BORN: 1935, Vrede, South Africa
NATIONALITY: South African
GENRE: Drama, fiction, nonfiction
Looking on Darkness (1973)
A Dry White Season (1980)
On the Contrary (1994)
André Brink's career has run parallel to developments that took his native South Africa from a state marked by apartheid—the government policy that maintained a system that disenfranchised, exploited, and radically oppressed all nonwhites in the country—to the dismantling of this system of racial injustice. Through his work, he has promoted an awareness of the problems of his society,
explored their roots, and expressed opposition to repressive authorities, and now enjoys the freedom to explore a delight in storytelling. Brink was an existentialist when he began writing, citing Albert Camus among his significant influences. He developed a social conscience that was reinforced by strong reactions against his work, notably in the form of state censorship. In a country where Afrikaans was the language of whiteness, and hence of power, he was the first Afrikaner writer to be censored (for Looking on Darkness, 1973). He continues to write significant works today, the most recent of these being Other Lives (2008).
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Seeing Clearly from Afar André Philippus Brink was born in Vrede, Orange Free State, South Africa on May 29, 1935. His father was a magistrate, and Brink's family was repeatedly relocated with his father's new appointments. Brink studied at Potchefstroom University, which he described as “a small Calvinist university.” There, he took a bachelor of arts degree in 1955, a master's degree in English in 1958, and another master's in Afrikaans and Dutch in 1959. From 1959 to 1961, he settled in France to do postgraduate work in comparative literature at the Sorbonne. Brink commented that witnessing from afar the Sharpeville massacres in South Africa of March 1960—in which South African police fired at and killed 69 black protesters (wounding another 180 or so more, among these 50 women and children)—forced him “to reexamine all the convictions and beliefs I had previously taken for granted.”
Banned for His Conscience Returning to South Africa, Brink gained prominence as a spokesperson for the “Sestigers,” a group of largely antiestablishment authors who wrote in Afrikaans. In the late 1960s Brink returned to Paris where, he relates, he found himself in the midst of the student revolt of 1968 and reevaluated the writer's role in society, concluding that he needed to return to South Africa to, as he put it, “assume my full responsibility for every word I write, within my society.” The Generation of '68, as the students who revolted in Paris and elsewhere throughout France and Germany have come to be known, sought above all a more equitable society, a new distribution of power in their respective countries. For Brink, Looking on Darkness resulted. The work brought intimidation and harassment in the form of censorship, state confiscation of his typewriters, and death threats from white supremacists of all stripes. These reactions served to strengthen Brink's convictions, however, and he began to write all his work in English in order to permit publishing outside his country, and to acquire a wider, international readership. His method since has consisted of writing in both Afrikaans and English, translating back and forth.
A Professor and a Decorated Writer Brink was a faculty member in the Afrikaans and Dutch department at Rhodes University from 1961 until 1990, and became a professor of English at the University of Cape Town in 1991. He was president of the Afrikaans Writers Guild (1978–1980) and won recognition abroad with several awards, among them, the Médicis étranger prize (France) and the Martin L. King Memorial Prize (UK) for A Dry White Season in 1980. Further formal foreign recognition followed, especially in France, where he was named Chevalier, Legion of Honor 1982 and Commander, Order of Arts and Letters in 1992, distinctions that have allowed him to take a place alongside fellow South African writers like J. M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, and Athol Fugard.
In recent years, Brink has continued to win and receive nominations for a number of important literary awards and fellowships, including a Commonwealth Writers Prize for The Other Side of Silence (which he won in 2003). He is currently a professor emeritus of English at the University of Cape Town, where he continues to write. He has also published a wide variety of both literary criticism and journalism.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Brink's famous contemporaries include:
J. M. Coetzee (1940–): A prominent South African novelist and essayist whose works describe his feelings of alienation from fellow Afrikaners. He won the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Tobias Wolff (1945–): An American writer whose memoir This Boy's Life was a huge popular success and whose novel Old School gained a fair deal of critical acclaim.
Cyprian Ekwensi (1921–2007): A Nigerian writer credited with pioneering the Nigerian novel.
Nelson Mandela (1918–): The first democratically elected president of South Africa, Mandela was a strong anti-apartheid activist—for which he served years in prison under the racist white regime.
Bob Dylan (1941–): An American poet, songwriter, and musician, Dylan's songs captured, defined, and influenced the sentiments of the 1960s.
