A Chain of Voices Summary
by André Brink

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A Chain of Voices Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 1,341 words.)