from 1956 to 1959. Feeling in need of a more worldly perspective than that afforded him by Potchefstroom, he elected to study at the Sorbonne in Paris, which he attended from 1959 to 1961. His encounters with French manners and mores, in addition to the opinions of contemporary European writers, led him to see his native land in new ways. In fact, the bohemianism and the literary existentialism of Parisian intellectuals allowed him to find creative ways to break with his restrictive Afrikaner upbringing. It was in Paris that he became conversant with major Continental directions in writing, and he would incorporate European depictions of explicit sexuality and violence into his work.

After graduating from the Sorbonne, Brink returned to South Africa...

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André Brink Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Within each of his works, André Brink depicts the brutal South African apartheid government apparatus from the viewpoints of victims, as well as their victimizers. At his most effective, as in Rumours of Rain and A Dry White Season, he compellingly demonstrates that even the most disinterested, self-serving, passive Afrikaner can suddenly find himself (and it is almost always a man) in a life and death struggle when someone he loves is in grave peril after having broken the laws of the apartheid state. He also manages to convey how essentially fragile that state, with all its projected power and authority, actually is when victims stand up to it and expose it to the world—people like former Robben Island prisoner Nelson Mandela. Replacing the heretofore reactionary nation of South Africa with the rainbow-hued South Africa of Mandela is part of what Brink is about in his subversive novels, and he succeeds in helping to bring about incredible change.