Study Guide

André Brink

André Brink Essay - Brink, André (Vol. 106)

Brink, André (Vol. 106)

Introduction

André Brink 1935–

South African novelist, essayist, dramatist, and translator.

The following entry presents an overview of Brink's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 18 and 36.

Andre Brink's career has run parallel to developments which took his native South Africa from a state marked by the policy of apartheid to a dismantling of this systemic racial injustice. Through his work he has promoted an awareness of the problems of his society, explored their roots, expressed opposition to repressive authorities and now enjoys the freedom to explore a delight in storytelling. A writer who began from an existentialist position, citing Albert Camus among his significant influences, Brink developed a social conscience which was reinforced by strong reactions against his work, notably in the form of state censorship: he was the first Afrikaner writer to be censored (for Kennis van die aand/ Looking on Darkness, 1973). He is associated with the "Sestigers," a group of South African writers who came of age in the sixties and whose work is distinguished for its experimentation with forms and themes. Committed to expressing the concerns of his time, Brink's work is also rooted in the historical past, which is presented not simply as a series of facts, but in terms of personal experience. His characters are often rebels, writers or historical figures and his themes are history, myth, love, sex, race and politics. Although he is best known for his novels, beginning with Looking on Darkness, through to his most recent Imaginings of Sand (1996), he has written in several genres, including the essay and drama, and is an extraordinarily prolific translator. Brink has had an influential voice in his country's recent history and his work has been translated into more than twenty languages.

Biographical Information

André Philippus Brink was born in Vrede, Orange Free State, South Africa on May 29, 1935. His father was a magistrate, and Brink's family was repeatedly relocated with his father's new appointments. Brink studied at Potchefstroom University, which Brink described as "a small Calvinist university," where he took a B.A. in 1955, an M.A. in English in 1958 and another M.A. in Afrikaans and Dutch in 1959. From 1959–1961 he settled in France to do postgraduate work in comparative literature at the Sorbonne. Brink commented that this remote location and the witnessing from afar of the Sharpeville massacres in South Africa of March 1960 forced him "to re-examine all the convictions and beliefs I had previously taken for granted." Returning to South Africa, he gained prominence as a spokesperson for the "Sestigers." In the late '60s Brink returned to Paris where, he relates, he found himself in the midst of the student revolt of 1968 and reevaluated the writer's role in society, concluding that he needed to return to South Africa to, as he put it, "assume my full responsibility for every word I write, within my society." Looking on Darkness resulted. The work brought intimidation and harassment in the form of censorship, (the book was banned under South Africa's comprehensive 1963 Censorship legislation) State confiscation of his typewriters, and death threats. These reactions served to strengthen his convictions, however, and he began to write all his work in English at this time, to permit publishing outside his country and to acquire a wider, international readership. His method has consisted of writing in both Afrikaans and English, translating back and forth. Brink was also a faculty member in the Afrikaans department at Rhodes University from 1961 until 1990, and became a Professor of English at the University of Cape Town in 1991. He was President of the Afrikaans Writers Guild (1978–80) and won recognition abroad with several awards, among them, the Médicis étranger prize (France) and the Martin L. King Memorial Prize (UK) for Droe wit seisoen (1980; A Dry White Season) in 1980. Further formal foreign recognition followed, especially in France where he was named Chevalier, Legion of Honor 1982 and Commander, Order of Arts and Letters in 1992, distinctions which have allowed him to take a place alongside fellow South African writers like J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer and Athol Fugard.

