What is at stake is the whole concept of writing, of literature.
The boundaries between ‘text’ and ‘world’,
the ‘responsibility’ of the writer.[1]

André Philippus Brink (b. 1935) is a writer who for a long time has been writing in the shadow of Nadine Gordimer, the famous South African Nobel Prize-winning author. His very direct attacks on the political and social situation in South Africa may have created problems for the European public, in contrast to Gordimer’s more subtle criticism. Her novels are ‘generally agreed to be academic and “difficult”’ whereas Brink’s are more dramatic and traditional.[2] Brink’s style of writing and especially his literary purpose seem mainly to originate in his experiences in Paris, where he went to study literature. This is where he ‘woke up’ from his existence as a South African who so far had been blind to the very questionable situation his country was in. Life in Paris and the milieu at the University had the effect of opening his eyes; ‘I was born on a bench in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, in the early spring of 1960.’[3] He returned from Paris to South Africa after the student revolt in 1968, having decided against remaining in Paris for good. Back in South Africa, he became part of a group of writers who called themselves the Sestigers,[4] ‘starting as a revolt against hackneyed themes and outworn structures in Afrikaans fiction’.[5] The movement was founded by Jan Rabie. It was very European in inspiration and a purely literary, not political, movement, even if it became political by implication. The Sestigers, according to Brink, ‘believed very strongly that, given the society we worked in, literature could only be vital by exploring openly the issues involved within that society’.[6] The idea was to describe every side of the human condition in South Africa as honestly as possible, especially those aspects traditionally considered as taboos. Honesty, then, is the starting point for Brink, not political criticism. Novels designed to reveal or describe something unacceptable and at the same time written at this particular place and time, if accepted as a plausible description of existing conditions, may create, at least, two possible extreme reactions: apathy or engagement. For a society like the European, that has enough with solving its own troubles—or thinking it at least has solved the troubles regarding racial problems—neither of the two is considered particularly comfortable. Racism seems very much to have lost interest in Europe today. This may be one reason why Brink’s novels are not too well known. Another more obvious reason for him not being widely read, is of course that he may not be regarded as particularly interesting, or that he is even looked upon as a writer without much talent, writing ‘romantic sentimentalism’.[7] Certainly, there is a lack of literary criticism concerning his works—very little has been written about them outside South Africa, and what has been written about them inside the country is very hard both to find out about and to get hold of.[8]

Brink is, by many readers, first of all looked upon as a political writer, an author with a cause—his particular cause being to write about, and criticise, the system of apartheid. He asserts categorically that ‘it is only from a profound involvement in the problems of his world that the writer turns to writing’.[9] In his essays (according to his countryman and fellow-writer J.M. Coetzee) ‘Mad is a word Brink often applies to South African society; sick is another. The writer stands on the side of sanity and health, the state on the side of sickness and madness’.[10] This statement illustrates quite clearly the situation that provides much of the basis for Brink’s novels, and his attitude towards the state of his country.

I got the impression that a country like South Africa has no place for people who simply want to carry on living, indulge in their little sins, have a good meal from time to time, enjoy a bit of music or a good painting or a good book. You’re forced to walk right into the fire. Otherwise, the only choices you have are to go mad or to die.[11]

This is how he puts it in Writing in a State of Siege:

In such a situation [as that of South Africa in 1976] the writer has two important responsibilities. The first is, quite simply, to keep the people informed. […] The writer’s second responsibility, much more important than the first (for the first hardly goes beyond the level of journalism, however important that in itself may be) is to explore and expose the roots of the human condition as it is lived in South Africa: a grappling with essentials, with the fundamentals of human experience and human relationships, sub specie historiae.[12]

As the basis for his critical writing, apartheid, now hopefully has come to an ultimate end, the reading public may come to see Brink more and more as a remnant of the past, hopelessly outmoded with a message that has lost all interest and relevance, his books having value only as historical documents. This, among other things, I hope to prove wrong in the course of this thesis. Clearly, Brink is deeply involved in the history of his country: ‘The other most abiding influence on my writing [the first being that of Albert Camus] is the study of history.’[13] This interest provides a very useful background when, as he puts it in a radio interview, it is ‘very important to try and find the roots of where today’s terribly complicated situation comes from’.[14] Several of his books have a historical perspective: Looking on Darkness (1974), An Instant in the Wind (1976), A Chain of Voices (1982), On the Contrary(1993), to mention some very evident examples.

It is one of the ‘drawbacks’ of being a dissident writer that the literary qualities are easily overlooked and overshadowed by a strong message. In one article, Neil Lazarus describes contemporary white South African literature like this:

It is an obsessional literature, haunted and introspective, urgent and compulsive. It tracks relentlessly and more or less pitilessly over the ever more restricted terrain to which, by virtue of its situation, it is condemned. It is a literature of parsimony and narrow depiction, in which the motions of generosity and expansiveness have had to be stilled, as unaffordable luxuries. It is a literature that, under the circumstances, could not but be scarred by its forced identifications and necessary reactions.[15]

To me, a statement like this seems both right and wrong. The situation ‘to which it is condemned’ may prove to be an opportunity as well as a limitation to highlight certain aspects of the human experience.

