Problems of Communication

[…] individuals commu­ni­cat­ing either not at all or just superficially, each one sur­rounded by walls of preju­dices and frustra­tions, each one the slave of his or her dogmatic views.[1]


Before I go any further, some comments have to be made about the character Hester. I have not looked very closely at her yet, both because she is not one of the four central characters I have decided to focus on, and also because she is a very complicated character whose status in the novel is hard to decide. She is the most important female representative of Nicolaas’ and Galant’s generation in the novel and plays an important role in relation to these two in particular. As mentioned before, she is the cause of the first decisive cultural clash between Galant, Nicolaas, and Barend. At a time when they reach an age of early maturing sexuality, she becomes a disturbing object in the game of boys who are no longer merely children. Sex plays an important part in many of Brink’s novels, as discussed in the previous chapter, and ‘Brink has always been interested in love as “the beginning of violence and be­trayal”’.[2] Hester being a woman makes it possible to draw parallels not only to The First Life of Adamastor, as I already have done, but also to the Biblical story about Adam and Eve and the Fall of Man. Hester (like Eve), as it were, makes them (the males) aware of their own nakedness, both physically—they discover their own sexuality and ‘lose’ their innocence—and psychologically—the nakedness emphasizes the difference between Galant and the others. (In this connection, as before, we see that Galant, though belonging to a completely different tradition, becomes involved in a Biblical interpretation of reality.) Hester, it seems, becomes a catalyst for the central themes of the novel.

In the episode when Barend declares that he wishes to marry Hester, we get a good demonstration of the way in which she becomes an object in a conflict that is a result of problems of communication. Nicolaas, we are told, has always loved Hester, and she, no doubt, is aware of this. Barend, however, has also been in love with her for a long time, but the two brothers have no idea of the other’s feelings toward her: ‘His [Nicolaas’] only concern I think was to get a wife. Any woman would do’ (p. 108), Barend thinks. Hester is the only one who knows what the situation really is, but she remains silent out of some kind of masochistic belief in fate. To make things even more complicated, Galant also has certain feelings for Hester, and vice versa. One reason for the lack of communication is indicated by Brink:

masters and slaves, all tied by the same chains, are totally unable to communicate because their humanity and their individuality are denied by the system they live by.[3]

The inability to communicate, however, is not restricted to masters and slaves only, but includes in fact almost every individual character in the novel.[4] Most of the characters ‘perceive themselves as people who are always in opposition to or different from others, whether within the group or outside of that group, different from those of other races, different from those living far away’.[5] Cecilia notes at one point that ‘God has made man upright so he couldn’t easily touch another at his side: loneliness is his condition’ (p. 400). Another episode to illustrate this notion of communication failure, is when Hester loses her child. Barend comes to her, wanting to say ‘Forgive me’ (p. 154). Hester, in her turn, ‘needed to tell him I was sorry’ (p. 135). So far, this certainly has a very positive potential. But Barend thinks that Hester ‘would despise the slightest sign of weakness in me’ (p. 155), and Hester thinks she ‘saw the hard anger in his eyes and realized again how much he hated me for what had happened’ (p. 135). This is only one of several episodes that function in exactly the same way: acts of good intention are not allowed to be realized, either because the act, in fact, does result in misunderstanding and suspicion, or because the acting character halts his action because he does not believe that the act will be interpreted correctly. Barend, for instance, often refrains from performing a positive act due to an extreme lack of understanding of human psychology:

She [Hester] would remain my adversary until the day of my death; and the only way in which to remain worthy of her was to be as strong as she, never to give in, never to show a tender spot on which she might get a hold, for then she would destroy me. (p. 155).

Where does this come from, the fear of showing weakness? Does it come from religion? Or is it a part of man’s nature? I would lean to the latter, but in any case it is obvious that to admit one’s weakness is a central ability that is taboo for the male side in this society. Hester, in many ways a masculine character, has also shut out this possibility. The fear of showing weakness may thus seem to have much to do with gender and power strategies.