Major Works

Brink's early career was spent producing work in Afrikaans. The banning upon publication in 1973 of Kennis van die aand (Looking on Darkness) was a turning point which forced Brink to work in English in order to maintain a readership and helped him focus his subject: South African society, its roots, its realities. It marked the beginning of what led to the development of a style Brink has referred to as "African Magic Realism." Looking on Darkness, like many of his novels, involves a sexual relationship between a white and a black, in this case between Joseph Malan and Jessica Thomason, and deals boldly with sex and with racial conflict and persecution. 'N Oornblik in die wind (1975; An Instant in the Wind) deals with the love affair of an 18th-century white woman, Elisabeth Larsson, and Adam Mantoor, a runaway black slave, in the interior of the Cape of Good Hope, and its interracial sexuality brought more trouble with the censors. Gerugte van reen (1978; Rumours of Rain), the story of Martin Mynhardt, an Afrikaans Nationalist, is a novel that presents a severe condemnation of South Africa's racist regime. This was followed by 'n Droe wit seisoen (1979; A Dry White Season). Told in the words of a freelance writer who has inherited the papers of the protagonist, Ben Du Toit, it is set shortly after the Soweto riots of June 1976 and involves the political awakening of a trusting model citizen when confronted with the deceptions and brutality of white authorities. Houd-den-Bek (1982; A Chain of Voices) is set on a Boer farm in the Cape Colony during the pre-Trek 1820s where a small-scale revolt takes place is marked by an engaging experimental feature: the "voices" of the title are those of the archetypal characters. The voice in The Wall of the Plague (1985), is that of a writer who in his research for a film script on the plague turns up a metaphor for the condition of white Afrikaners in South Africa. States of Emergency (1989), set in 1985 when a state of emergency was declared in South Africa and subtitled 'Notes towards a Love Story,' deals with urgent emotional/personal states, as well as political ones at a time of crisis. In An Act of Terror (1991), called a political thriller by one critic, white photographer Thomas Landmanas has the misfortune of having the people he photographs turning up dead. The story, which has a love element in Thomas's involvement with an Afrikaner woman, was seen as revealing the self-destruction of the Afrikaners. With the dismantling of Apartheid and the lifting of censorship, the politics in Brink's work receded slightly, and the storytelling began to take center-stage. Cape of Storms: The First Life of Adamastor (1993), a tale concocted from a mix of sources (François Rabelais, Luis Camõens and Khoikhoi legends) weaves a magical historical love story. On the Contrary (1994) is the narrative of Etienne Barbier told in the words he writes while awaiting execution. Barbier was a French adventurer in the Cape of Good Hope in the 1730s who led rebel Afrikaner colonists in their struggle with the corrupt administration of the East India Company. The novel has a strong element of magic realism with the presence of mythical creatures and the voice of Jeanne-D'Arc. This magical, mythical strain continues in Imaginings of Sand, a novel that explores a feminine perspective. Set against the background of South African elections of 1994, the story is told through the eyes of Kristien Müller, a white South African woman who has returned from exile to be with her dying grandmother. The grandmother is a repository of stories of the South African past and promises her granddaughter who has been away too long, "I'll give you back your memory." Michael Kerrigan observes that this "rambling roundabout skein of stories … comprises the true history of the Afrikaners."

Critical Reception

Brink's essays are recognized as important statements on literature and politics. Commenting on these, Joseph Skvorecky places Brink among the writers who have labored under oppressive censorship "with considerable technical skill and almost the elaborateness of a Henry James, "while J.M. Coetzee, with whom Brink has published an anthology called A Land Apart: A South African Reader (1986), sees in Brink an example of a writer who is "an organ developed by society to respond to its need for meaning," and one whose "focus is now not on the existential duty of the writer but on the strategy of battle." The power of his novels is recognized by most critics. C.J. Driver speaking of Looking on Darkness points out that his work is "linguistically exciting, continually perceptive about a society gone mad, fiercely angry about cruelty." Frank Pike calls An Instant in the Wind "an ambitious work," that is "memorable by any standards, especially … in its evocation of the landscape." Rumours Of Rain, Jim Hoagland affirms, "takes the reader inside the reality" of its subject and "captures the spreading terror of the white man trapped within the vast spaces of Africa and surrounded by equally vast numbers of Africans." Mel Watkins detects in A Dry White Season a vehicle for Brink "to better focus our attention on the ruthlessly dehumanizing apparatus of the apartheid system itself," while Jim Crace, finds in The Wall of the Plague a novel that is "a courageous self-assessment" and "an interesting and pivotal work." Along with these praises, however, are some recurring complaints. Brink is often accused of melodrama and sensationalism. In Looking on Darkness, Driver finds "imaginative credibility slips, the control of the narrating 'I' wavers and pity becomes self-pity." Roger Owen in a review of A Chain of Voices complains that despite the "awesomeness of the subject matter" there are serious flaws, among them "derivativeness; a proneness to cliché; a striving for 'fine' writing; a certain woodenness of style." The depiction of sex is also a sore point. Crace accused the dialogue in such scenes of being "thinly motivated and rawly expressed," and declared Brink's observations on human sexuality as "farcically solemn." But, as Pike asserts, Brink himself is the uniting source of power in his work: "he is most successful as a writer when his own voice rather than those of his often artificial characters, dominates the scene."