In my view Brink is not only an important writer because of his particular subject matter, he is also an artist of high literary quality providing the reader with experiences that transcend the mere political environment. His novels are something more than political statements. As he puts it,

However close my work is to the realities of South Africa today, the political situation remains a starting point only for my attempts to explore the more abiding themes of human loneliness and man’s effort to reach out and touch someone else. My stated conviction is that literature should never descend to the level of politics; it is rather a matter of elevating and refining politics so as to be worthy of literature.[16]

His novels all have a story to tell, and Brink’s perhaps most outstanding quality is that of the storyteller. The composition of the novels is as a rule very carefully planned, and the apartheid background provides an almost infinite range of interesting and often surprising, provoking and challenging questions concerning the human situation in the world—also outside South Africa. He would obviously disagree very strongly with Mr Lawrence’s statement in Rumours of Rain that ‘This art racket is grossly overrated if you ask me. Just draws one’s attention away from the real issues. In a land like this there’s no need for art’.[17] For a writer of fiction the ‘political situation’ may, as mentioned before, prove to be a limitation on one’s creative powers, if one fails to transcend the immediate and concrete succession of events, as is also indicated by Brink’s statement cited above. He wants to ‘probe beneath the surface, to pose dangerous questions, to discover essential human truths’.[18]

In this thesis I propose to analyse the presentation of the social and political system known as apartheid in one of Brink’s novels, A Chain of Voices. Towards the end of the thesis I shall try to draw some lines to Brink’s contemporary novel, An Act of Terror (1991), and thus trace a development from the former to the latter, the former offering a kind of historical background to apartheid and the latter describing the phenomenon in its terminal stages (things change rapidly these days; on April 26, 1994, election day for all South Africans became part of history, and on May 10 the same year Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected President of the Republic of South Africa). Together the two novels present, as it were, the beginning and the end of the history of apartheid. My hypothesis will be that the first novel is an attempt to see both sides of the apartheid system in a very basic way, trying to understand how it could come into being. And as A Chain of Voices represents the beginning of the chain, An Act of Terror can be seen to represent the end. In the latter novel we meet contemporary South Africa, a portrayal of what may be seen as foreshadowing the end of apartheid. A Chain of Voices can thus be seen as a kind of historical basis that in one small-scale incident describes a state of affairs that has lasted for ages, an unchanging and very basic background for the contemporary sudden movement in An Act of Terror, where the whole system is attacked by the very people it is supposed to benefit. However, as my main interest is the background of apartheid, I will concentrate on A Chain of Voices.

[1] André Brink, States of Emergency (London: Fontana Paperbacks, 1989), p. 5.
[2] Kirsti Horneman, ‘A Civilization on Trial: White South African Society as Presented in Two South African Novels: Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People and André Brink’s An Instant in the Wind’ (Unpublished MA. thesis, University of Oslo, 1985), p. 4.
[3] André Brink, ‘Introduction: a Background to Dissidence’, in Writing in a State of Siege: Essays on Politics and Literature (New York: Summit Books, 1983), p. 29.
[4] Meaning something like the ‘sixtiers’, a label for those literary active in the sixties who were members of this particular group or movement.
[5] Brink, ‘Introduction: a Background to Dissidence’, in Writing in a State of Siege, p. 26.
[6] Brink, ‘Introduction: a Background to Dissidence’, in Writing in a State of Siege, p. 27.
[7] Neil Lazarus, ‘Modernism and Modernity: T.W. Adorno and Contemporary White South African Literature’, Cultural Critique, 5 (1986), 131–55 (p. 136).
[8] Fore some months I have been trying to get hold of Anette Pieterse’s ‘Tussen Orde en Chaos—die Tragiese en die Dekonstruksie van die Suid-Afrikaanse Werklikheid in André P. Brink se Politieke Romans’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Pretoria, 1989). I have not succeeded, however, but this thesis may be more easily available for future students with an interest in Brink’s novels. Among those sources I have gained access to, and found helpful, I would like to mention particularly: Lillian Hilja Andon-Milligan, ‘André Brink’s South Africa: A Quality of Light’ Critique, Vol. XXXIV, No. 1 (1992), 19–33; Pierre Gibert, ‘Bible et Anti-Bible Chez André Brink’, Etudes, Vol. 368, No. 5 (1988), 651–661; Abdul R. JanMohamed, ‘The Economy of Manichean Allegory: The Function of Racial Difference in Colonialist Literature’, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 12, No. 1 (1985), 59–88; W.F. Jonckheere, ‘Some Dutch Models and Sources of André Brink’s Novel A Chain of Voices’, Dutch Crossing: A Journal of Low Countries Studies, 38 (1989), 89–95.
[9] Brink, ‘Writers and Writing in the World’ (1969), in Writing in a State of Siege, p. 47.
[10] J.M. Coetzee, ‘André Brink and the Censor’, Research in African Literatures, 3 (1990), p. 65.
[11] André Brink, The Wall of the Plague (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), p. 37.
[12] Brink, ‘After Soweto’ (1976), in Writing in a State of Siege, p. 152.
[13] Coetzee, p. 65.
[14] André Brink in Marit Notaker’s radio programme ‘Pestens Mur, et program om André Brink’, NRK radio September 23, 1984.
[15] Lazarus, p. 131.
[16] Susan M. Trotsky, (ed.), Contemporary Authors: New Revision Series, 39 (Gale Research Inc.: 1992), p. 43.
[17] André Brink, Rumours of Rain (London: Minerva Paperbacks, 1994), p. 330.
[18] Brink, ‘The Position of the Afrikaans Writer’ (1967), in Writing in a State of Siege, p. 38.

Lindgren (c) 2018