The Voices

[…] shortly after which Nicolaas van der Merwe,
having first said prayers with his wife in the bedroom, opened the door,
whereupon the 1st prisoner Galant gave him a shot in the head,
of which he immediately fell dead. –[1]


A Chain of Voices is by many critics regarded as Brink’s best work.[2] Being very reluctant to make a ranking list of Brink’s fiction, I nevertheless agree that it is a very imaginative, well-composed and complex novel, and that it involves a very wide register of human emotions and employs characters with widely different social positions. His other works have other qualities that are hard to measure against those of A Chain of Voices.[3] Of all his novels, it stands out as a kind of epic of South Africa. It was originally written in Afrikaans,[4] but published in Brink’s own English translation the same year. I think it is fair to say that the novel aims to ‘undertake a search for the roots of the present apartheid system’.[5] A central idea behind the novel is indicated in the quotation from Friedrich Engels on the first page:

History makes itself in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between many individual wills, of which each again has been made what it is by a host of particular conditions of life…What each individual wills is obstructed by everyone else, and what emerges is something that no one willed…(Yet) each contributes to the resultant and is to this degree involved in it. (Preliminary page ‘v’)

This view pervades the novel and is especially reflected in the way the chapters are devoted to different characters. The story is told by many voices, and all the characters get a chance to tell it the way they saw it: ‘By endowing each character with a distinctive individual voice, Brink builds up a polyphonic chorus, spanning two generations, that is designed to explore from various viewpoints the causes and nature of the revolt.’[6] Some of the characters have several chapters, others only one. In the Dutch language, the term for such a novel is ‘ikjes-roman’,[7] which means that there is more than one ‘I’ and that these ‘I’s return interchangeably at intervals with short narratives. The story is not narrated as one whole, but consists of many narrations. We thus get what may be called a silent implied author, that is, we must imagine that the author stands back and leaves the story-telling to his characters instead of telling it for them: a second degree narrative. In other novels where there is a narrator ‘above’ the second level, where the characters’ narrations only constitute small parts of his overall narrational frame, one function of the second degree narration is to offer explanations for what happens on the first level.[8] In A Chain of Voices there is no first level in the narration. If we want to find a first level, it will have to be reality, the real world; in this particular novel, the court documents that start and end the novel may be said to serve as such a reality. From this we may think of Brink’s narrative as trying to offer an explanation for something that exists in the real world; a way, in fact, of trying to solve the problem about the relationship between literature and reality. But the court documents, however, are also part of the fiction, so if we want to look for aporias we may start by claiming that Brink uses fiction to explain fiction. In my view, however, the assumption that the novel tries to explain the background of a situation that exists even today, is backed by this special use of narrative technique. If we were to give A Chain of Voices a traditional ‘label’, we would have to apply different terms. The most obvious would be that it is a historical novel, with its historical setting, or a regional novel, with its regional setting. But it can also be said to employ an epistolary technique, consisting in a way of unaddressed ‘letters’, or letters addressed to a ‘future’ narratee. With one of its obvious major ideas possibly being ‘apartheid is wrong and should instantly be abolished’, it could also be termed a roman à these. Being a mixture of fact and fiction, the novel could finally be given the term faction.[9] But this novel also uses the retrospective technique frequently used in drama, in the plays of Ibsen for instance: the slow disclosure of the characters’ pasts, bit by bit, so that we gradually come to see what experiences and forces have made them into what they are. Several of these techniques could be seen as an attempt to reach some kind of objectivity through subjectivity, similar to what Sartre called an ‘absolute subjective realism’.[10]

