Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Part Three (wind): Self-assertion
Physical love — love it­self, the transgression of the bor­der between ‘me’ and ‘you’ — is violent. Fertilisation, the divi­sion of cells, birth, growth, all the processes of life, are conditional upon violence, unthink­able with­out it. [1]

Joseph Campher is a rather special character in the novel. He is the only one, except for old D’Alree, who has travelled to South Africa by himself; he was not born there. In connection with the social structure of the farms, he falls between several stools. He works just like the slaves, yet he is white and can come and go as he pleases. He sympathizes with Galant, and even urges him on, yet Campher himself has nothing to gain in doing so. But he supplies the action with a historical dimension, introducing the wind of liberation from tyranny that he remembers from his youth in his home country in Europe. With the use of slogans like liberté—egalité—fraternité; les droits de l’homme; la commune; and vive la république, he links Galant’s cause to a tradition of development of human rights and a growing (European) awareness of the uni­versality of human dignity. To Campher these slogans are essential and promises of greatness, yet he betrays them in the end. In his case, it seems as if it is a matter of courage to take a stand against those who traditionally should be your allies, and for those you will be looked down on and ostracized for sympathizing with, so when he is put to the test he fails. But this may also be seen as in keeping with his opportunist past, when he exploited the tense rela­tionship between Boer and Xhosa: ‘The best way to preserve the peace is to make sure that both sides are equally strong. Then neither will risk anything against the other’ (p. 330). All in all, he is portrayed as a man of words, not of action, but someone to link the South African situation with European history.

‘White. The child was white’ (p. 333). This is perhaps that part of the novel that above all links it to European history and religion. It is Galant’s words, and again we get a paradoxical mixing of native black Africa with European Christian religion. This chapter, the whole of which is quoted above, is the shortest in the novel,[2] and with the novel’s particular relation­ship to the Bible that we have already seen several times, it is interesting to take a look at the short­est verse in the Bible, which is in the New Testament, John 11.35: ‘Jesus wept.’ The ex­treme force of emotion conveyed in this verse is probably apt to describe Galant’s feel­ings at the birth of what he thought to be his child. To Galant, the child is a child with­out a father, like Jesus was. In another sense, which ironically corre­sponds with the context of Jesus’s grief—the death of Lazarus—Nicolaas has now given Galant back the child he took from him. The child thus becomes both Galant’s and Nicolaas’, and in this way a simple and symbolic hope for the future. Galant, however, more or less by accident, kills the baby, thus denying any link with Nicolaas whatsoever; complete self-assertion is the only solution.

On his way back from Cape Town, without the company of Galant, who declined to go with him, Nicolaas pursues his bewildered reflections, trying to excuse his actions with fate, history, the government in the Cape, the landscape, its people, and his own family. He could never have acted other­wise. Essentially, just like Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, Nicolaas has only wanted to be well-liked. But, unlike Loman, part of Nicolaas’ basis for existence depends upon not being liked by a particular group of people. He can­not be what he is and still enjoy general benevolence.

My parents regarded me as something of a wash-out […] My brother de­spised me as a weakling. My own wife regarded me as a husband not man enough to produce sons, a pursuer of black women. And from the way Galant looked at me or an­swered back it was obvious that even he had no regard for me: and we’d been so close. (p. 335).

It is amazing to see Nicolaas’ naïve and persistent belief in the uniqueness of his relation­ship with Galant. The only place he can seek refuge is with his children; but this will soon end, the ‘inevitable estrangement’ (p. 336) will come. In due time they will grow up and become part of the world of sin and guilt that is the adult world; a world where commu­nication is impossible, where it is useless to try to explain one’s actions, both because one would not be understood, but also because oneself does not really understand it.

While in Cape Town, Nicolaas tries to clarify the rumours about what is to be done with the slaves; ‘Hearsay can cause such impossible distortions’ (p. 339). What he learns is this:

Should the British Government decide on the emancipation of slaves—in which case there would be ample remuneration—we would be informed in good time. By the end of the year everything should be cleared up. If we hadn’t heard any news by then it meant that we would be free to continue as before. Otherwise messengers would be sent throughout the Colony, round about Christmas or New Year, with full particulars. (p. 339).