Principal Works

Kennis van die And [Looking on Darkness] (novel) 1974
An Instant in the Wind (novel) 1976
Rumours of Rain (novel) 1978
A Dry White Season (novel) 1979
A Chain of Voices (novel) 1982
The Wall of the Plague (novel) 1985
States of Emergency (novel) 1989
An Act of Terror (novel) 1991
Cape of Storms: The First Life of Adamastor (novel) 1993
On the Contrary (novel) 1994
Imaginings of Sand (novel) 1996

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Criticism

C. J. Driver (review date 15 November 1974)

SOURCE: "Mixing the Colours," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3793, November 15, 1974, p. 1278

[In the following review of Looking on Darkness Driver comments on the novel's social context and assesses its artistic merits.]

Looking on Darkness is the English translation (by the author himself) of an Afrikaans novel, Kennis van die Aand, which was banned on publication in South Africa: "If this is art", said the clerical Vorster, brother of the Prime Minister, "then a brothel is a Sunday school". It is not difficult to understand why it was banned: it is explicit about sex; it is explicit about torture in South African gaols; it is explicit about...

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Frank Pike (review date 17 September 1976)

SOURCE: "Veldanschauung," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3888 September 17, 1976, p. 1147.

[In the following review of An Instant in the Wind, Pike presents an outline of the elements of the novel and comments on its success in evoking an historical period.]

Reminiscent of; if not inspired by Patrick White's Voss, this ambitious work takes the few recorded facts of an episode of the past to evoke the history and character of a country through the relationship of two individuals. In 1751, Elisabeth Larsson returned to Cape Town accompanied only by a runaway slave, Adam Mantoor, having set out nearly two years earlier on an expedition into the interior...

(The entire section is 476 words.)

Jim Hoaglund (review date 5 November 1978)

SOURCE: "Storm Over Soweta," in Washington Post Book World, November 5, 1978, Sect. G, p. 8

[In the following review of Rumours of Rain, Hoagland provides a brief overview of some of Brink's other work and considers the social relevance of the novel under review.]

André Brink is a member of the only white tribe the African continent has ever produced—the 2.5 million Calvinist, Dutch-speaking Afrikaners descended of Europeans who first came to South Africa 300 years ago. Supported by two million English speaking whites, the Afrikaners rule the country's 20 million blacks through the harsh system of Apartheid.

Brink's birthright as an...

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Mel Watkins (review date 23 March 1980)

SOURCE: "A Novelist's Impassioned Indictment," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 85, March 23, 1980, pp. 15, 20, 21.

[In the following review Watkins examines the fictional devices Brink uses in A Dry White Season to expose some of the realities of living under Apartheid, while considering the novel alongside some of Brink's previous work.]

In his previous novel, Rumours of Rain, André Brink, an Afrikaaner and head of the department of literature at Rhodes University at Grahamstown, South Africa, gave his audience a chilling glimpse into the inner sanctum of the South African ruling class. Through his portrayal of Martin Mynhardt, a calculating and...

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Richard Eder (Interview/Profile date 23 March 1980)

SOURCE: "An Interview with André Brink," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 85, March 23, 1980, pp. 15, 20.

[In the following interview between Brink and Eder, the issues of writing under censorship and of writing in two languages are discussed.]

To make laws is to make loopholes. Or, prohibition is the stepmother of invention. André Brink, an Afrikaans writer, has been creeping through and around South African censorship ever since one of his first books, Looking on Darkness, was banned in 1974.

Mr. Brink has devised a kind of private publishing system that is not strictly underground, nor quite overground either. It is a kind of...

