Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1475
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 historical setting in the Cape some two hundred years ago. It was not banned. Perhaps historical distance helped temper the provocative material. Even here the tale threatens Afrikaner morality, telling of the relationship between a white woman, lost in the veld, and a runaway mulatto slave. They fall in love and blissfully reenact the Garden of Eden. Leaving that idyllic state, they return to Cape Town, where the social conventions are reinstated and the woman accepts her racial status and betrays her slave lover, who is tortured to death.
Rumours of Rain has a different construction; it is a complex interior monologue by its main character, Martin Mynhardt, who, by greedy ambition, rises from rural poverty to power and wealth. He considers and finally condemns an alternative pattern of life that his friend pursues. His friend rejects the Afrikaner establishment so vehemently and totally that it becomes necessary that he turn Communist and join the underground guerrilla movement. In betraying his friend, Mynhardt displays the consequences of the degraded values by which he has lived and thus propounds a moral dilemma to readers.
A Dry White Season was written during the national agitation over the death in custody of the black leader Steven Biko. Although there is no deliberate use of this event, the plot tells of the political and moral awakening of Ben, a very ordinary Afrikaner teacher. Gordon Ngubeni, a decent black cleaner at Ben’s school, so vigorously tries to investigate how his son died while in prison that he is himself arrested. His own death in detention is explained as suicide. A magistrate says that the security police are not to blame. Provoked by the injustice of this decision, Ben breaks from all the casual assumptions of his regular life and commits himself to exposing the cruelties that the system tolerates. His determination destroys him. His family and friends turn against him. Thugs smash his windows, damage his car, and send letter bombs, and the police turn a blind eye to the harassment. His life shattered, Ben is mysteriously killed by a hit-and-run motorist. The importance of this book is the accusation it implicitly brings against ordinary, decent Afrikaners who manage to avoid confronting the system that their indifference permits.
In The Wall of the Plague the setting is Europe, but the preoccupations remain the same. A black Cape Town woman with a white lover, hoping to escape the racism that has oppressed her, travels to France to research a film on the Black Death, the great plague of the fourteenth century (the analogy with South Africa is patent). Meeting Mandla, a black activist, she is forced to reexamine her experience. She falls in love with him, finding in his angry passion a fervor, both emotional and political, which she had never known with her white friends. When he is killed, perhaps by South African agents, she realizes, though the ending remains somewhat vague, that she cannot escape the obligations of her background and the commitments it requires of her. The conclusion moves beyond the ideal of racial equality into the awareness that only those who have suffered the humiliations of color will be able to counter the politics of apartheid.
The First Life of Adamastor, also known as Cape of Storms, is another historical novel, drawing on Renaissance literature and Greek mythology to frame a story of a Khoikhoi man who witnesses the arrival of Europeans in South Africa and the ramifications of that event for the Africans already living there,
States of Emergency illustrates the impossibility of love transcending the political, a theme also present in Cape of Storms; in both novels, the possibilities for interracial romance are at best illusory, at worst a harbinger of violence, betrayal, and death. An Act of Terror remains with the political, narrating the life of a young news photographer who becomes part of an anti-apartheid terrorist plot to assassinate the president of South Africa. On the Contrary, published as the apartheid system was being dismantled in South Africa, harks back to the eighteenth century; the novel is presented as a long, in some places fantastic and even hallucinatory, letter penned by Estienne Barbier, a French-born soldier of fortune awaiting execution in Capetown for a variety of offenses. His narrative spills over the boundaries of modern South Africa to become a travelogue and commentary upon the European colonization of Africa.
Imaginings of Sand is Brink’s first novel to deal with post-apartheid South Africa. The memory of the nation is embodied in the figure of 103-year-old Ouma Kristina, the narrator’s grandmother. As Ouma Kristina dies, she passes on to her granddaughter, for better or worse, her memories of the history of white South Africa, linking the oppression of blacks with the oppression of women in Afrikaans culture. Devil’s Valley also deals with the holdouts of old Afrikaaner culture in the post-apartheid era; the protagonist, a journalist, makes his way to the valley of the title to investigate a holdout band of Boers who refuse to accept the changing times. The Rights of Desire is somewhat more humorous and less sinister: It is the story of a May/December romance between a retired university librarian, Ruben Olivier, and his tenant, a young, untrustworthy young woman named Tessa Butler.
Each of Brink’s books examines the misery and humiliation of his country and his people. In presenting the despair and dilemmas of honorable people of humane conscience such as himself, he exposes the terrifying tragedy of South African history and its violent consequences.
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