To Nicolaas this should be good news. What else can he possibly wish for than that the only person in the world who can understand him should be given his freedom? Compensation will also be paid. This also confirms that the rumours Galant now puts all his hopes in are correct. But why then, is Nicolaas still so reluctant to free his slaves? Apart from the obvious advan­tages of cheap labour and personal power, there might be an additional suspi­cion on Nicolaas’ part that Galant, when attaining his freedom, might reject Nicolaas as a friend or even as a person. This fear could be seen as what lies at the bottom of Nicolaas’ need to retain his masterly power over Galant. When Nicolaas ad­mits to Barend on his return, that ‘After New Year the world will be a much better place for all of us’ (p. 341), it is not clear what he hopes for, emancipation or continued slav­ery, but at least he looks forward to some sort of conclusion, whatever it might be. At one point he even says to Achilles: ‘Perhaps one day you can go back to your land’ (p. 355), but it seems as if Nicolaas only wants to torture him or show how they depend on him: ‘No use going back is it? Much better to stay here’ (p. 355).

Ma-Rose still keeps her place as an observer on the sideline: ‘there was nothing I didn’t know’ (p. 343). She observes that ‘It was turning into a dry year’ (p. 343)—a statement that echoes Brink’s other novels A Dry White Season (taking its title from the poem by Mongane Wally Serote about the inevitable passing of seasons) and Rumours of Rain with its hope for change. Ma–Rose makes sure to describe the elements, in this chap­ter the wind espe­cially, in a way that fits with the general development of the plot: ‘it was a real threshing wind from the west, ready to take away all the chaff and straw and leave only the rich grain behind’ (p. 343). Being the observer, she feels that ‘another wind was rising too’ (p. 343). To make sure about the rumours, she asks Nicolaas point blank if it is true. Nicolaas, who knows them to be true, answers, ‘I’ll shoot the first man who sets foot on my farm to take away my slaves. And if need be I’ll first shoot the slaves myself’ (p. 350). By saying this, Nicolaas narrows down the alternatives left for Galant, forcing the develop­ment in the only direction possible. To show exactly how extreme and pre­posterous such a statement was even at this time and place in history, the school teacher Verlee is made to reflect that Nicolaas ‘held some startling opinions, especially in connection with slavery at the Cape’ and that he was ‘truly an uninformed person’ (p. 402). To return to Ma-Rose, she is still the chief source of the aboriginal mythology, in­terpreting nature according to her inherited set of ideas. When she sees a whirlwind, she ‘knew it was Gaunab, the Dark One […] a bad omen’ (p. 348). Cecilia tells her not to scare the chil­dren with such ‘heathen nonsense’, but it is obvious that, in a similar way, part of the purpose of her and her people’s use of the Old Testament is exactly that, to scare people into obedience. But Ma-Rose’s God will not obey:

Tsui-Goab will send his wind to sort out the grain from the chaff. He won’t allow his people to be humiliated like this. He’s sitting up there in His red sky, seeing everything that happens; and when the time comes He will send his great wind. (351).

From this point onwards everybody waits for Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day, even if Galant seems to be prepared for a disappointment, to be forced to take it into his own hands: ‘one of these days I’ll be standing on top of the Lion’s Head with my gun in my hand, and they’ll see me from a long way off’ (p. 357).

Hester too feels that something is in the air, something that will change everything:

My God, this can’t be all: it can’t just go on like this forever: somewhere, invisible now but undeniable, there must be something more than this slow ageing, this fatal oozing away of possibilities, of hope. (p. 358).

On Christmas Eve she meets Galant at the dam after dinner, both led there by some nos­talgic impulse. They clear up the misunderstanding about Hester’s alleged accusations of Galant ‘interfering’ with her. To Galant, this comes both as a relief as well as something to complicate things further. On one hand, Galant wants to keep Hester as a fellow suf­ferer, someone who shares his views and understands him; on the other hand, it would make things easier to be able to draw a permanent line between himself and white people as such. Now this is no longer possible. Asking Barend to punish Klaas, who be­trayed Galant, Hester at the same time cuts the connection to the person who would have been willing to betray Galant again and warn the van der Merwes about the rebellion.

