If André Brink was a religious man he would probably have been convinced that his jealous God was visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon him four generations down the line from those vile Brinks who, in the 1830s, owned the wine farm Zandvliet, which is the setting of his 21st novel, Philida (Random House).
It is the story of the eponymous slave woman who had four children with Francois Brink, the son of her vicious master, just before the emancipation of slaves in the Cape. It is closely based on extensive historical research done about the farm (which now belongs to neuropsychologist Mark Solms), its slaves and Brink’s relatives — its then-owners.
The book, which has been long-listed for the prestigious international Man Booker Prize, almost meant the end of Brink the writer.
“I thought as I approached the end of Philida that this is most definitively my last ever, because it was hell in so many respects,” he said ruefully. Outside his house near the University of Cape Town, where he used to lecture in the English department, the aggressive wind and pounding rain were conspiring to make last Friday the most unpleasant winter’s day of the season. Inside, in his high-ceilinged lounge where our interview took place, a friendly fire was crackling in the marble fireplace.
Had it been one of his more difficult books to write? “I think it was way the most difficult,” Brink said firmly.
Three years ago, the 77-year-old writer was awarded a bursary sponsored from a bequest by the late author Jan Rabie and his wife Marjorie Wallace, which enabled him to write Philida. At the time it caused a major controversy because some local writers reckoned it should have gone to an upcoming writer.
A courteous, urbane man who speaks in fully composed, publication-ready sentences, Brink considers his words before he speaks them, even when he is annoyed and it includes a word like “fucking”: “In some respects, for very obvious practical, simple reasons, I had to start writing it under very difficult circumstances because of this fucking hullabaloo that broke out the moment I got that bursary from the University of the Western Cape to write.”
A hint of bitterness crept into his voice: “I probably had the single most unpleasant experience of my whole life — of being aware of the fact that I’m being closely watched and enviously, negatively and destructively watched by a number of people who think I should never have been given the contract for this book; that I was taking the bread, the livelihood, out of the mouths of other people who are more deserving or whatever, and it just made it hellishly difficult all the way.”
A slight pause. “Having to battle my way through that, one should never underestimate the difficulty that situation created for me. After that, there was the simple fact that I was incredibly busy in many ways over the last few years, especially in undertakings that forced me to travel a lot. Many places I dreamed about since childhood. It meant every time there was a serious disruption — never for very long, usually a few weeks at a time, but every time a complete disruption — it meant having to battle my way back into the book, back into Philida’s consciousness.”
In the process Brink, who is a polymath and known for his amazing memory, became aware that he was losing some of his powers.
“Whenever I got back from the trips I wanted to get back into the book as soon as possible, doing the dangerous thing of not rereading carefully everything I’ve written and just plunging in, meaning I very often — and the simple fact that I am growing older and not having the memory one has a young person — would find that I sometimes — three, four, five times — wrote the same episode over time.
“Thank God my wife was there to say: ‘You’re doing it again.’” His smile returned when he talked about her, Karina Szczurek — wife number six, whom he once self-deprecatingly told the Guardian made him “sound really terrible, like Zsa Zsa Gabor or Elizabeth Taylor”.
“I must say the single greatest blessing I had in the writing of this, and have in all my writing nowadays, is my wife who is herself a writer — the way she’s restrained me or egged me on, it’s just been one of the greatest experiences of my life. All of this from a person close to me, who, in so many respects, has arrived at the ultimate destination of my life, after having lived through not too few relationships.”
Brink said he had for a very long time been interested in the history of slavery in South Africa, because “it was a very deeply lived experience”.
“I had been fascinated by the history of the Brink family anyway. I tried to get hold of everything. My father, too, from early on tried to get his version of the family tree of the Brinks. So we had a number of discussions. To me, it was not just interesting to see the biblical approach, so-and-so begat so-and-so. My family, they were part of what made me, what I became. When I went to Mark Solms’s farm for the first time, he told me that one of the owners of that farm, about three, four generations back, was a Brink. Not in my direct line, but still related.
“Andries Brink was the first one, the paterfamilias. I tried to follow that as far as I could. But what was wonderful is that Mark himself has such a passionate interest in the past and the way that the history of his farm not only overlapped, but filled in my history.
Repaying a debt
“He told me that it was reading [Brink’s book] A Chain of Voices that made him aware of the slavery past of South Africa and that made him decide to buy that particular farm. With the way our lives have become entangled, I thought with Philida I was trying to repay a debt to him, to the farm and to my own past.”
So was writing the book driven by guilt? “I think in a certain way guilt becomes a too-easy explanation and approach. That is one reason why I can’t stand the writings of Rian Malan — I feel that he is trying to squeeze too much out of the whole guilt trip and to turn that into a badge that one can be so proud of.
“I think my whole attitude with the past is different. It was terrible, unbearable — slavery, for instance, had been much worse in this country than the standard image that was transmitted to us at school and university. They always told us in the West Indies and in the Southern states [of the United States], that was real slavery, but in South Africa it always had a sort of attenuated form with a gentle Christian conscience helping us along.
“There is nothing invented as far as our slave past is concerned in this book. If anything, I tried to tone it down a bit because it was becoming a bit too much, and even now there are people accusing me of going for the sensational part of it.
“There is simply something like honesty and a sense of responsibility, which to me is much more important and valid than guilt. One can never get out of the sense of responsibility for the past, the present and, to a large extent, for the future as well.