Giving voice to thirty different people, all coloured by their own perception of the world around them, is a very ambitious project. Even if we may say that this makes the novel in fact consist of thirty main characters, I will begin with focusing on only four of them; Ma-Rose, Piet, Galant, and Nicolaas. The reason for this is that I regard these four as the most central characters, each of them playing a key role if we want to understand what constitutes apartheid. Put in a very simplified way, as I shall demonstrate, they are quintessentially the slave woman (Ma-Rose), her rebellious son (Galant), the master (Piet), and his identity-seeking, somewhat confused son (Nicolaas). Following the development of the relationship between the two sons, from that of childhood playmates and into that of slave and master, provides us with a unique possibility to grasp some of the basic human emotions and the nature of relationships that made apartheid possible. Galant and Nicolaas, I suppose, could be labelled protagonist and antagonist, though it is not at all clear who of them is what. The descriptions of the mother and father are equally significant as those of the two sons. The parents are the ones laying the foundations and who are responsible for the development of their children, what sort of values they will carry with them into life as adults. But the result is unavoidable, at least in the sense that we know the end before the story begins. The end, however, is nevertheless dependent on Galant. He is not part of a causal process that happens automatically, that is given in advance. There is a historical need for a sensitive person with the intellect to discover this need and the courage to analyse his situation, take responsibility, and pursuade his fellow men to join him in his struggle to change it, the latter proving to be much more difficult than one perhaps would expect. In this way Galant emerges as a leader, a unique person who accelerates the historical process by being the right person at the right time, even if the rebellion as such is a failure. Basing myself on the text, I will try to ‘reconstruct’ or go into their individual psychologies to try to find out what lies behind their actions, as it were. I will nevertheless, when this is particularly interesting, claim the right to comment on other aspects that may not seem to be strictly relevant in a narrow sense to the focus described above.

Even more ambitious than giving voice to thirty different people, one may argue, is the attempt of a white author to speak through the voice of a coloured slave. Abdul R. JanMohamed says about this:

To give a voice to slaves and particularly to their desire for freedom is no doubt a courageous and provocative act in contemporary South Africa. Nonetheless, the novel remains rooted in racial stereotypes/archetypes.[11]

This does not necessarily have to be taken as negative criticism of Brink’s novel, and as he goes on to say, the use of racial stereotypes/archetypes is ‘not crude, for both the white and the leading nonwhite characters have depth’. I would argue that the creation of archetypes is a central tool and part of the message of the book. Suffice it, at this point, to say that Brink does not attempt to give an individualized dimension to his characters with regard to their style or to create a uniquely personal tone to their way of expressing themselves; throughout the narrative we hear them through Brink’s language. He acts as a sort of translator, using his own language to express their thoughts, adjusting an imaginable original expression to fit into his fictional universe. It is only when the characters quote themselves or others that we may get a notion of authenticity on the level of linguistic realism. Sometimes, however, we may observe Brink the author using the characters’ utterances to inform the reader of something specific, as when Alida is quoted saying to Nicolaas ‘Why don’t you send the slave Galant?’ (p. 113, my italics). Nicolaas, of course, knows as well as Alida that Galant is a slave. We, the readers, however, need to be told in one way or other that Galant now has become Nicolaas’ slave. This is the implied author talking directly to the implied reader, not Alida talking to Nicolaas.

On the formal level then, the characters are not ‘convincing’, if an imitation of their particular style is used as the main criterion. But when looking at how they come alive for us, how the reader forms an image of the characters beyond language, so to speak, there can be no doubt that the characters come through with credibility—we believe in them; they ‘seem to express feelings authentic to their condition’.[12] This goes for all the characters; I see no reason why a coloured slave should be treated differently as a character in the novel in this connection, as perhaps indicated by JanMohamed in the quotation above. It may even be said that white characters are equally troublesome to portray in this manner. One critic says about the white businessman Martin Mynhardt from Rumours of Rain that he is a character that ‘must have required almost as great a leap of imaginative sympathy on Brink’s part as did his crossing of gender and race boundaries elsewhere in his fiction’.[13] We just have to trust that Brink is artist enough to handle this difficult task, and when reading the novel, we discover that he is.

More sharply critical voices have also been raised against A Chain of Voices. In a review of the novel in The Times Literary Supplement, Roger Owen writes,

Some of the musings of these simple Boers are couched in the language of magazine psychology—they are to be found ‘compensating’ or wondering whether they can ‘adapt’ or trying to ‘prove things to themselves’.[…] The voices face strong competition from the bustling noises made by the author as he strains to point up the contemporary significances of his tale.

