Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1341
André Brink’s novel is framed by a legal deposition, including criminal charges, which opens it, and by a legal verdict, including the results of the investigation, which concludes it. In the quasi-legal documents, dated 1825, the reader discerns only the “facts” of a reported slave insurrection on the three van der Merwe family farms; eleven defendants are charged with the conspiracy, which has resulted in three murders and the serious wounding of a woman. Against the clinical, authoritative tone of the legal framework, Brirk sets four sections of his chronicle: the childhood of the van der Merwe sons, their deteriorating marriages and early adult life, the tensions leading to the slave insurrection, and the events of the insurrection itself. Each section consists of first-person “testimonies” from the point of view of the characters themselves; consequently, the novel unfolds between the extremes of the legal, objective perspective and of the multiplicity of subjective perspectives. Without any single, unifying narrative voice, the reader is confronted with the task of reconstructing the history of South African frontier life in the early days of British colonial rule and the effects of slavery upon it. In doing so, the reader is ushered subtly into the social and psychological tensions that inform twentieth century South African racial strife.
In the opening section, Ma Rose, who has lived on Piet van der Merwe’s farm for much of her life as a free servant, extends the scope of the chronicle back to the mythic origins from stones of the Khoikhoin, the People-of-people, who are indigenous to the area. Galant, the leader of the revolt, also speaks of the myths, relating them to the Bushman’s pride in his heroic heritage of freedom. Piet recalls the settling of the valley by his father at the farm Houd-den-Beck, Shut-Your-Trap, and his literal theft of Alida de Villier for his wife, but, from Alida herself, the reader learns that her life has been one of tyranny and abuse under Piet’s rigid sense of religious values, alleviated only by Ma Rose’s sensitive care of Alida; of her sons Barend and Nicolaas; of the slave child Galant; and of Hester Hugo, Alida’s adopted daughter after Piet killed her father, Lood Hugo, his foreman. Throughout this first section, Galant, Hester, and Nicolaas enjoy an innocent childhood that lacks the harsh undercurrent of racism, despite Hester’s loss of her father. Barend, however, patterns himself after his father’s dominance, leaving Galant and Nicolaas to develop an intimate friendship that revolves around the extraordinary sensitivity of Hester while Barend plays the bully. As the section closes, Barend, out of malice, asks Piet for Hester’s hand in marriage just before Nicolaas has the chance to propose to her himself. Hester does not marriage with Barend, and the childhood era passes as social, racial, and fraternal conflicts become apparent in the increasing restrictions placed on Galant.
The second section traces the troubled marriages of the van der Merwe brothers, the growing alienation between Nicolaas and Galant, and the Boer resistance to British colonial rule with its implicit intention to reform slavery laws. On the rebound from Barend’s usurpation of Hester, Nicolaas marries Cecilia du Plessis, the only daughter of a neighboring farmer and an overbearing, frigid, racist character whose oppression as a woman had hardened her against any tenderness. As Nicolaas tries to establish his own farm with the help of Galant as his mantoor, or overseer, he becomes increasingly frustrated with the mechanical sexual relations in his marriage. Following his father’s example, Nicolaas begins sleeping with the slave Lydia, a childlike woman whom he beats and rapes, and, when Lydia’s submission fails to excite him, with Bet, a free Khoikhoin who has sought work at the farm and who lives with Galant. In a fit of rage, Nicolaas beats David, the infant son of Bet and Galant, to death, thereby provoking a series of conflicts with Galant, who escapes, steals a horse, beats it, and slaughters sheep to exacerbate Nicolaas’ anger. After Nicolaas has retrieved Galant from a British prison following one such incident, they are caught in a storm on the way home. Galant saves Nicolaas’s life, but Nicolaas remains oblivious to the irony, feeling that he is a slave to God and to the land, and thus deserving of being master over his own slaves. On the one night of their adult lives when Galant and Nicolaas might have reconciled their antagonism with the foundation of their childhood love for each other, neither of them can open honestly enough to the other to gather even the remnants of their trust.
Barend’s marriage to Hester is one of outright warfare: He beats and rapes her into submission. With respect to British reforms, Barend ignores as many as possible, continuing his whimsical whipping of slaves and preaching his disdain for English law. Suffering from a sense of inferiority, Nicolaas increasingly imitates Barend’s attitudes and actions, yet he languishes in his own confusion. After his killing of Galant’s son and Galant’s subsequent rejection of Bet, whom Galant blames as much as Nicolaas, Nicolaas begins a contrived affair with Pamela, a slave woman with whom Galant plans marriage, if he can gain permission from Nicolaas. Pamela consents to Nicolaas’ demands only to mediate the anger which he directs toward Galant. When Pamela has a son, Galant is horrified to learn that Nicolaas is the father. Coupled with the previous antagonism between Galant and Nicolaas is the growing publicity of rumored freedom for the slaves, and Galant contemplates the meaning of freedom and the justification for violence in seizing it when the rumors drag on for months. Just as Galant’s motives are mixed with revenge, so, too, are the lives of the characters beset with the confusion of violence, revenge, and deceit.
Galant, in the third section, succeeds in convincing several slaves that they cannot wait for the rumored freedom and must revolt from their masters. Barend’s continual brutality toward his slaves helps Galant in his cause, but Galant succeeds primarily by exaggerating the sentiment for revolution among the other slaves of the region, feigning a trip to Cape Town and spicing his stories with an episode of a mad slave who attacked whites in the city streets. Ironically, the story is one that has been told to him by Nicolaas. As Galant goads the other slaves forward in their plot, Piet suffers a stroke, which Hester takes as an omen of impending death. Bet tries to warn Cecilia and Nicolaas of the uprising, but, instead, she is rebuked and ignored by them. In turn, Cecilia has nightmares in which she is raped by blacks. Just before the rebellion and the escape occur, Johannes Verlee, a schoolmaster, and Hans Jansen, a farmer seeking a lost horse, arrive at the farm.
In recounting the events of the revolt, the fourth section focuses less on the murder of Nicolaas, Verlee, and Jansen and on the wounding of Cecilia than it does on the hopelessness of the rebellion and the frustration of the aftermath. Some slaves betray the cause and the revolting slaves are captured quickly, and even Galant, seemingly dignified in his attempt to gain freedom, submits quietly to his capture. Psychologically damaged as much as anyone by the violence, Barend flees his farmhouse without concern for the safety of Hester and her children. His cowardice undercuts the strength and autonomy that characterize him to this point in the novel, and he will never again have the respect of the Boers. It is Hester’s courage that enables the reader to glimpse some possibility for hope out of the morass of cruelty and violence that mark South African history. In the midst of the attack at Barend’s farm, Galant and Hester retreat to a secluded loft where, as they make love for an hour, almost without dialogue, they discover the freedom to be themselves and to be, simply, human—free of labels and status and history.
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