States of Emergency

The narrator of STATES OF EMERGENCY is writing a novel, a love story. After some deliberation, he settles on his characters, their pasts, their names. Philip Malan is a professor of literary theory in a South African university. Melissa Lotman, his lover, is his assistant. As they debate the merits of structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, the country is going to pieces. The police arrest, interrogate, torture, threaten. The black children of the townships roil with fear and repressed anger. Blacks kill blacks. Whites go about their business, but at night they dream of the coming revolution in which they will be destroyed by the black masses.

The narrator cannot decide on a beginning for his story. How exactly did Melissa and Philip begin their affair? He creates several beginnings. He keeps them all. They weave in and out of the characters’ memories. They affect the plot, which never coalesces. The narrator is obsessed with a young writer, Jane Ferguson, who has committed suicide after a love affair with a white revolutionary. Bits of her diary and novel find their way into his novel. The terror increases. A black pragmatist, the narrator’s friend and a force for sanity, is killed. The novel has several different endings. It cannot end because it never properly began. It circles in on itself. It ends in silence. It is not yet written.

The implication is that in times of injustice, strife, and bloodshed, art is an exercise in futility. Or, if not, it will be nothing like art in a society that is whole. Andre Brink’s complex and beautiful language capture the reader’s attention; yet his alienating devices never allow the reader to forget that there is no safety in this novel. The dangers of the world intrude.