These are just minor objections, however. He continues:

The reader is being sjamboked—and by what? By an image without substance, and which, followed through, misleads—diminishing what it intends to enlarge.[…] How much ‘probing’, one asks, has gone into this equation of human freedom with galloping stallions?

Then he really moves in for the kill and points to

glaring ‘aesthetic’ faults—derivativeness; a proneness to cliché; a striving for ‘fine’ writing; a certain woodenness of style. It seems to me that these faults are not to be dismissed as trivialities—they throw some doubt on the author’s sense of what is really the case in the South African experience.[14]

Being faced with criticism of this kind creates a kind of numb paralysis in someone who has worked closely with the text for a long time, and who has seen in it some important both topical and perennial themes. Especially with literary works from a milieu like Brink’s, which is unfamiliar to most of us, but in fact with any kind of literary work, it is difficult to establish the ‘truthfulness’ or the probability of the tale told. But as to the effect on the reader, I can only say that my reading experience differs widely from that of Owen. Reading it for the first time in my late teens, being born and raised in Norway, I nevertheless got a very intense feeling of this novel speaking directly to me, in my own ‘language’, as it were, and giving me a strong sense of sharing some kind of common frame of reference or mode of thinking. Indeed, I picked this particular novel because it has given me one of my most intense reading experiences; and finding such a small amount of critical reviews of it provoked me into a strong determination to write about the novel, something it very much deserved, I felt. Accusations about ‘magazine psychology’, clichés,[15]lack of ‘substance’, etc., however, must be taken seriously and, certainly, there are passages in the novel that may deserve such labels. But Owen’s focusing almost solely on these gives me the feeling that he has had difficulties with handling the directness of the novel. At the same time we may ask if Brink has not overdone his obvious ideal of revealing every aspect of human existence at the Bokkeveld. There is a danger of sometimes turning into naïvity, but for the most part he succeeds, in my view. Owen emphasises weaknesses that may be there, but that do not ruin the novel as a whole; far from it. As far as the author’s sense of the South African experience is concerned, we have a problem. What is the South African experience? Who can record all the aspects that it consists of, if indeed there is such a single ‘case’ as Owen speaks of? We should hesitate in comparing literature with ‘reality’, and instead acknowledge the author’s right to be subjective, which indeed is the very strength of literature, compared to history, for instance. Owen seems to see a lack of realism, objectivity, and knowledge about the situation Brink writes about. Successful literature is the result of a subjective mind that communicates with or enlightens the reader’s mind, that treats and develops questions that are vital to all of us; perennial themes. There is the danger of taking ‘the novel seriously in the wrong way’, as Wellek and Warren put it. That is to say, by taking it to pretend to be a historical document, ‘a history of life and its times’.[16] But according to Wellek and Warren, reading literature in this way does not do justice to what is its essence:

Literature must always be interesting; it must always have a structure and an aesthetic purpose, a total coherence and effect. It must, of course, stand in recognizable relation to life, but the relations are various: the life can be heightened or burlesqued or antithesized; it is in any case a selection, of a specifically purposive sort, from life.[17]

‘Fiction’, they continue, ‘is less strange and more representative than truth.’[18] I believe that when all is said and done, the ultimate evaluation of a work of literature has to be subjective to a great extent, and to build on a very personal experience of the text. In an analysis like this, all I can hope to do is to focus on certain aspects and explain why I believe them to be significant. My attempt then, will be to supply a different reading from that of Owen’s, providing a basis for a different evaluation. The most I can hope for, if I succeed in this, is that others can read this, including people sharing Owen’s views, nodding to themselves, and think ‘yes, that’s right. This is a better way of seeing it. I hadn’t thought of that’.