Hester then, is something of a femme fatale of the novel. She may be seen to share a ‘certain “history of calamities”’[6] with female characters from some of Brink’s other novels. She is a slightly strange, very sensual person, living somewhat in her own world. ‘She was like a small animal, a lovely furry creature one wanted to cuddle or protect, but which snarled and bit when one came too close’ (p. 105). Her ‘history of calamities’ begins at birth, from which her unhappy, fourteen year old mother, Anna Hugo, never recovers and dies two years later. She is then left to her father, Lood Hugo, who soon takes to drink. Alida starts taking care of her when Lood is too drunk to care about anything. On one such occasion, Piet, who is his employer, wants to teach him a lesson. After having given him a thorough beating in front of the little girl, Piet brings her to the farm, and the day after Lood shoots himself from humiliation (pp. 70–73). Alida is very fond of the girl, but Hester is not of the kind to let herself be possessed: ‘she would forever be solitary and independent’ (p. 74). Hester, it seems, in the familiar imagery of Brink, is of the breed of horses that cannot be broken in. She is a dreaming, distant child who constantly runs away (to look for her father), and who keeps telling unbelievable stories about herself (on one occasion at least, her story proves in fact to be true). She is a complex mixture of both very concrete and abstract characteristics. She has a mystical relationship to nature and animals that reminds one of Ma-Rose: ‘Not to feel the surface of the rock against your skin but to know how from inside it feels you’ (p. 98).

Hester’s function in the novel is first and foremost to provide a female parallel to the transformation of the boys on the farm into men, especially in relation to Nicolaas and Galant. At the same time, she is the first female white character who seems to be completely at home in the country, accepting and enjoying its wilderness. In the same way as Alida is tied more closely to the country by her suffering in connection with the rebellion, Hester, it seems, is tied to the country right from the start because of her dreadful experiences in early childhood. Suffering may thus be seen to take on a new quality, creating or establishing an identity in relation to the surroundings in which it took place. Another function is to focus on alienation and the difficulty of trusting other people: ‘To grow attached to anyone means running the risk of forfeiting that part of oneself entrusted to the other’ (p. 99). This fear of trusting people stems from the loss of her father, who had ‘become the custodian of my wholeness and when he died it could not be retrieved’ (p. 98). Like Nicolaas she has a sense of not belonging, but on another level. Nicolaas feels that he does not belong in the country and in the sort of society that has developed on the farm. Hester feels that she does not belong among people generally. She has lost her past and feels that she belongs only to that. A reunion with the past is the only way to happiness for her, she thinks. Nicolaas seems to be the only person that is able to reach her in any way, but she considers it a weakness that she almost gave up her misanthropy because of him. He makes it easier for Hester to close herself in by keeping his silence when Barend declares his intention to marry her: ‘It was the worst insult he’d ever inflicted on me’ (p. 100). In a mixture of masochism and passion, she hates Nicolaas for his cowardice at the same time as she has strong positive feelings for him. In the same way she admires Barend for his boldness and brutal (manly?) behaviour at the same time as she despises him. She seeks negative situations, because they are easier to define and to deal with than the positive and complicated feelings of love and passion: ‘The fight ahead, I knew, would be the surest way to make me survive’ (p. 100).

Another function of her presence in the novel, which should not be underestimated, is to provide us with more contrasts in connection with racism. She provides alternative ways of seeing things, problematizing the conservative lines of thinking that dominate life on these farms. She develops more and more into the modern woman, with modern views on slavery and women’s liberation, even to the point of encouraging Galant to rebel: ‘You mustn’t let him [Nicolaas] get you down’ (p. 300). She ‘never took orders from anyone’ (p. 240). Her personality, as described by others as well as herself, can even be said to resemble the traditional stereotypical image a European may have of black people. The wildness, relationship with landscape, independence, otherness, a sense of pantheism, all are qualities that we may traditionally attribute to black tribal Africa. In the same way as Hester thus turns around traditional notions and functions as a white woman with a ‘black’ personality, she shows Galant to be a black man with a ‘white’ personality, i.e. the personality we would like to believe is typical for a white man: ‘he [Galant] was the only one who would neither stop me nor betray my secret afterwards’ (p. 100). Even if this is a very modest compliment, coming from Hester it carries more weight than it would coming from any other. He is a man with a sense of honour and, above all, independence. We are shown that Galant is not nosy, gossiping, ignorant, dependent—characteristics that almost all of us at some point in our lives have been told are typically ‘black’. Galant himself remarks, at one point, that it is ‘As if she [Hester] is the slave and I the waiting master’ (p. 300). Hester can thus be seen to contribute to blurring the distinctions between black and white in the novel, implying that there are other ways of categorizing people that are more true, or more useful when we try to place people in the social system of a community. Eventually, and as a result of what has been said above, Hester provides us with a glimpse into the woman’s place in this male dominated world:

