A Fork in the Road, By André Brink

The journey from rural Afrikaner to literary sophisticate is a long and challenging one

André Brink's autobiography is written as a Bildungsroman. It is about the genesis of a writer, who goes from callow Afrikaans boy out in the sticks to major South African writer, the guest at a thousand literary conferences, the familiar of important persons, the reluctant rebel against his own people, the lover of theatre, Paris, Springbok rugby, music and many women. The cover-quote gives the clue to the book's ambitions: "Brink should be seen in the company of Peter Carey, Garcia Marquez, Solzhenitsyn et al." It is a pretty bold claim, but blurbs are rarely chosen without the writer's approval.

As Brink tells the story, he is from a fairly literate family, his father a magistrate with rigid views about right and wrong, a man who moves from one small town to another to dispense justice to the people. But there is something dark here, suggested by the title of the first chapter, "Violent Villages". The most shocking of Brink's memories is of appalling mistreatment of black people by the police and friends of the family. There are accounts of floggings and whippings and even murders in these small communities, which are very hard to read. Brink's father, the magistrate, was able to turn a blind eye, even though earlier Brink has described his parents as humane Christian people. For many rural Afrikaners, this was the natural order, and Brink's nuanced account of this paradox is masterful.

In one of the most disturbing incidents, the young Brink tries to get his father to intervene after a black man has been beaten senseless first by his employer and then by the police. Brink's father agrees to see the man, and then advises him to go to the police to make a complaint. For Brink, the world no longer made sense after that. Another incident, sadly not unusual in the country districts, describes the treatment a local businessman meted out to a boy whom he had more or less forcibly taken from his mother to put into domestic service: when he tried to run away back to his mother for the third time, he was flogged with lengths of hosepipe for six hours in a shed near the Brinks' house by this man and his friends. The police had given their consent. It makes the blood run cold. Brink suggests that a deep fear of the black man, a hangover of the pioneering days, was behind this Afrikaner will to violence. Later he says that torture in all its manifestations is an attempt to dehumanise the victim. He makes this observation in the context of a visit to Auschwitz.

His Damascene moment comes when he goes to Paris with his first wife on a grant in 1961. He studies at the Sorbonne, presumably the course in French civilisation for foreigners. Up until then, although he knows that all is not well at home, he has felt a powerful loyalty to his people and their history. In Paris, he meets – hold your breath – black people who can speak French and English and have read books. He discovers French cuisine, French landscape, French theatre, Camus and Sartre, free love, and all these things change his life forever. Suddenly he sees South Africa as Europeans see it, as an unnatural society, founded on the gravest injustice and unbridled violence. The massacre at Sharpeville confirms in his mind the revolutionary idea that South Africa was prepared "to offer real atrocities ... its commitment to racism was total ... and nothing until that disastrous moment had demonstrated it with such conviction, such abandon, such staggering arrogance". He has no desire to go back to his volk, but is driven back to South Africa by the end of his bursary. His life will never be the same again, his relationship with his family and his people strained. He is now a writer, but his first efforts in Afrikaans meet with resistance and he is still troubled by the hold his people have on his consciousness.

What it means to be white in Africa, with an immersion in European culture, is a familiar issue for white South African writers. For the Afrikaner the dilemma is made more intense by the understanding of the precariousness of his moral stance in this world. Brink's great breakthrough novel was Looking on Darkness, with which he tackled the particular Afrikaner dimension of this problem. He was the target of his own people after this story of a black actor who has murdered his white lover appeared.

It is the nature of autobiography that the writer intends to make a good impression. What, otherwise, would be the point of writing your biography? The impression, however, is created in two ways. One is by the selection and editing of those details of a life that the writer chooses to discuss – unavoidable, but of course significant. The second is in the style of the writing itself: biographies are works of the imagination as much as fiction.

Brink demonstrates a certain provincial insecurity; for guidance and inspiration, he always looks to the heavy hitters of literature: big themes, big names, significant events, litter this book. The moments of revelation in his life are all similarly attached to big names; when he hears of Sharpeville he is sitting in the Jardin du Luxembourg reading Comte's Philosophie Positive. (You wonder if he was really reading it in French, as "Philosophie Positive" suggests.) When he sees his first Picasso in Paris, it creates in him "what I now call a spiritual tsunami". A picture of him sitting on his nanny's lap bears the caption: "My Sotho nanny who first made me conscious of the rhythms of language." When he speaks to his students about the need to continue protesting after the death of Steve Biko, he "probably summons up Camus, as always" and takes "my cue from Artaud". And so on. He does love a namecheck.

A chapter is devoted to Ingrid Jonker, the Afrikaans poet whom Mandela honoured by reading one of her poems at his inauguration. In l965, two years after meeting Brink, she committed suicide by wading out to sea in Cape Town. I had long understood that the Brink and Jonker affair had echoes of the Plath and Hughes relationship. And it does, but in unexpected ways: Brink seems to have been brought very low by her and found her impossible to understand. For the first time he writes – movingly – about her preoccupation with suicide, her overbearing and boorish father, her compulsive promiscuity and her unstable nature. She was married, but also in a long-running affair with Jack Cope, a pillar of South African English literature, who had to be restrained from jumping into the grave at her funeral. Brink goes on to describe the Sestigers, a literary movement of dissident Afrikaner writers; his life teaching Afrikaans at Rhodes University and literature at the University of Cape Town; and his various forays into the wider literary world. He has met many of the great and the good of world literature and treasures these moments. He was also involved in the early contacts with the ANC in exile. I recognise exactly the sense of possibility he experienced meeting Thabo Mbeki and others in Dakar, as I did something similar in Lusaka. This sense of possibility, he says, has now gone.

This is a fascinating book, of enormous interest to anyone who understands the important role of South African writers in the past 60 years.

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