Returning to the novel in question, we follow Galant’s and Nicolaas’ development and entry into the social code of apartheid, and observe how they slowly get into the line of thinking on which it is based. As Kirsti Horneman points out, the novel ‘tries to explain the psychological effect of slavery on master and slave […] to show how the economy of the country was beginning to be dependent on slave labour, and how the prevailing ideology was conveniently reinforced by tales to exemplify the racial superiority of the whites’.[19] The first and the last part of this statement is what I shall take a closer look at. My discussion will take the form of a close reading of the text, paying special attention to how the motivations behind the actions of the central characters to some extent are explainable when their respective cultural heritages are taken into consideration, as I have indicated before. I will look into what one critic has called ‘a dialectic of “truths”’, in which ‘each subjective account of certain events gives a different view, with the result that a previously narrated view is offset by the next one, and so on’.[20] In this way I will, as I think Brink also tries to do with this novel, try to dig into the history that lies behind the system of apartheid, a system that, seen in isolation by the modern European (or Iranian for that matter), seems utterly unbelievable and unacceptable. I will look upon the novel both as offering ‘an illustration or exemplification of some general pattern or syndrome’ and as offering ‘a world’,[21] which means that I see the psychology of the characters involved very much as demonstrating behaviour that has as its basis premises of human cognition that are common to all of us. To use Brink, I do not believe, with Andrea in The Wall of the Plague, that racism is a plague that results in ‘sick people who have to be healed with patience’[22] Mandla, in the same novel, seems more right to me, when he suggests that racism can never be totally eradicated, it will always be part of human nature:

Suppose it isn’t a sickness but some kind of wild animal? You can try to tame it. In the end it may eat from your hand and lick your face. But one day it sees its chance to tear you to pieces.[23]

In this way, racism seems to be a latent dysfunction of every human brain, given the ‘right’ conditions. And in A Chain of Voices, the conditions surely are ‘right’.


[1] André Brink, A Chain of Voices (London: Fontana Paperbacks, 1983), p. 14. Later references to the novel will be indicated by page numbers only, immediately following the reference in parenthesis.
[2] See for instance Contemporary Authors, p. 43.
[3] If we look at the novels dealing with contemporary South Africa, for instance, they deal with aspects of the South African situation that are not emphasized or even touched upon in A Chain of Voices: the white terrorist in An Act of Terror, the resistance of a white teacher in A Dry White Season, the love stories in States of Emergency.
[4] Original title, Houd-den-Bek (i.e. ‘Shut Your Trap’).
[5] Jonckheere, p. 89.
[6] JanMohamed, p. 72.
[7] Jonckheere, p. 90.
[8] Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics (London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 91–92.
[9] The terms and their definitions are taken from Jeremy Hawthorn’s Studying the Novel 2nd. ed. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1993), pp. 27–38.
[10] Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, 2nd. ed. (London: Penguin Books, 1991), p. 51.
[11] JanMohamed, p. 72.
[12] Julian Moynahan, ‘Slaves Who Said No’, The New York Times Book Review, 13 June 1982, p. 15.
[13] Anthony J. Hassall, ‘André Brink’, in International Literature in English, ed. by Robert L. Ross (New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1991), p. 185.
[14] Roger Owen, ‘Before the Trek’, T.L.S., 14 May 1982, p. 536.
[15] This particular accusation may be based on a failure to recognize what Allen Findlay calls ‘Brink’s satiric use of prejudicial clichées [sic]’, in Håkan Ringbom and Matti Rissanen (eds.), Proceedings from the Second Nordic Conference for English Studies: Hanasaari/Hanaholmen, 19-21 May, 1983 (Åbo: Åbo Akademi, 1984), pp. 589–590.
[16] René Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature 3rd. ed. (London: Penguin Books, 1993), p. 212.
[17] Wellek and Warren, p. 212.
[18] Wellek and Warren, p. 213.
[19] Horneman, p. 83.
[20] Jonckheere, p. 93.
[21] Wellek and Warren, p. 214.
[22] Brink, The Wall of the Plague, p. 220.
[23] Brink, The Wall of the Plague, p. 220.

Lindgren (c) 2018