“Guilt indicates for me a sort of burden that you carry that can blind you to such an extent — and distort your way of seeing — that you can’t really act sensibly towards the present and the future because you keep on being weighed down by it. But one can assume responsibility as far as possible.”
It is an issue on which he refers to his dear friend, Breyten Breytenbach. “That is one thing that Breyten made very clear at a certain stage to me when we lived together in Paris: that one should also learn to know where your responsibility ends. I didn’t quite agree with him there — I don’t think it really ends, but there is a sense of proportion where one can so easily exaggerate the importance of the duty part of one’s conscience and one’s historical consciousness.”
In Philida, Brink, the word artist and storyteller, is in top form. “Very quietly, her voice pulls in, the way a cat draws in its nails. I’m going to press out your balls,” goes one passage that could as easily have been written for some of Brink’s harsher critics. Never shy to court controversy over the years, his revenge in Philida comes much more directly in the naming of “filthy old fat sow Hamboud” and the “noisy hen Zelda always cackling and gossiping about an egg laid by someone else”, referring respectively to two fierce critics — the poet Joan Hambidge and retired Rapport journalist Zelda Jongbloed.
Hambidge told Rapport that it wasn’t the first time she was fictionalised in “our dear literature”. “The list is long” she said. “The tradition too.” Jongbloed told the newspaper that the “transparent attempt” to ridicule her indicated “a shocking intolerance and an inability to deal with criticism”. The fact that the spat was so extensively reported in Rapport cannot harm the sales of the book? Brink simply chuckled.
Ever since his debut in 1962 with Lobola vir die Lewe, Brink regularly made the Afrikaner establishment choke on its KWV brandy. His novels have been translated into more than 30 languages, including Japanese, isiXhosa and Vietnamese, and he has also been active as a dramatist, travel writer, translator, critic and academic. Brink’s novel Kennis van die Aand (self-translated into English as Looking on Darkness) in 1974 became the first Afrikaans book to be banned by the apartheid regime. Dominee Koot Vorster, brother of then-prime minister BJ Vorster, said: “If this is literature, then a brothel is Sunday school.”
The controversy moved Brink firmly from the books pages to the news pages. “Yes, which was useful for my interaction with the public,” he said. “It didn’t make life much easier all the time. Sometimes it made life very difficult, especially also with the kind of reaction it provoked in my father — both my parents, to a certain extent — but my mother had always been more understanding.
“Relations with my father sometimes became rather strained, but there was always a feeling that he was trying to understand.”
A Dry White Season (1979) was a turning point. “I remember when A Dry White Season was published. That was the first of my books where he [Brink’s father] really wanted to sit down and discuss it with me. And he was particularly, as a magistrate, interested in the workings of the security police. He asked me: ‘Just tell me what you wrote about the security police. Was it true or did you make it up?’ So I could honestly say I changed it into a fictitious story, but that every single episode, and specifically those involving the police, was based on something that actually happened to somebody …”
Researching the book, Brink was put in touch with people like then-Daily Dispatch editor Donald Woods and his wife Wendy, as well as human rights lawyer Griffiths Mxenge, who was later killed by the security branch. “They helped me to get transcriptions of a number of court cases involving political prisoners, some of whom got killed in the process. Through them I saw some of the inner workings of the security branch and that was immensely illuminating — coming to understand not just the political situation, but an insight into the people involved.”
It had a profound impact on Brink as a South African. “One could simply not sit back and look at this as academic evidence. In every position that one took there was a feeling of being utterly and totally involved as a person. That made the whole experience so much more profoundly lived and made me what I became.”
Brink was always close to the ANC. “I carried the flag for the ANC for quite a number of years, especially before they were unbanned, because I found it was necessary to explain what this movement was about because they were so vilified.
“After that, when they came to power, not only could they do it very well for themselves, but they could also fuck it up for themselves … they didn’t need me to do it.”
There were the wonderful Madiba years. “I was never part of his inner circle, but we had a fair deal to do with each other and I had the incredible fortune of meeting him several times and having wonderful, unforgettable chats with him.”
Now, according to Brink, we have the less-than-wonderful Jacob Zuma years. “From the very beginning Zuma made very weird noises and he came to power not under the most auspicious circumstances. I was really prepared to give him a chance, but then he fucked it up with such panache that one couldn’t go on to give him more rope to hang himself. Really, he has done everything imaginable to sully his own image, so I have no respect for him.” And Marikana? “I think in the long run it will have the sort of effect that Sharpeville had.”
So is he packing? “I’ve always said it will take a hell of a lot to uproot me [from] here. With all of the mess, and perhaps because of all of the mess, I feel there is still so much I can try to do, not that I can necessarily do it or effect it. The challenge is always there and it has always been very difficult for me to resist the challenge. I think I’ll just stay.”
On Tuesday September 11 Brink will hear whether he has made it on to the Booker prize shortlist of six. So, is he flattered, honoured or pleased to have been among the dozen books on the long list?
“Pleased is probably the most neutral word. I am pleased, but it is something one cannot at all exaggerate, because what is a long list? It is cut enormously from the hundreds of titles to start with to get down to 12 … but to get excited about that is just to ask for disappointment.”
And despite the challenges in writing it, he has promised Philida won’t be his last book: “… over the last few months of writing it I thought perhaps it’s not so bad to write again. There will be life after Philida.”