Concluding Remarks

And so, in exploring literature and violence, what is important is not only the articulation of violence but the violence of articulation.[1]


What I hope to have shown in this thesis, is that A Chain of Voices is more than simply a historical novel, more than a fascinating and engaging story about something that happened 170 years ago. By using the particular event of a slave rising in 1825, Brink has been able to touch upon aspects of timeless issues like individual truth versus ‘objective’ truth (if such a concept exists), the conditions of communication, justice, alienation, God, love, racism and xenophobia; some of these are handled explicitly, others implicitly. The questions about the possibility of attaining truth and about communication are not answered in the novel, they are only identified. Truth seems to be subjective, and communication almost impossible.

What then, about the novel itself? Does it successfully communicate the ‘truth’ about the rising it describes—the only ‘truth’? Does it give a ‘true’ picture of the nature of racism, or give a ‘true’ description of how a system like apartheid could come into being? To answer yes to these questions would be naïve, but we could say that the way Brink in this novel expresses the idea that the truth is never simple, never restricted to an autoritative voice, is a move in the right direction. In Rumours of Rain, the protagonist thinks to himself after having written his book:

So it has really become a novel after all, nothing more. History reduced to story. It is no longer accurate. And yet in a way it seems truer to me now than it has been before.[2]

Truth, in the sense of a correct perception of the world around us, is a mixture of subjective impressions, and the way of getting closer to the truth must involve the piecing together of many small truths. Even Frans du Toit, the Field-cornet, feels that small, isolated facts cannot represent the whole truth which is somewhere beyond facts: ‘Now, having taken down all their statements, each the summary of an existence, I am perplexed by the obscurity of the truth. Where does it reside?’ (p. 432). He even decides that he does not want to find truth or justice; it would reveal too much, be too hard to bear. If it was possible to examine at least some of the different subjective truths, and if we had the courage to face the implications that might have, this would make communication easier because it is bound to open our eyes to alternative views.

modern fiction often presents occasions to the reader to ‘observe and refrain from judging…and a part at least of the reader’s satisfaction is due to his consciousness of his own broadmindedness’.[3]

This is perhaps the reason why we feel that the novel communicates so well with the reader; by making us see and understand some of the many nuances of a controversial issue, Brink gives us a comfortable notion of our own ‘broadmindedness’. The themes of truth and communication may further be linked with justice. Justice will certainly benefit from a broader sense of what constitutes truth, and equally, and substantially, from an improvement in communication.

Alienation is a strong notion for several of the characters in the novel. There seems to be a shift, however, between the older and the younger generation. Piet and Ma-Rose, still feeling like integrated parts of their respective religions, do not have any problems worth mentioning concerning their place in the world. Nicolaas, Galant, and Hester on the other hand, all have existential difficulties, for a large part due to loss of faith in a divinely controlled world order. Only one of them completely succeeds in establishing an independent identity, Galant. Hester may partially seem to succeed, while Nicolaas fails totally. The road to identity for Brink, as for Camus, seems to necessitate a break with religion, the first step being to acknowledge that man is alone; there is no God that can give meaning to existence.[4] Galant does not reflect explicitly on this, but at one point in his quest for identity he thinks to himself: ‘…one’s body can never be left behind: And in your body places and people are contained’ (p. 320); ‘All I know is that I’m here. This is my body: feel it. I am Galant. This, at least, at last, I know’ (p. 321); and later, ‘To be free is to want to be where you belong: to dare to be who you are’ (p. 322). When he decides to run away, he thinks: ‘I’m taking my freedom.’ (p. 302), and when he tries to get the other slaves to join his rebellion he says about himself: ‘Now I’m taking my life in my own hands’ (p. 376). Towards the end of the novel, Galant thinks:

…to choose, with open eyes—even if it is in the dark!—willingly to bind oneself to that tomorrow which does not yet exist, but which is brought into being by the choice itself: that is perhaps the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life. Perhaps this is freedom. (p. 497).

These thoughts seem to me like the equivalent of saying: ‘I am nothing more than myself; the only one to give my life meaning is myself’. The second step is to assume responsibility for this insight—first for himself, then for his fellow sufferers, and finally for the future—and this experience of responsibility is what forces Galant to rebel. Without having established an independent identity, Galant could not have carried out the rebellion the way he did.[5]

God[6] as theme is not easy to come to grips with in A Chain of Voices. As I see it, there are two possible views of God to be recognized in the novel that are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The most obvious, the one that would fit with Camus’ world-view, is a total rejection of anything divine at work in the world. There is a number of myths that have deep historical roots and thus contribute to shaping us as human beings. But the only way of developing a ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ personality is the realization of man’s utter solitude. The other possible way of interpreting God’s role in the novel is to see the meeting between the two religions as demonstrating that there is a kind of common platform for every religion: it is how we use or exploit that religion that really makes the difference. However, the God(s) in A Chain of Voices are not disturbingly present, not very active (if at all active); clearly man is left alone in his struggles, be they intellectual or practical. God can never provide us with a guarantee of justice. When I say that these two ways of seeing God are not mutually exclusive, I mean that the first possibility, the rejection of God, does not necessarily have to be a total rejection of His existence. We might equally well see God as having withdrawn from the world, not to be counted on as being able to contribute with anything during our time on this earth. Nevertheless, God and religion can be said to provide a basis for universal values. In this way, the presence and the absence of God in the novel results in an emphasis, not on a rejection of God, but on an affirmation of basic values common to most religions.

