Life, etc

‘You only live twice’: The written life of Brink

By Maureen Isaacson 10 February 2015

Andre P. Brink, who died last week at the age of 79, inspired so many writers and readers to up their game. It is impossible to imagine life outside of the long shadow of his extensive achievements. Yet somehow, it seems safe to say his presence will endure. By MAUREEN ISAACSON.

The last time I saw Brink was at the Open Book festival in Cape Town in September 2014. Earlier in the day, I met Brink and his wife, Karina Szczurek, at the Waterfront, where we reminisced about Andre’s life and his relationship with Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, whose death a few months earlier, in July, had left a large void.

I noticed that Brink looked unwell; I learned from Szczurek that he’d experienced pain over a period of time. For the first time in his life he experienced writer’s block; he was depressed. His state was not improved by the news that a new boulevard in Cape Town was to be named after FW de Klerk. Brink had derided Klerk’s pious sham, writing about his “quiet display of rightist moves and expedient, self-serving manoeuvres,” prior to 1989. It was indeed infuriating that De Klerk had billed his decision to relinquish the absolute power enjoyed under Apartheid, as his own clairvoyant choice, when in fact he had no option.

Brink’s spirits lifted, however, as I recalled the incredible trepidation with which I had approached this first interview with the great celebrity author. Its subject was his 1995 family saga, Imaginings of Sand.

In preparation for the interview, I had spoken to a range of writers and academics. Some feminists among these referred to Brink’s perceived preference for women who ran with the wolves. This impression was further endorsed by his passionate and torturous love affair with Ingrid Jonker, the Afrikaans poet who ended her life by walking into the sea in 1965, although the details of his own experience of this love affair were hardly considered.

In that first interview and subsequent encounters I found Andre Brink always considered and gentle, and his admission in his 2009 memoir, A Fork in the Road, that he had perceived himself as timid and shy was not surprising. He said, “I behaved in a way that was outside of myself with her (Ingrid).” 

Brink was forthcoming in our first interview. We covered background details; his birth in Vrede, Free State 1935, and his childhood in several Calvinist towns where his magistrate father worked. Then he told the story he loved to tell, of his epiphany on a park bench in Paris, while a student at the Sorbonne. This was an advance on his first glimpse of enlightenment, triggered by an address delivered by ZK Matthews, a black academic and ANC politician at Potchefstroom University in the 1950s. Brink, then “a young racist man” (his descriptor) dumped notions of the curse on the sons of Canaan and the confusion of Babel that led God to divvy people up into racial groupings; he turned writing into an act of defiance.

This transformative experience made him a powerful voice of opposition, as a member of Die Sestigers, an outspoken group of Afrikaans dissident writers. He wore red trousers. A fan of the South African Community Party leader Bram Fischer, Brink attended the Rivonia Trial in 1964, sending messages to Fischer through Nelson Mandela’s lawyer and friend, George Bizos.

Brink’s Kennis van die Aand, (Looking on Darkness), 1973, was the first Afrikaans novel to be banned in SA. His immediate rewriting of the novel into English triggered a peculiarly ambidextrous facility. He thereafter wrote each novel in Afrikaans and then in English, not as a translation, rather as a separate enterprise. Looking on Darkness was banned in English too; Brink was propelled onto the world stage where he made his case for a free, democratic South Africa accepting his subsequent exclusion for several years from major literary prizes at home. He defined his work as “popular literary fiction”; combining elements of literary and pulp fiction. A fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the elements of magical realism rubbed off onto Imaginings of Sand; and later onto Praying Mantis (2005); and Brink essentially did his own thing. He said the purists did not always approve but his books sold in buckets-full, not least the 1980 novel A Dry White Season, made into a film.

In the Imaginings of Sand interview, Brink appeared vulnerable. His then-wife, a psychologist, had told him his depiction of female sexual experience was way out, and he was determined to get this right. The unexpected trust Brink appeared to place in me, as a journalist, was a responsibility.

He asked me to review his next novel, Devil’s Valley (1999). A journalist discovers an inbred community in Die Hel in the geographical and psychic hinterland of the Cape. The journalist swears a great deal, and as I got to know Brink better, I understood more about his oeuvre, its connections and disconnections and his incredible profuse inspirations. A great reader, with an encyclopedic knowledge, he was a fan of among others, Haruki Murakami, Milan Kundera and Margaret Atwood, with whom he said he identified.

He translated Dan Sleigh’s great novel Eilande into English; he called this an act of madness, having forty years previously been mad enough to translate the Don Quixote into Afrikaans. In his work he crossed cultures and centuries, responding to an inner compulsion and passion to seize the moment and to communicate; bequeathing to us an enormous library.