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Bernard J. Toerien (review date Spring 1983)

SOURCE: A review of A Chain of Voices and Houd-denbek, in World Literature Today, Vol. 57, no. 2, Spring 1983, pp. 339-40.

[In the following review of A Chain of Voices/Hou-den-bek, Toerien points out the novel's strengths and failings and compares the English and Afrikaans versions.]

Brink's new novel was simultaneously published in English and Afrikaans, the latter version under the title of the remote South African farm ("Shut Your Trap") where an abortive slave rebellion took place in the early nineteenth century. That rebellion provides the basis of the novel, which is presented as a series of monologues by a large cast of protagonists, most of whom...

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Josef Skvorecky (review date 30 April 1984)

SOURCE: "The Fear of Literature," in The New Republic, Vol. 190, No. 17, April 30, 1984, pp. 29-33.

[In the following piece, the expatriate Czech novelist and essayist Josef Skvorecky reviews Brink's collection of essays Writing in a State of Siege. Skvorecky explores the similarities in political climate and state censorship between Brink's South Africa and Skvorecky's native Czechoslovakia.]

Among the many remarkable features of Writing in a State of Siege, a collection of literary essays and speeches written between 1967 and 1982, one is particularly useful to us who know South Africa only from contemporary newspapers and from the false consciousness...

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John Sutherland (review date 18 May 1986)

SOURCE: Review of The Ambassador, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 18, 1986, p. 15.

[In the following review, Sutherland, an American professor of Literature, looks at the elements of Brink's fictional commentary on South African politics and society in The Ambassador.]

The Victorians liked to think of Charles Dickens as their "special correspondent to posterity." For the outside world and for posterity, South Africa's novelists currently serve the same function. Our durable impressions of the Republic are formed less by what "news" state censorship allows to escape, than by the fictions of Dan Jacobson, J.M. Coetzee, Alan Paton, Nadine Gordimer, Tom Sharpe...

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George Stade (review date 29 June 1986)

SOURCE: "A Pipsqueak's Obsession," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 91, June 29, 1986, p. 21.

[In the following review, novelist Stade explores the themes and imbroglios of The Ambassador.]

"I was born on a bench in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, in the early spring of 1960," André Brink has written. He was in his mid-20's at the time. He was born again in 1968, during a second visit to Paris, when he was "caught up" in the student demonstrations. These Parisian rebirths, in Mr. Brink's own formulations, were political, literary, metaphysical and sexual, the outcome of a "romantic love-affair" with the city. When he first arrived in Paris, fresh from South...

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Philip Horne (review date 4 August 1988)

SOURCE: "Tunnel Visions," in London Review of Books, August 4, 1988, pp. 26-27.

[In the following excerpt Horne closely examines the ideas developed in States of Emergency and critques the novel's premises and structure.]

André Brink's States of Emergency […] should perhaps be described as a would-be novel. Its subtitle is 'Notes towards a Love Story', and it represents—minimally fictionalises—an attempt by a South African writer, André Brink, to produce a 'love story' at a time of political crisis, in 1985, when the current State of Emergency was declared. There are generous impulses at work in it—to assert the value of love between men and...

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J.M. Coetzee (essay date Fall 1990)

SOURCE: "André Brink and the Censor," in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 21, No. 2, Fall 1990, pp. 59-74.

[In the following essay, South African novelist Coetzee examines the role of the writer in a totalitarian state and the relationship between the state and the censored writer as expressed in Brink's essays. Coetzee points to Brink's view that "a state whose nature is repressive depends for its existence on something to repress."]

The 1960s and 1970s saw the mounting and deployment of a comprehensive censorship apparatus in South Africa. In the forefront of opposition to this apparatus was the novelist André P. Brink. While he cannot be said to have stood...

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Randolph Vigne (review date January 1992)

SOURCE: "The Argument for Terrible Deeds," in San Francisco Review of Books, Vol. 17, No. 1, January 1992, p. 5.

[The following review by Randolph Vigne, a South African activist of the 1960s, praises An Act of Terror for its depiction of South Africa on the threshold of social change.]

This is a story told against three very different backgrounds: first, the political and social turmoil of South Africa and the imperatives that bring a young man like Brink's Thomas to act as he does; secondly, the specific place of his people, the white Afrikaners, whose rule has led to the conflict that claims him; and thirdly, the nature of the morality that both forbids and...

