Tuesday, August 18, 2009

André Brink

A Fork in the Road: A Memoir by André Brink
Andre Brink with Olga, the housekeeper Veronica Rati's daughter
Sunday Times review by RW Johnson
The Sunday Times, February 8, 2009

The South African writer André Brink first came to prominence as part
of the literary movement known as the Sestigers - young
Afrikaans-language writers daring to be different in the 1960s. The
ruling Nationalists, who had hitherto assumed that the Afrikaans
intelligentsia was safely in the cultural grip of the Dutch Reformed
Church and thus bound to be disciplined apartheid supporters, were
shocked to find this younger generation escaping from them, and
brought in censorship to prevent them publishing heretical plays or
novels. Meanwhile, the whole weight of Afrikanerdom was deployed to
force these "traitors to die volk" back into line by social ostracism.
For the first time this tactic failed - simply because the Sestigers'
writings were so popular among young Afrikaners.

Nonetheless, one of Brink's novels, Looking on Darkness (1974), was
banned and he entered a long period during which his mail was opened,
his phone tapped, his car and house broken into or raided, and police
harassment of every kind became part of his life. The best, most
authentic parts of this memoir deal with that experience and how hard
it was to endure this as an Afrikaner, for even his own family, loyal
Nats and Broederbonders, were deeply disapproving of him. When he was
driven by local persecution to publish his books abroad and in
English, this, too, was seen as a cultural sellout by Afrikaners who,
psychologically, were still fighting the Anglo-Boer war.

To be known as a courageous and determined anti-apartheid writer was,
of course, quite a selling point in the rest of the world, and while
one would never want to suggest that Brink, Nadine Gordimer, Alan
Paton or Athol Fugard exploited this in an unworthy way, the fact is
that the desire to reward the anti-apartheid cause led to a certain
inflation of careers and reputations. If you look at the Nobel prizes
won by Gordimer, Chief Albert Luthuli, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela
and FW de Klerk, you're bound to say that all those prizes were won
essentially because of apartheid: JMCoetzee is the only South African
whose Nobel had nothing to do with that. With the ending of that
heroic period there is inevitably a revaluation.

On the basis of this memoir, Brink does not emerge well from this
process. Part of the problem is, as he confesses, that "by temperament
I was never a political writer", yet, in the apartheid context, "I
could not write anything that was not political". The results are
obvious as soon as he strays from his personal experiences in
judgments that are often ponderous and clichéd. Moreover, there are
frequent political and historical slips, none more embarrassing than
when he waxes warm about his friendship with Kader Asmal, the African
National Congress (ANC) politician, and then spells his name wrong.
Having initially been somewhat naively enthusiastic about the ANC,
Brink has slowly become more critical, though in this he has merely
followed the tide of local PC opinion, rather than sharper political
intellects. There is, too, a continuous vein of personal melodrama -
histrionic open letters to prime ministers, a long and frank love
letter to his current wife and, above all, his account of his affair
with the Afrikaans poet, Ingrid Jonker, which seems to have been one
long series of melodramas, ending only with her funeral (after she
committed suicide in 1965) when another of her lovers tried - on
camera - to leap into her grave with her. The climax of this episode
is illustrated by a stagey photo of a soulful young Brink entitled
After Ingrid.

The photographs suggest, to put it mildly, that Brink does not have a
low opinion of himself. If one includes the front and back covers, 29
of the 32 pictures here feature him, including nine of him as a child.
Similarly, for Brink to talk grandly of "my indebtedness to Camus"
doesn't sit well in the mouth of a writer who can commit such howlers
as calling someone "too unique", or recording that "she wrote letters
to Jack and I". One can't help noticing that while he writes a good
deal about his friendship with Breyten Breytenbach, the most talented
of the Sestigers, there is an odd silence about Coetzee, even though
they were close academic colleagues for years. Yet there is no shame
in being outshone by Coetzee, by far the greatest writer South Africa
has produced.

Finally, there is the problem of Brink's interminable affairs and
marriages (three at the last count). No reader could possibly keep a
tally of the huge numbers of young women he beds throughout these
pages, yet there is no personal reflection about what this behaviour
says about him. One might have hoped for an attempt at cultural
explanation. It is striking, for example, that when Christiaan
Barnard, another boy from an obscure dorp, found fame after performing
the world's first heart-transplant operation in 1967, he, too,
embarked on a career of advanced satyriasis.

At one stage, Brink recounts with pride how one of his sons,
discovering that his father had produced a brother he hadn't known
about, would thereafter "eagerly point at every boy we passed in the
street and ask, 'Is that also my brother?'" One looks in vain, here
and elsewhere, for any hint of self-irony but, for all his passion in
other directions, it seems an emotion unknown to Brink.

A Fork in the Road by André Brink
Harvill Secker £17.99 pp448