Brink occasionally reviewed books for the literary page I edited for the Sunday Independent; he was always deeply respectful, appreciative, enthusiastic, urbane and polite. Every now and then he’d let slip, about a review in which he had “gone to town” on a deserving target; he was “pissed off” by a photographer who had made unreasonable demands on him. He was sensitive but level, a pleasure to deal with.

His focus was on finding untold stories.

Praying Mantis (2005) is about the first Khoisan missionary in the Cape of Good Hope and draws on the magic of Khoisan mythology, and the belief that the praying mantis may be a manifestation of God, or Heitsi-Eibib. Brink’s publishers hosted him at the Westcliffe Hotel in Johannesburg, an appropriately fantastical gin palace set on a hill; it was necessary to take a small car to reach his suite. He said Praying Mantis was “the fruit of his anxiety”, a 70th birthday gift to himself. Brink was in high spirits ahead of this birthday and told me he would “have to grow up”. The highveld winter agreed with him, he said, he was robust, shining.

The graceful young Polish woman who opened the door, when I went to interview him about Mantis in 2005, was barefoot; she was Karina Szczurek. Brink’s 2009 memoir was in fact “a long love letter to Karina”. Szczurek, an academic and novelist, was 32 then; her parents had become Brink’s own parents, though they were younger than he was.

When I heard that Brink had died last Friday night, I remembered his 2004 novel, Before I Forget.

The protagonist, Chris Minnaar, an ageing writer, forced to confront the withering of his 103-year-old mother’s ancient flesh, turns within and relives the excesses of his sexual experiences. Brink’s own mother was 99 when she died and he repeatedly said he hoped he’d not have to confront this ageing process himself. Brink plumbed the subject of eros with gusto in several works. Before I Forget began as a celebratory novel. “I wanted to burst out in jubilation and turn it into a vote of thanks to women. One needn’t just be against things. There can be some things you can be for, and one of these things is love.” ?

Minnaar’s literary taste is confined neither to high nor to popular lit; Erica Jong plays a great role, as does Dostoevsky. It was hard to tell if Brink was serious about Minnaar’s antics, and where the line was drawn between eros and porn. “The moment something becomes purely exploitative, when the relationship is used simply to titillate, it can be called pornographic. For me it is the start of an inquiry, an investigation into why human relations exist.”

This exuberance was preferable to the morbidly cruel landscape of Brink’s previous novel, The Other Side of Silence (2002). Women sent from Germany to assuage the needs of the SS soldiers of German South West Africa are defiled; the tongue of the protagonist, a lesbian, is cut out. He understood the lesbian perspective through speaking to a friend, he said. Brink defended his right to imagine himself into the lives of the other, he acknowledged his presumption, yet placed few restrictions on his adventurous, writerly self. Although he told me once he was riddled with insecurity about his writing; felt he never got it right, which propelled him to greater productivity, Brink enjoyed a magnificent career. His substantial body of work will continue to speak for him.

I had mistakenly believed that Brink was always keen to answer any of my questions, that no matter was taboo in our interviews. It emerged in our final conversation at the Waterfront that he was in fact taken aback when I wondered what had become of the outrage of the angry young man, who in June 1986 published an open letter to the state president in the British Guardian newspaper. Brink decried the state of emergency and appealed to fellow writers to bear witness. In that letter, which ended “Sieg Heil”, Brink announced that “history is on our side”. Brink’s response to my question was that a certain tiredness had crept in. It was in retrospect a dumb question anyway; Brink was no longer a young man and the political landscape was radically changed. Brink loved the Afrikaans language and never stopped wanting to see its survival. He never stopped working for freedom of expression, happy to be campaigning with Gordimer against the Protection of State Information Bill.

Awarded the Order of Ikhamanga, silver, for his contribution to the arts, in 2006, he was nonetheless deeply disilllusioned by government’s failure to address escalating crime and inequality. He would not be silent about this. Andre Brink’s death, like so many incidents in his packed, well-lived life, was dramatic, and the impact of losing a husband on a KLM flight or any other is inestimable.

I gained some insights on the publication of his memoir, when Brink said although he had omitted details in order to spare the feelings of family members, he did not spare himself; wanting to tell more of the truth about the violent racial incidents he witnessed as a child because “that was the truth of it.”

If there were any remnants from his looking on darkness exercise that fed into his memoir he would use them later, in fiction.

And so all of life is useful only if it can be put to use in writing?

“Ian Fleming said you only live twice. (You live) once, in the living; then again in the writing. I think that is what a writer’s life is about, insofar as one dare resolve anything in a line.” 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

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