Ensnared in your condition—woman, wife, underling—only two escapes offer themselves as alternatives to violence: madness, or suicide. (p. 138).

This could just as well have been Galant’s thinking, if ‘woman, wife’ was replaced with ‘slave’. Her thoughts concerning her marriage to Barend could equally well have been a slave’s thoughts about survival under slavery:

This is the struggle: to keep desire and the dream intact. The body must survive. Our limits are circumscribed by its contours and urges. But the body is a moveable asset and there is earth below, and the liquid insistence of water. These he cannot possess by using me; yet I, in my own body, have access to them. (p. 133).

Hester seems in many ways to think along the same lines one would have expected a slave to think. When losing her first child, she thinks: ‘Losing what one has never had is more searing than physical pain; it is the death of the possible’ (p. 134). Hester and Galant, it seems, are really struggling with the same problems, against similar prejudice.

Hester then, through her very separateness, enhances the feeling of how each character in the novel is unique and separated from all the others. Barend: ‘There was always a distance between them and me’ (p. 103); Hester: ‘I would never belong to them’ (p. 99); Nicolaas: ‘I wasn’t meant to be there’ (p. 94); Galant: ‘I am left alone’ (p. 58); Cecilia: ‘Who was this stranger, my husband?’ (p. 114). Ma-Rose: ‘What does one person know about another?’ (p. 344). Through Hester and her extremely anti-social character, Brink emphasizes the problems of communication between the different characters, how it is almost impossible to get through to each other, without creating suspicion, mistrust, hostility: ‘How can I [Galant] know what he [Nicolaas] really wants me to say?’ (p. 122). Hester thinks immediately after her miscarriage, seeing how angry Barend is, that this ‘was the last chance, I think, we had of reaching out to touch’ (p. 135). The novel seems to be full of characters experiencing their last chance slipping through their fingers. We get a strong feeling of how this society is constituted by individuals who know very little about each other, and indeed are afraid of acquiring this knowledge: ‘In the house, too, each goes his own way although we all live together’ (p. 122). The form of the novel also mirrors this, and can be said to be designed after the Kierkegaardian idea about the only way of conveying essential truths. It cannot, according to him, be done in any direct way, but only in a dialectical way, by contrasting different viewpoints, which is in fact what Brink does.[7] This fits well with a belief that

the imaginative writer — and especially the poet — misunderstands himself if he thinks of his prime office as that of discovering and communicating knowledge. His real function is to make us perceive what we see, imagine what we already, conceptually or practically, know.[8]

Another contrast could perhaps be added at this point. Though we see how the individual characters fail in communicating with each other, the two characters who see this most clearly, and who reveal the most sophisticated abilities to pass correct judgements on the other characters, are in fact the two most obvious outsiders of the novel, Galant and Hester: ‘We were the only two who never belonged with them’ (p. 300). In many ways they resemble, in this respect, the artist, who does not feel at home in society, but who is at the same time capable of detecting structures and patterns underlying the game of social life, and able to give words to this unique vision.


[1] Jonckheere, p. 90.
[2] Hassall, p. 187.
[3] Quoted in Contemporary Authors, p. 43.
[4] There are some obvious exceptions, for example the relationship between Galant and Hester, the early relationship between Nicolaas and Hester; and on the whole, Galant and Hester seem to be much better judges of character than any other of the characters in the novel.
[5] Jonckheere, p. 90.
[6] Brink, States of Emergency, p. 62n.
[7] ‘Man’s access to truth has never been direct or easy’. From the essay ‘Imagining the Real’ (1981), in Writing in a State of Siege, p. 215.
[8] Wellek and Warren, p. 33.

Lindgren (c) 2018