Love is another central element in the novel, or rather, the lack of it, or even, how love is denied the conditions necessary for its survival. Certainly, there is love in the novel, though it is difficult to judge whether the love is ‘real’ or not. In some ways, Piet and Ma-Rose seem to love each other; at least they understand and seem to respect each other. Barend seems to love Hester, at least to desire her, though we may hesitate to call it ‘love’. There can be little doubt, however, that Nicolaas loves Hester, and that he in some sense loves Galant. But the only ‘successful’ love-story, at least in the sense that both parts finally dare admit it to themselves and each other, is the one between Hester and Galant. In what is one climax of the novel they manage, in the middle of violence, destruction, and murder, to break down the walls of mistrust, cultural inheritance, fear, and to break down the communication barrier.

Love and violence meeting, intersecting, reinforcing one another: each discovering obscurely, something of the other in the self, unsettling synonyms.[7]

This meeting is possible because both have an understanding of the other’s situation; one a slave, the other a woman who, in many ways, shares the slave’s basic situation: lack of freedom.[8] Hester:

in that most private of acts, unacknowledged by the shamed world, we entered history: we are here. Look, we are free. We can reassume the burdens of our separate conditions. A brief shout against silence, a parenthesis (p. 495).

This is where the hope lies: that one can find a common ground on which to meet that is not tainted with old hatred due to misunderstandings and culture clashes. The search for this common ground is obviously facilitated by the love between two people. In Writing in a State of Siege, Brink claims that ‘There is one force that can kill the fear which often threatens to paralyse us when we wish to bring the truth to light. That force is the love which “drives out fear”’.[9] But first racism and xenophobia have to be identified.[10] In South Africa, these two phenomena are allowed enough space to pervade almost every aspect of human existence; at least this is what we find in A Chain of Voices. Racism and xenophobia are portrayed as common features for all men. What Andrea says about racism in The Wall of the Plague may be seen as the view that also can be found in A Chain of Voices:

We regard it [racism] as ‘uncivilized’, but actually it’s part of our natural condition to resent and hate and persecute whatever looks different from ourselves. It threatens us. It’s something we’ve got left over from our animal state: and only here and there you’ll find exceptions, individuals or societies that have progressed a bit further. The rest is still ‘on the road’. People must be given a chance to come to terms with it before they can start thinking about the next step forward.[11]

Racism and xenophobia are the main reasons for the failures of communication, justice, and love; the truth becomes fragmented and contradictory, communication, justice, and love become impossible.

As mentioned in my Introduction to this thesis, I believe there are some possible links between A Chain of Voices and the later novel An Act of Terror. When I started working on this thesis my original intention was to develop a comparison between these, but after some time it became clear to me that this goal was too ambitious to be realized within the scope of a thesis, and I subsequently changed my intention, narrowing it down to what it now has become: a reading of one of them: A Chain of Voices. Nevertheless, I maintain that there are several interesting links between the two novels. The complete and thoroughly developed system of apartheid in An Act of Terror, which no longer exists, has its basis in A Chain of Voices. With A Chain of Voices (and with An Act of Terror, we might add), Brink shows that the apartheid system of the 1960s formalized centuries of racial oppression in South Africa and was effectively an Afrikaner reimposition of the slavery officially abolished in 1836 by the British.’[12]

In many ways An Act of Terror carries to extremes what is more controlled and nuanced in A Chain of Voices. The later novel concentrates mainly on the question of the use of terrorism and violence in a ‘just’ cause, something Brink on the whole seems to defend (as we also have seen to some extent in A Chain Of Voices); at least that is the impression one must get from reading An Act of Terror. Though it may seem that Brink in this novel advances a more outspoken argument and uses almost twice the space to develop it, the novel is not as convincing as A Chain of Voices. In An Act of Terror, Brink maintains his authorial silence and thus retains the closeness between narrator and narratee that we also found in A Chain of Voices.[13] We follow mainly one person, Thomas Landmark, and the effect of authorial silence leads us to identify with one person and his views, views that, in the course of the novel, will turn him into a terrorist.[14] Other points of view are also represented, but we are never in doubt as to whom to sympathize with. But the brilliance of A Chain of Voices is that there are so many different narrators, forcing us to identify with totally different characters, and thus, to a very high degree, making us understand the complexity of both particular situations and the general situation of this particular society. We also infer that in this novel, the implied author hesitates in taking a stand, he does not judge, at least not explicitly. Brink wants the reader to understand the background of apartheid, to discover and excercise his own broadmindedness. Not so in An Act of Terror. A historical perspective may give one explanation why Brink seems to have given up tolerance and assumed a more activist stance. The ‘apocalyptic spirit’ that South African writers are famous for has been increasing constantly, leaving the mere ‘understanding’ of A Chain of Voices a luxury that can no longer be afforded: something has to be done. This, I believe, is what makes An Act of Terror into much more of a thriller novel than A Chain of Voices: the patience has gone. One reviewer writes:

