“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” Milan Kundera as quoted by André Brink in Writing In A State Of Siege .
There is something indescribably attractive about those individuals who take great delight in the pleasures of language. For them language is palpably alive, laden with a beauty so raw that each word is charged with this essence. Such was Andre Brink’s relationship with language, whether it was the English in which he wrote so many of his novels, or the Afrikaans he was born to, or the French he acquired during his time in Paris.
Brink reminds us in an essay titled, Censorship And Literature that “Language is a meeting place, a point of confrontation, between the individual and the social”. This is a point worth reinforcing at a time when language is often presented as something neutral, even innocent.
Brink was a towering figure, lean and tall, with chiseled features, and a deliberate manner that did not fully prepare you for his quick wit. His deeply furrowed face hinted at his intellectual occupation. But when he broke into a smile, you knew that here was a man who has tasted fully life’s sweetness. When he walked into a room you knew immediately that here was a man of substance. His range of references was vast and you could tell that he had spent as much time living life fully as had reading from texts on philosophy, poetry, history and of course literature.
But how do you make sense of someone who was at once a traveler, a teacher, a man of letters, poet, essayist and perhaps, most importantly, a dissident. The truth is you can’t. Such a life is impossible to sum up, because it defies the limiting categories that we use to place individuals in certain boxes. For me Brink was the quintessential homme des lettres and his life was a manifestation of how those who succumb to the lure of letters live their lives.
As a dissident Brink had his books banned. His novel, A Dry White Season, was banned because it threatened the safety of the state, according to the censors. In one of his last works of fiction, the novel Philida, Brink turned to South Africa’s complex and uncomfortable past and he rummages through the dustbin of the history to tell the story of the slave Philida.
One of the books that comes closest to giving us some sense of the complexity of Brink’s life is his Writing In A State Of Siege. This is one of the finest introductions to Brink’s own sense of how history has shaped Afrikaner discourse. But these essays also establish his own concern with history and its effect on identity.
If Andre was once lithe, athletic even, in later years he had been slowed down by the ravages of age, and where his walk was once a swift and graceful stroll, it had now become slow, deliberate, even labored. But his mind remained as keen as ever, and the spark in his eyes remained a measure of his vitality.
He has left us a rich oeuvre and those who wish to acquaint themselves with his considerable body of work can choose from works such as Before I Forget, A Fork In The Road, An Instant In The Wind, The Wall Of The Plague, The Other Side Of Silence, A Dry White Season and his other writings. When you read his memoir, A Fork In The Road, it is clear that for Brink, the confluence between distance and historic events in Paris led to his own social awakening. After this he had no doubt that Apartheid was a very dark evil, and one that he would write against in both his fiction and essays.
Brink’s books, such as An Instant in the Wind, A Dry White Season, Rumours of Rain and The Other side of Silence, established his ability to tackle head-on Africa’s “big” subjects in fiction, colonialism, Apartheid, and a rapidly changing world. It is worth comparing his fiction with his more personal views as reflected in his memoir, A Fork in the Road.
Throughout his life and career, language and culture were very important concerns for Brink. For a writer who did not stay with one language, the idea of “translation as rewriting” loomed large in his own work. Once he was banned by the Apartheid bosses, Brink was forced to adopt English as a co-first language. But even though he drew from a very wide circle of influence, it was quite clear that Brink regarded himself first and foremost as a South African writer – one who had experienced both the exilharating discovery of new worlds and the claustrophobic boxing-in of Apartheid, which sought, at its most basic level, to deny experiences other than those dictated by its segregated, racialised norm.
Brink received France’s highest honour when he was made a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters and awarded the Legion of Honour by the French government; and in 1992 he was awarded the Monismanien Human Rights Award from Sweden’s University of Uppsala, for making known the injustice of apartheid to the wider world.
It was always such a pleasure to see Brink’s name in a literary programme for his presence at today’s ubiquitous literary events was a guarantee of a certain old fashioned literary seriousness that is fast disappearing under the pressure of literary celebrity. Brink’s works will serve as a reminder of how the past invariably imposes itself on the present. But they will also sharpen our sense of the pleasures of language that he felt so acutely.
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