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.
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.
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."
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."