A little over halfway through André Brink's new novel, the eponymous heroine, a young slave in the Cape Colony in the early 1830s, is taken by her owner for a grisly lesson – to view the remains of Galant, infamous leader of a failed slave revolt, whose head has been set on a pole in the vastness of the high inland plateau. The intention is to reinforce the authority of the white master. The effect on Philida, however, is quite the opposite. "How little remains of a man", she muses, a "sliver of bone. Two hollows for eyes. But as long as they can still look, perhaps nothing has been in vain." Paying homage to Galant's bravery, she determines to seek out survivors of his band, imprisoned in the town in which she endures her own kind of confinement.
A truly remarkable character, strong despite her ordeals, Philida is focused always on the future, for that day when she might say: "This and that I shall do, this and that I shall not". And freedom is not far off: the Colony is alive with talk of the emancipation of 1 December 1834, whereafter slaves were to be indentured for a further four years. Philida ends in this period of qualified liberation, with the heroine, a latter-day Moses, on the banks of the mighty Gariep River, contemplating life in a fabled land beyond, in which freedom might be possible.
There would be no such land of milk and honey. Emancipation was a proximate cause for the migration across the Gariep – or Orange – of trekboers, proto-Afrikaners chafing under the rule of the British Empire. They would establish their own homelands and perpetuate an ideology of ethnic purity and white supremacy that culminated in the racialist manias of the apartheid state. Brink, long a leading anti-apartheid dissident, adds to his considerable body of work a narrative concerned with familial complicity. Discovering that a real Philida had, between 1824 and 1832, been owned by one Cornelis Brink, a brother of the author's direct ancestor, and that Cornelis had sold Philida into the interior after his son, Frans, fathered four children with her, Brink filled in the gaps. Giving voice to this slave woman is brave and often moving, but also risky. Descriptions of sex, including violent rape, can appear prurient, and some might regard it as a leap to infer that Frans loved Philida.
The novel nonetheless demonstrates the absurdity of white Afrikanerdom's later claims to purity. Cornelis is the son of the freed slave Petronella, originally from Batavia; Philida's father is a white minister, the uncle of the woman Frans is set to marry (making the women cousins).
Despite its lyric strengths, its perceptive engagement with a long history of creolisation at the Cape, and its value as a recuperative project, Philida is an uneven novel. Alternative first-person perspectives give way to an occasionally awkward third-person blend of satire and horror. Some of the dialogue is stilted and appears tin-eared. Brink is arguably at his best when his narratives have a clear occasion and complicit or unreliable narrators. The novel ends, movingly, with the first-person pronoun and no punctuation, as if Philida has begun, at last, to take possession, through speaking in her own voice, of a life that might, one day, be free.
Andrew van der Vlies is senior lecturer in the Department of English at Queen Mary, University of London
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