Christmas Eve passes and New Year’s Day comes with no news. Galant isolates himself more and more from the others, preparing himself for the role as a symbol in a historical process. After New Year it is silent before the storm. Then the wind comes and work can begin again: threshing. For a while it seems as if everything has returned to normal again. But Galant has given up hope about news from the Cape and is waiting for Nicolaas to give him a reason for fighting back. Galant starts to prepare himself and the others for rebellion, and warns them that it might come to killing. At this point Galant emerges as a new person, self-confident and with a clearly defined goal.

Even Barend seems to sense that something has been lost from child­hood. Visiting Cecilia and Nicolaas (who is not at home) with a stray mare, Barend thinks back. He thinks back at childhood as a happy time, but the only thing he really misses is the adven­ture. For him too, like Nicolaas, life has be­come too serious. ‘What tremendous event would be required to restore ad­venture and significance to our lives, to change Hester into one of the possibil­ities of my life again?’ (p. 406). From this it becomes clear that the abolition of slavery will not only solve Galant’s problem, but almost any problem existing on the farms. At first sight, this may sound very simplistic. And seen in this way, it is simplistic. But I think we should regard many of the problems with life on these farms as originating in the practice of slavery, rather than to see emancipation as solving problems in general. There is a direct link between personal problems and the way life is organised at the farms. Brink tries to show how slavery affects areas of life that one by first sight would never be­lieve to have any connection with it whatsoever. Slavery is not a problem for the slaves only, also the masters suffer, without knowing why. But these are thoughts that Barend is not even close to, and when his thoughts go in this di­rection he tries to ‘restrain the thoughts. Sundays had never been good for me. The inertia made one think too much’ (p. 406). During this moment of re­strained reflection, Barend can hear Abel’s ‘boisterous laughter’, and he ironi­cally envies him what he takes to be a carefree attitude. If we turn to Brink’s A Dry White Season, we find a person who is characterized by exactly this laugh­ter, Stanley and his ‘sad booming sound’[3]: ‘If a man can’t laugh to clean out his stomach, if you can’t tell the world to get fucked, then it’s thickets.’[4] This adds to the feeling of communication failure and the misinterpretation of sig­nals. Barend, however, after these disturbing thoughts, concludes that ‘everything was under control’ (p. 410).

From the moment Campher realizes that Galant is serious, he starts planning a way to get out of it, to make sure the rebellion fails. He is sure that it will fail anyway and decides to save himself. This is only one of the factors that gives the rebellion a bad start, even if we may suspect Campher of being right: the rebellion could never have succeeded.

They have a final meeting before the rebellion where everything is planned: ‘Everybody that mattered were there that night’. They talk about freedom and what it really is. The characters are portrayed as essentially free in spirit: they want freedom as such, not because the life they live is particu­larly bad, but because they are not free. Old Achilles is even free enough to eat a peach, unlike Eliot’s Prufrock, and Achilles does not care if the juice runs down his chin. This situation in fact adds a new dimension to Prufrock’s bourgeois narrow-mindedness that enables him to ask ‘Do I dare to eat a peach?’, very much in line with Eliot’s own idea about how each new piece of literature requires a reevaluation of everything written prior to it. The meeting further reveals a rather unrealistic view of what life as a free man is going to be. In a merry way, they tell each other incredible stories about how they will now become masters and the white will be slaves. Only Galant is more seri­ous and seems to have a deeper understanding of what is going to happen. The others may, in fact, well be regarded as having lived such a long time under oppression that they are not fit for gaining their freedom overnight—some­thing which has a very contemporary parallel in contemporary South Africa. This may also be one of the major reasons for the failure of the rebellion.

Galant gets the reason he needs when Nicolaas orders him to work all night to repair the threshing-floor. Galant has no intention of obeying, and he feels ‘an openness, all tension released’ (p. 427).

In the last chapter of this part of the book, Nicolaas’ daughter Helena has the word. With her childish and simple words, she shows the merciless logic of the terrible arithmetic at work in the novel: ‘two and two make five’ (p. 428) she says, and she may hope it does. But history is not fooled. The next, and last, part is part four; and its ‘title’, ‘fire’, means ‘4’ in the Scandinavian languages.

[1] Brink, ‘An act of violence’, in Writing in a State of Siege, p. 37.
[2] The page number of the chapter, 333, also seems to hint at religious overtones.
[3] Brink, A Dry White Season, p. 288.
[4] Brink, A Dry White Season, p. 252.

Lindgren (c) 2018