This simplistic division of the world into good and bad, beautiful and ugly, is one of the methods employed not only by the tract, but also by one type of thriller. And the plot synopsis of An Act of Terror certainly suggests that the author had this genre in mind.[15]

The same reviewer, however, goes on to emphasize that An Act of Terror contains passages that exceed the limits of the traditional thriller novel. It certainly is a very brave novel, one that seems very appropriate for the time it was written, a time when apartheid soon was to cease to exist. It is a good example of an author with a very good sense of history. Its topic and setting provide in many ways attempts to answer some of the questions in A Chain of Voices. We meet a modern society, but with the historical system of racial prejudice that has been part of its development to this day. In this novel, Brink does not dwell upon the nature of apartheid, as was the case in A Chain of Voices. The book takes a completely negative view of the system from the start. With a few exceptions, the people representing the system are portrayed as entirely evil and corrupt, while the people opposing it are portrayed as intelligent, educated, and good. Here, in a way, the good forces are much stronger than in A Chain of Voices, at least they are more easily definable; once more, however, they fail. But we see how massive the resistance against the system is, and at the same time how the system carries within itself its own destruction. A system based on terror only cannot last. The release of Nelson Mandela and the other systems breaking down at the end of the novel—the fall of the Berlin Wall, Central Europe and the Soviet Union falling apart, etc.—are all signs that foreshadow the downfall of apartheid. When I say that An Act of Terror does not dwell upon the nature of apartheid, this is only partly correct. At the end of the novel we find Thomas’ own ‘chain of voices’—his reconstruction of his family back to c. 1604 (cf. Looking on Darkness), a part which constitutes almost a novel in itself. One reason for including this addition is to show how Thomas belongs in South Africa. He is as much a part of the country as its ‘original’ population. This addition is almost like an A Chain of Voices in miniature. It is there to give a historical ‘explanation’ for contemporary South Africa, or an attempt to understand what has made the present situation possi­ble. The practical implication of this is that a solution to the country’s troubles has to have as its basis that room must be made for all its inhabitants. The problems have to be sorted out between the different groups and include all their members.

As I see it, we may regard An Act of Terror as a necessary part of Brink’s writing career. The time was ripe for action, there had been enough understanding and problematizing on his part. With the historical addition, Brink implies, however, that history should certainly not be forgotten, and that history may cast a gloomy light for those who are very optimistic about the future. History is made up of many small truths, also truths we may not like. Still, they are there and they need to be dealt with if we are to control or stop developments that we do not like. In this light, I think it will always be safe to say with André Brink in his An Instant in the Wind, ‘Such a long journey ahead for you and me’, both considering the contemporary political realities and the eternal struggle to get to know and understand one another in the basic, but complicated journey that is the human experience.


[1] Brink, ‘An Act of Violence’, p. 37.
[2] P. 431.
[3] H.W. Leggett, quoted in Booth, p. 77.
[4] ‘I do, however, subscribe to the basic Christian values: to justice; to compassion which transcends justice; to individual liberty which respects the liberty of others; to a concept of human dignity which accepts that all men are equal; above all, to caritas in its widest sense.’ ‘On Culture and Apartheid’ (1970), in Brink, Writing in a State of Siege, p. 71.
[5] I am not saying that this could not be done within a religious worldview, but for Brink it seems as if religion makes this difficult.
[6] I use the term ‘God’ in a wide sense, wide enough to include both Tsui-Goab and Jehovah.
[7] Brink, States of Emergency, p. 184.
[8] Cf. John Lennon, ‘Woman is the nigger of the world’.
[9] In the essay ‘Mahatma Gandhi Today‘ (1970), p. 68.
[10] These are the specific and basic problems in the society Brink describes; other groups, families, or individuals may struggle with entirely different problems, or, indeed, the very same.
[11] P. 219.
[12] Hassall, p. 186.
[13] About the functions of a silent author, see, Booth, part III, ch. x.
[14] This too, however, demands a kind of ‘broadmindedness’. The character we follow is really two different characters: the pacifist and the terrorist. The development from the former to the latter demands, if we are to enjoy the novel fully, that we change with him, or, at least, that we can understand both stands (taking for granted that we are not convinced terrorists to begin with).
[15] T.J. Binyon, ‘Exposing the Afrikaner ethos’, T.L.S., 13 September 1991, p. 20.

Lindgren (c) 2018