A Chain of Voices
André Brink is a professor of Afrikaans-Dutch literature, internationally respected as a writer and political liberal. A Chain of Voices is indeed impeccably liberal but is admirably professional rather than professorial. In fact, the central problem of the novel is that, in presenting the conventional liberal universal wisdom on the issue of slavery in a manner that eschews pedantry, Brink frequently strays into the commonplace. Brink’s primary audience may well be his fellow South Africans, for whom public expression of such conventional wisdom is rare, and, surely, those American readers shocked and amazed by Roots (1976) will be shocked and amazed by A Chain of Voices.
Despite the apparent political differences between the nineteenth century United States and the South Africa of 1825, one senses from A Chain of Voices the distinct universality of human nature. In 1825 South Africa had British “carpetbaggers” and half-hearted “Reconstruction” with Hottentotts freer than Bushmen, but not totally free. Slavery was abolished in 1834, and the Boer War (the South African equivalent of the American Civil War) was fought in 1842. A historical note included in the book would have been helpful to the reader.
Readers will see striking similarities of incident and symbol between A Chain of Voices and William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967). The central problem is the same. It is superficially easier for contemporary authors and readers to depict and identify with rebellious slaves than with non-rebellious slaves and slave owners, but what may result is a sort of unwitting time travelogue in which an understandably irate contemporary man is trapped in a slave era as a slave and surrounded by stereotyped “white trash” racists, “Curse of Canaan” cracker-barrel theologians, “Uncle Toms,” and worse. Both Styron and Brink rise above that problem in some impressive ways, but both sink into it from time to time.
A Chain of Voices presents an unsurprising range of attitudes toward slavery, developed in a multi-narrator series of monologues somewhat padded with too many traditional symbols of racial tension. The attitudes and situations are exacerbated by ironies of honest misunderstanding and mis-communication. The van der Merwe family en famille exists in a “cold comfort farm” situation that tends to write itself. Old Piet van der Merwe is a patriarchal Bible-reading bully who kidnaps a gentle city girl, Alida, as his bride. She has her own kind of strength and brings table manners and other amenities to the farm. Barend van der Merwe, the older son, becomes the image of his father, a bully and a coward, but is softer. Nicolaas van der Merwe, the younger son, has his mother’s mixture of gentleness and iron will. It is a subtle irony, buried under more flamboyant ironies, that Old Piet’s life is spared when the slaves revolt, because he has been brutally simple and honest while his sons are complex brutes who should know better than to mistreat slaves.
Cecelia van der Merwe, Nicolaas’ wife, is seriously injured by the slaves but not killed. She has commonsense flashes of insight into the flaws of slavery and intimations of the slaves’ humanity, but she fails to act positively and indulges in excesses of brutality. Hester van der Merwe, Barend’s wife and a somewhat uncivilized lower-caste white woman, is a spiritual sister to the slaves. Her...
(The entire section is 1429 words.)