Works in Literary Context
As an emerging Afrikaans novelist in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Brink almost single-handedly modernized Afrikaans novel writing. Arguably the most eclectic South African writer at the time, he knocked the conservative Afrikaans literary tradition out of complacency with themes and techniques drawn from writers like Camus,
Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, Vladimir Nabokov, Henry Miller, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, and Lawrence Durrell. In 1974, the Afrikaner establishment was hit by the sensational news that Brink's Kennis van die aand, later translated into English as Looking on Darkness, had been banned. The banning created a major division between the state and many of the country's Afrikaans writers, and introduced a new era of increasingly vocal dissidence from within the establishment.
Banned for Challenging Racism In Brink's Looking on Darkness, the black protagonist, Joseph Malan, murders his white lover, Jessica Thomson, in a mutual pact and then sits in jail, awaiting execution. Calling the 1973 novel “ambitious and disturbing,” Jane Larkin Crain concludes in the Saturday Review that “a passionately human vision rules here, informed by an imagination that is attuned at once to complex and important abstractions and to the rhythms and the texture of everyday experience.” Noting that the “novel is structured in the form of a confessional,” Martin Tucker adds in Commonweal that its style “is compelling: it is a work that throbs with personal intensity.” Because of the novel's explicit treatment of sex, racism, persecution, and the torture of political prisoners in South African jails, C. J. Driver suggests in the Times Literary Supplement that it is not difficult to understand why it was banned; however, Driver concludes that “within its context this is a brave and important novel and in any terms a fine one.”
European publication of Looking on Darkness coincided with the Soweto riots of 1976, and the novel became something of a handbook on the South African situation. The Soweto riots began as a peaceful protest against racist language policies in black schools, but ended with somewhere between two and six hundred dead, and became a turning point in the struggle for liberation in South Africa. Brink himself remarked afterward, “Looking on Darkness elicited much comment because it is one of the first Afrikaans novels to openly confront the apartheid system. This account of an illicit love between a ‘Cape Coloured’ man and a white woman evoked, on the one hand, one of the fiercest polemics in the history of that country's literature and contributed, on the other, to a groundswell of new awareness among white Afrikaners of the common humanity of all people regardless of color. In numerous letters from readers I was told that ‘for the first time in my life I now realize that ‘they’ feel and think and react just like ‘us.’” Far more significant in politically challenging racism, of course, was the activism of anti-apartheid activists like Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu, but Brink's role in making whites see as constructed a division many imagined to be simply natural was certainly not without importance.
“African Magic Realism” Brink's early career was spent producing work in Afrikaans. The banning of Looking on Darkness was a turning point that forced Brink to work also in English in order to maintain a readership; this, in turn, helped him focus on his subject: South African society, roots, and realities. It marked the beginning of a style Brink has referred to as “African Magic Realism.” Magic realism is a style of writing that involves so-called magical elements in an otherwise realistic text. Brink uses the technique in order to blur the borders that separate life from death, reality from dreams, and fantasy from reality.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Although Brink introduced a kind of African magic realism to South African literature in a number of his novels, this style of writing had been used by other artists for many decades. Magic realism gained prominence when Gabriel García Márquez utilized it in his now-classic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. Here are some other examples of magic realism in literature and film:
The House of Spirits (1982), a novel by Isabel Allende. Told from the perspective of two protagonists, this novel incorporates elements of magic realism as it retells the history of four generations of a single family.
Big Fish (2003), a film directed by Tim Burton. In this film, Will Bloom tries to discover the truth about his father's life, somewhere amid all the exaggerated tales he's been told through the years.
Life of Pi (2001), a novel by Yann Martel. In this novel, young Piscine Molitar is stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with an orangutan and a tiger named Richard Parker.
Brink's On the Contrary, for example, (1994) is the narrative of historical figure Etienne Barbier. The novel is presented as a single letter—comprising over three hundred sections interweaving fact and fantasy—that is written to a slave girl on the eve of Barbier's execution. The actual Barbier was a French adventurer in the Cape of Good Hope in the 1730s who led rebel Afrikaner colonists in their struggle with the corrupt administration of the East India Company, but the novel includes both mythical creatures and the voice of Jeanne-D'Arc (Joan of Arc). This magical, mythical strain continues in Imaginings of Sand (1999), a novel that explores a feminine perspective. Set against the background of the South African elections of 1994, the story is told through the eyes of Kristien Muller, a white South African woman who has returned from exile to be with her dying grandmother. The grandmother is a repository of stories of the South African past and promises her granddaughter, who has been away too long, “I'll give you back your memory.” Critic Michael Kerrigan observes that this
“rambling roundabout skein of stories … comprises the true history of the Afrikaners.”