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Paul Preuss (review date 15 March 1992)

SOURCE: "Digging Their Own Graves," in Book World—The Washington Post, Vol. XXII, No. 11, March 15, 1992, pp. 4, 11.

[In the following review of An Act of Terror, Preuss relates the structure and conflicts of the novel and its theme of "aletheia," or "truth as remembrance."]

André Brink's new novel is touted as a political thriller, and it is a very effective one, but that is just part of the story. An Act of Terror is a modern parable and a highly mythologized history of southern Africa's oldest white tribe, a story that concerns black Africans only indirectly; its real subject is the self destruction of the Afrikaners.

"Today it's...

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Lillian Hilja Andon-Milligan (essay date Fall 1992)

SOURCE: "André Brink's South Africa: A Quality of Light," in Critique, Vol. 34, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 19-32.

[Drawing on ideas from Vincent Van Gogh and Milan Kundera in the following essay, Andon-Milligan explores the aesthetics of Brink's work in which she sees a convergence of love and art and an ongoing attempt to tell love stories that can never be completed.]

Exile, for artists like Milan Kundera, includes the "unbearable lightness of being." For others, exile means the obsessive hallucinations of a "Hottentot Room" (Christopher Hope) or the fetid rubbish left behind after Doris Lessing's "Good Terrorists" have swept past. Some of André Brink's exiles...

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Abdulrazak Gurnah (review date 26 February 1993)

SOURCE: "Prospero's Nightmare," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4691, February 26, 1993, p. 21.

[In the following review, Gurnah identifies the narrative sources of The First Life of Adamastor. Among these sources are: the Khoi myths of Creation; the Portuguese poet Camões; and French novelist Rabelais: and Gurnah examines how Brink uses these sources to deal with "moral and historical issues."]

In his epic poem The Lusiads (1572), Luis de Camões celebrates the Portuguese national myth through Vasco da Gama's first journey from Lisbon to Calicut round the southern tip of Africa. In the seventy-two years between the poem's publication and the events it...

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Mario Vargas Llosa (review date 25 July 1993)

SOURCE: "Love Finds a Way," in New York Times Book Review, July 25, 1993, pp. 1, 23, 24.

[In the following review of Cape of Storms: The First Life of Adamastor, celebrated novelist Mario Vargas Llosa praises Brink's novel for its imagination and humor. Vargas Llosa interprets the allegorical features of the book in which he reads that "rapprochement between human beings of differing skins, languages and customs is impossible, for even with the best will on both sides it will inevitably be frustrated by cultural conditioning."]

"There is no problem in the world that cannot be solved with a story." That is what a witch doctor of the Xhosa tribe tells the...

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Clarence Major (review date 29 August 1993)

SOURCE: "An Improbable Love," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 29, 1993, pp. 3, 8.

[In the following review, Major draws parallels between some of the features in Cape of Storms: the First Life of Adamastor and several other tales and myths.]

In André Brink's novella, Cape of Storms, one day near the end of the 16th Century, a young white woman is left on a South African coastal beach by sailors—probably Portuguese—who had to make a hasty getaway after cheating and offending a nomadic tribe temporarily stopped near the beach. Why the woman was left and why she was on the ship in the first place, these things we never find out.

...

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Mark Wormald (review date 3 September 1993)

SOURCE: "Images of Africa," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4718, September 3, 1993, p. 23.

[In the following review, Wormald explores the rich texture of the historical and imaginative world of Brink's On the Contrary.]

On a solitary excursion at sunset, during the first of the three journeys into the dark heart of Africa that make up this extraordinary novel, André Brink's hero, Estienne Barbier, sees a unicorn. "It appears, heraldic, flat against the sun … its tall single horn rising like a scimitar from its forehead." Then, with a single shot from his gun, he kills it. Standing over the dead body, he is "stunned by the creature's beauty":

...

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Charles R. Larson (review date 5 September 1993)

SOURCE: "André Brink's Bawdy Romp," in Tribune Books, September 5, 1993, p. 3.

