Coming back from the Brink

Andre Brink, prizewinning novelist and rugby-loving Afrikaner, fought the apartheid system for years. Now it's over, do the books change? Robert Winder met him in Cape Town
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Andre Brink's new novel, Imaginings of Sand (Secker, pounds 15.99), looks at first like a departure. Unlike his previous work, firmly rooted in the struggle against apartheid, this is a more personal story. The whole style of the book seems expansive and lyrical beside the plain, inconsonsolable thrust of its predecessors.

But in fact the book is really an arrival - it's about a country coming of age, about people seizing their days and meeting their fates. ``I think people could get a bit sick and tired of someone harping on about apartheid just now,'' said Brink, worried (unnecessarily) that some of his admirers might not like his change of tack. ``But it doesn't seem like the time for that now. Actually, I always get a little uneasy when people think of me as a political novelist, though it's inevitable. But the struggle against apartheid didn't feel like politics, it was so much part and parcel of everyday life. It's a wonderful relief to feel that there are other stories that can be told now.''

Certainly, the book thrums with a sense of liberation. The hero is a woman who returns to South Africa to visit her dying grandmother during the election that will sweep Nelson Mandela to power. She's a fine figure - impulsive, adventurous, independent and (of course) sexy. At times she is almost overcontrived as a feminist hero - she fulfils all the criteria in the questionnaires (she wants to be the robber, not the cop; the knight, not the damsel in distress). The special relationship with the grandmother might, also, be too orthodox a celebration of the power of womanhood - the monthly blood flow, emblem of the surging female life-impulse, is contrasted carefully with the tight, defensive brashness of men.

But this is a book about a society that has, for a moment at least, blown the lid off. Brink moves with impressive smoothness between abstractions and immediacy, and itemises physical life with relish. As she listens to her grandmother's stories of the old South Africa, the heroine is confronted by her own past. ``I used to think that only other people had a history,'' she remarks. As politics loses its bitter life-and-death edge, people give a refreshed priority to their private dreams and nightmares.

``It's amazing how uninterested people here are in their ancestry,'' said Brink. ``That might be because the early settlers had such huge families - 10 or 16 children - that it's hard to keep track. But it's also that for so long we've been preoccupied by the future. And because of apartheid, the whole issue of women's liberation was rather relegated.'' In the book, the heroine spends a fair amount of time urging her more timid sister to leave her husband - a right-wing racist bigot and wife-beater - and take control of her own life. The integration of the country inevitably leads, once it sneaks into daily life, to personal disintegrations.

Brink himself is an Afrikaner from the East who has made the short trek to Capetown, capital of South Africa's liberal upper class. He is a professor at Capetown University (along with JM Coetzee) and was a prominent, prizewinning and outspoken critic of apartheid. After a revolutonary education in Paris in 1968, he grasped his vocation and turned it into literature: he won the CNA Prize - South Africa's equivalent of the Booker - three times. Apartheid's most distinctive tribute was to ban his books. But he is prouder of the accolade he received from Mandela himself. ``I heard that in prison he used to insist that new inmates read my books,'' he said. ``That was wonderfully gratifying, I must admit.''

When City of Darkness was banned in 1974, Brink was forced to write, not in his first language (Afrikaans) but in English. Now he writes in both, switching as he proceeds. ``Usually I write in Afrikaans first, then rewrite into English,'' he said. ``And what happens is, I discover new angles or possibilities that I'd missed, simply because they didn't present themselves so strongly in Afrikaans. So I build them in, and then go back into Afrikaans, and the same thing happens. Of course, it's no longer necessary to do this, but it's such a fascinating exercise that I find I can't do without it. For the new novel I wrote the contemporary bits in English and the historical parts in Afrikaans, but one of my earlier books was set in the 18th century, and Afrikaans didn't exist then, so I wrote the whole thing in English.''

Sometimes this switching to and fro produces episodes that work in only one language. ``There was this one story my wife told me,'' he said. ``About her schooldays. They used to have this thing in the mornings, a panty parade, where all the girls had to line up and the teachers would lift their skirts to check they had the right panties on - grey serge or whatever. And this one morning, Christine had the right panties on, but her friend in front of her did not. So Christine protested. Everyone assumed that she was wearing the wrong panties, so she was led away, but of course it turned out she wasn't.'' This story didn't make the English edition. ``In English, I don't know... Perhaps Afrikaans lends itself more to overstatement. In English it had a bit of an over-the-top feeling.''

Language itself is a highly-charged issue in the new South Africa. There used to be two official tongues - Afrikaans and English - but now eleven languages clamour for recognition. ``It'll take a long time to sort out,'' said Brink. Inevitably there'll have to be one lingua franca, and it's set to be English. But to allow all the indigenous languages, after all these years on the sidelines, to come into their own, without exacerbating conflicts and animosities ... it's going to be very difficult.

``Afrikaans, especially, finds itself in an awkward position. It's been the official language for so long, and now it's being relegated. That's undoubtedly dramatic for peope who've assumed that Afrikaans was the language of power, and couldn't be touched. Suddenly there are things on television and in advertising which people - people who are used to being in charge - don't understand. Of course with Afrikaans you're not talking only about a language - it's the whole political baggage that comes with it. The sad thing is that the people fighting for the preservation of Afrikaans do it from the worst motives; they want to use the language to preserve their political position. And some groups of Afrikaans speakers are so repulsive to great parts of the population that, if they are seen to be promoters of the language, then ...''

Not many of Brink's books are free of violence, and the new one begins and ends with savage acts. For a dyed-in-the-wool liberal he is unusually willing to trace the explosive passions that lead to barbarism. The book's reigning ideology allows him to sympathise with the mass-murderer at the end, to present the killer-as-victim in the best modern manner. But even this is not enough to sway the book's ruling optimism. Brink prefers to talk of ``challenges'' rather than ``problems", and remains buoyed by the scarcely believable transformation of his country. Like all rugby- loving Afrikaners (which means all Afrikaners), Brink cites Mandela's appearance at the final of the rugby World Cup in Cape Town as ``the most totally amazing moment'' of his life. ``One was just simply crying,'' he said, ``because it was so emotional. I love rugby, I've always loved rugby, and for so many years it was a love-hate thing, because of the strong political overtones the game required. For 30 years, I cheered for the opponents against the Springboks. Now suddenly I could root for my own team, and for Mandela to appear, and be so accepted by the whole crowd, which a year before couldn't have stomached the idea. It was amazing.''

Not many British novelists would feel a tearful charge of emotion watching John Major arrive at Twickers. But for Brink laughter-and-tears is the order of the day. And even in his new novel's wilder flights of fancy - when magic owls swoop on intruders, when ants and porcupines rush to the defence of a rape-victim - it is impossible to ignore the political tenor of the plea. The book calls on the imagination, for so long strictly policed, to rally to the cause.