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Andre Brink: On the fall of a giant

Andre Brink: On the fall of a giant

One of South Africa’s leading writers, Andre Brink, an Afrikaner who challenged the Apartheid government with the force of his writing, has passed away. J. BROOKS SPECTOR ponders his importance and impact.

Andre Brink, the acclaimed novelist, critic, memoirist, travel writer, dramatist and translator, passed away over the weekend while en route back home after receiving an honorary degree at the University of Louvain in Belgium. He was seventy-nine. Besides this most recent honour, Brink had received numerous international awards and degrees in recognition of his life as a writer of great power and talent and as a man of conscience at a vexed and troubled time.

For decades, Brink had frequently been grouped with Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee as one of South Africa’s most influential novelists. This was for quality of their writing as well as for their acute, unblinking insights into the shifting racial and political landscapes of South Africa.

Some years earlier, Brink had himself quoted from the Genesis on the occasion of the death of a close friend. These same lines seem apt to mark Brink’s own passing. The passage read:

“There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.”

As an activist, engaged writer, Brink had been a leader of the movement of Afrikaans language writers, the Sestigers – the generation of the 60s. Besides Brink, the group had included other writers such as Breyten Breytenbach, Elsa Joubert and Adam Small, among a number of others. (Small, as a Coloured South African, had drawn significant criticism from other black writers for associating himself with a group of white writers in their effort.) The writers in that group had set out to move contemporary South African literature in Afrikaans – and the Afrikaner writers themselves – into the realities of their country’s racial circumstances and away from those more usual rural idylls and nostalgic writings about an half-imagined past.

As historian Hermann Giliomee, described the Sestigers, they “embraced secularisation, modernity, racial tolerance and sexual freedom, and used modern literary techniques and subject matter to explore these themes. This literature helped to change the political imagination of the Afrikaans reading public in subtle yet profound ways. They offered a new conceptualisation of the Afrikaners and their history that differed starkly from the image the political leaders and cultural leadership tried to project of the Afrikaners as a people determined to crush all threats to their survival.” And in describing his own motives for this movement and his place in it, Brink had written, “If I speak of my people then I mean: every person black, coloured or white, who shares my country and my loyalty towards my country.”

Watch: Andre Brink on the writing process

Brink was born in Vrede, a small town in the (then Orange) Free State, was educated at Potchefstroom University for a BA and then MA degrees in English and Afrikaans. He then went overseas for further study in France – a country he eventually came to call his second homeland. Eventually, Brink returned to South Africa where he taught, first at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, and then at the University of Cape Town where he remained as an emeritus professor there until his passing.

Brink had originally written his novels in Afrikaans and then translated them into English, but he eventually evolved a method whereby he produced his work in both languages, largely simultaneously. As he described this process during an interview in the New York Times a quarter of a century ago, “It is a strange kind of dialogue I have with myself. The moment you translate your cliches they stand out. And sometimes there are things that work in one language and not in another; whole scenes, even. And since I am author as well as translator, I can take liberties with each version.”

Brink’s novel Lobola vir die lewe came out in 1962. In the early 1970s, Brink wrote the precedent shattering Keunis van die Aande/Looking on Darkness. His next novel, An Instant in the Wind, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1976. Two years later, Rumours of Rain was a runner-up for the Booker Prize and he gained the CNA Literary Award for that novel. In 1980 he received the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize (UK) and the Prix Médicis Etranger (France) for A Dry White Season and a second CAN Literary Award two years later for A Chain of Voices.

Brink’s Kennis van die Aand/Looking on Darkness received unprecedented wrath, for an Afrikaans novel, from the state censor in South Africa. But this remarkable novel almost seemed to be a deliberate poke in the eye of the Afrikaner establishment, with its protagonist, Charles Malan, a Coloured actor, in prison for the murder of his white girlfriend. To ensure his work continued to reach an audience in South Africa following its banning, Brink prepared the English translation of the novel himself and had then his novel published in Britain instead. Available in some university libraries – virtually under lock and key – readers have reminisced that that novel hit them like a thunderbolt when they read it under the doleful gaze of disapproving librarians.

While critics abroad praised it, a few seemed puzzled by the way Brink’s main character seemed torn in many different directions and the subject of so many foreign influences. The Kirkus Review, for example, had said, “A sophisticate, an aesthete, a Europeanised intellectual, a dabbler in the philosophy of the East, Malan is truly a character in search of an author. His refusal to leave South Africa and his involvement with the young adventuress, however, insures the fate he seeks and embraces. All of this has more validity as thesis than as fiction.” But given the novel’s enormous resonance with its South African readers – and beyond – this reviewer seemed unable to grasp the hothouse mélange of influences so many people like Malan felt and that all those outside influences had made their restrictions under Apartheid all the more grating – and the novel that much more compelling for readers.

While English language authors like Alan Paton and William Plomer had already tackled stories years earlier that hinged on interracial relationships in novels like Too Late the Phalarope and Turbott Wolfe, and while Nadine Gordimer and Zakes Mda could address this in My Son’s Story and the Madonna of Excelsior; Brink was the first Afrikaans writer to embrace the question – and he moved it to the core of his novel as his Coloured protagonist became the narrator of the story. And that brought the weight of officialdom down on him as a result. In his last novel, Philida, which was long listed for the Man Booker Prize, Brink returned to the theme of sex across the colour line in early Cape society.

Beginning with the publication in Britain in English of Looking on Darkness, Brink began his unusual style of simultaneous bilingual writing, as further works such as A Dry White Season came from his pen. A Dry White Season followed the story of an ordinary white man who only slowly comes to grips with the brutality of the Apartheid regime and whose own universe is eventually turned upside down by his growing realisations of the dreadful truths behind the bland official reassurances. This novel was also banned by the old regime, but it became a noteworthy film (similarly banned in South Africa for some years), starring international stars Marlon Brando and Donald Sutherland as well as South African luminaries such as Janet Suzman and Winston Ntshona. (Brando so believed the importance of the film and its message that he agreed worked for scale, $4,000/week, rather than his usual A List fee.)

In dealing with the banning of his books, Brink evolved a kind of South African-style samizdat publishing approach. This effort sold some 4,000 copies of A Dry White Season before the censors caught up with it, banned it temporarily, before eventually relenting. Explaining this approach, Brink described how he had found a gap in the system when he noted South African censors usually came down on books after they were actually published commercially. In 1977, after he had written An Instant in the Wind, a book that took up the story of a love affair between an 18th-century white woman and a runaway black slave, Brink foresaw the censors would not be any kinder on this book than they had to Looking on Darkness. As he told an interviewer in 1980, “We had the book printed privately. Instead of submitting it to a publisher, we advertised in the newspapers that it was available at a number of specified locations.” For A Dry White Season, “We had a subscription list of those who had bought the earlier books and we worked from that. We sold about 4,000 copies that way.”

This writer was fortunate to have met him several times over the years, both while he was teaching in Grahamstown and when he came on lecture tours to Washington, DC. Whenever we met, Brink always seemed to exhibit a kind of exacting precision as well as passion when he spoke on the topics that moved him. And this quality seemed to echo that of his writing. Brink’s voice was crucial for South Africa when it counted most, and his literary legacy matters still, but his presence and impact will be sorely missed. DM

Photo: The file picture dated 01 December 2006 shows South African novelist Andre Brink at his conference ‘The word continents’ during the Guadalajara International Book Fair, in Guadalajara, Mexico. EPA/JOSE MENDEZ

Read more:

·         An Interview with André Brink at the New York Times


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