[In the following review, Larson presents an appreciation of Cape of Storms: The First Life of Adamastor in which he sees "a comic masterpiece."]

André Brink must have had great fun writing "Cape of Storms." There is nothing so rollicking in this South African novelist's earlier works (A Dry White Season, Rumors of Rain, etc.) nothing nearly as playful or as bawdy, nothing quite so terse, certainly nothing so parabolic. Only the matter of cultural interaction (or lack thereof) unites this mythic gem with Brink's bleak earlier accounts of man's inhumanity to his fellow man...

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Peter S. Prescott (review date 14 August 1994)

SOURCE: "The Cape of Not Much Hope," in New York Times Book Review, August 14, 1994, pp. 7-8.

[In the following review, Prescott examines On the Contrary in the context of a changing South Africa and commments on its picaresque qualities.]

A newly democratic South Africa confronts its novelists with the same problem that the end of the cold war posed for the writers of spy stories: Is there any life left in the old conflict that I've spent my career defining? For years André Brink, at great risk to himself, wrote realistic novels exposing the cruelty of apartheid. Now, with the urgency of racial conflict diminished, he responds with more fanciful novels that...

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David Plott (review date 16 October 1994)

SOURCE: "African Realities," in Tribune Books, October 16, 1994, pp. 6, 7.

[In the following review, Plott outlines the story that makes up On the Contrary, and explores the protagonist as relevant historical figure.]

The work of Andre Brink, one of South Africa's finest writers, has always been linked to the struggle to satisfy the conscience in an unjust land. In such harrowing novels as A Dry White Season (1980) and An Act of Terror (1991), he has, like fellow South Africans Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee, made apartheid and its corrupting terrors a centerpiece of his fiction.

At the same time, Brink's work in recent years...

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Michael Kerrigan (review date 9 February 1996)

SOURCE: "A Vision of Birds," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4845, February 9, 1996, p. 22.

[In the following review, Kerrigan focuses on the protagonist of Imaginings of Sand and examines the implications of this fictional creation.]

History is in the making in South Africa, the elections of 1994 due to be held in just a few days, yet it is personal news that brings thirty-three-year-old Kristien Müller home from her London exile. An ANC supporter—and, before worldweariness set in, an activist—she has become disenchanted before her time.

Back in the Little Karoo, however, her grandmother retains the capacity to weave spells. Kristien...

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Amanda Hopkinson (review date 23 February 1996)

SOURCE: "Hidden from History," in New Statesman and Society, February 23, 1996, p. 45, 46.

[In the following review, Hopkinson discusses Brink's presentation of "a multiplicity of women's viewpoints" in Imaginings of Sand.]

We've had a few centuries to accustom ourselves to women writing as men what they couldn't write as women. Curiously, though, while Richardson's Clarissa and Pamela served as prototypes both of the novel and of women's writing, later male authors have generally shunned female voices. Where men are active and women passive, for a man to adopt a female pseudonym would be as pointless as to make menstruation, childbearing and domestic...

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John F. Baker (essay date 25 November 1996)

SOURCE: "André Brink: In Tune with His Times," in Publisher's Weekly, Vol. 243, No. 48, November 25, 1996, pp. 50-51.

[In the following interview/profile, Baker and Brink discuss the progress in Brink's work alongside developments in South African politics and society.]

André Brink finds himself in an almost unbelievable position for a writer: one where he can see a profound kinship between his own work and the aspirations of his country—a newly minted South Africa free of the intolerable burden of apartheid under which it had labored for most of the author's life.

"There's just such an overwhelming amount of material to be used that sometimes you...

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Theodore F. Sheckels Jr. (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "Action," in The Lion on the Freeway: A Thematic Introduction to Contemporary South African Literature in English, Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1996, pp. 181-99.

[In the following excerpt from Sheckels's book, the author examines Brink's A Dry White Season and Nadine Gordimer's Burger's Daughter, considering the development of the protagonists via the actions they engage in.]

At the end of Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians, we leave the magistrate a guilt-ridden, but broken man. His guilt has led him to a futile act of rebellion and into an equally futile act of redemption. At the end of Fugard's "Master Harold" … and the Boys,...

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