Works in Critical Context
Brink is a prodigious, multitalented literary figure. In addition to plays, travel writing, and critical work, he has written sixteen novels and translated a great many works into Afrikaans. Despite three nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Brink is disliked by many Afrikaans writers and critics in South Africa, not because of his outright moral opposition to apartheid, but for what is regarded as sentimentality and sensationalism in his writing. There is no doubt that Brink's writing is extremely uneven. Critics agree that his novels tend to be flawed in some respect or another, and Brink has a singular penchant for placing gauche and inane statements in the mouths of his characters; likewise, his rendition of sexual experience is often seen as cliché-ridden and tasteless. However he has written some of the most powerful stories to emerge in recent South African letters, and literary activism played a significant role in the struggle against apartheid.
Essays Brink's essays are recognized as important statements on literature and politics. Commenting on these, Joseph Skvorecky places Brink among the writers who have labored under oppressive censorship “with considerable technical skill and almost the elaborateness of a Henry James.” J. M. Coetzee, with whom Brink has published an anthology called A Land Apart: A South African Reader (1986), sees in Brink an example of a writer who is “an organ developed by society to respond to its need for meaning,” and one whose “focus is now not on the existential duty of the writer but on the strategy of battle.”
Looking on Darkness and Other Novels The power of Brink's novels is recognized by most critics. C. J. Driver, speaking of Looking on Darkness, points out that this work is “linguistically exciting, continually perceptive about a society gone mad, fiercely angry about cruelty.” Similarly, Frank Pike calls An Instant in the Wind “an ambitious work” that is “memorable by any standards, especially … in its evocation of the landscape.” Rumours of Rain, Jim Hoagland affirms, “takes the reader inside the reality” of its subject and “captures the spreading terror of the white man trapped within the vast spaces of Africa and surrounded by equally vast numbers of Africans.” Mel Watkins detects in A Dry White Season a vehicle for Brink “to better focus our attention on the ruthlessly dehumanizing apparatus of the apartheid system itself,” while Jim Crace finds in The Wall of the Plague a novel that is “a courageous self-assessment” and “an interesting and pivotal work.”
Along with these praises, however, are some recurring complaints. Brink is often accused of melodrama and sensationalism. In Looking on Darkness, Driver finds that, at times, “imaginative credibility slips, the control of the narrating ‘I’ wavers and pity becomes self-pity.” Roger Owen, in a review of A Chain of Voices, complains that despite the “awesomeness of the subject matter” there are serious flaws, among them “derivativeness; a proneness to cliché; a striving for ‘fine’ writing; a certain woodenness of style.”
Responses to Literature
- Brink discusses apartheid practices in South Africa in relation to racism in the United States. Research the history of apartheid in South Africa—its causes and its manifestations. Then, in a short essay, compare apartheid in South Africa in the 1960s to present-day manifestations of racism in the United States.
- Read Looking on Darkness. Based on your reading of the text, why do you think the South African government banned the book?
- Magic realism is an important element in a number of Brink's works. Read several passages from Imaginings of Sand. Discuss how magic realism is (or is not) different from fantasy. Create a list of elements that define each genre to help clarify your discussion.
- Watch the movie adaptation of A Dry White Season, then write a short essay comparing the film and the book. What does a medium like film allow the director to highlight or focus attention on? If you look at the film as an interpretation of the meaning of the novel, what key insights do you think director Euzhan Palcy makes?
Cope, Jack. The Adversary Within: Dissident Writers in Afrikaans. Cape Town: David Philip, 1982.
February, V. A. Mind Your Colour: The “Coloured” Stereotype in South African Literature. Boston: Kegan Paul, 1981.
Jolly, Rosemary Jane. Colonization, Violence, and Narration in White South African Writing: André Brink, Breyten Breytenbach, and J. M. Coetzee. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1996.
Kossew, Sue. Pen and Power: A Post-Colonial Reading of J. M. Coetzee and André Brink. Atlanta: Rodopi, 1996.
Ward, David. Chronicles of Darkness. New York: Routledge, 1989.
Coetzee, J. M. “André Brink and the Censor.” Research in African Literatures (1990).
Gordimer, Nadine, Es'kia Mphahlele, and André Brink. “South African Writers Talking.” English in Africa (1979).
Jacobs, J. U. “The Colonial Mind in a State of Fear: The Psychosis of Terror in the Contemporary South African Novel.” North Dakota Quarterly (1989).
MacDermott, Doireann. “A Narrow Beam of Light: A Reading of Two Novels by André Brink.” World Literature Written in English (1988).
Peck, Richard. “Condemned to Choose, but What? Existentialism in Selected Works by Fugard, Brink, and Gordimer.” Research in African Literatures (1992).