On Tuesday afternoons we boarders were allowed to go to town. Mid-Seventies Balfour in the then Eastern Transvaal was your typical repressive apartheid-era dorp, but it had a surprisingly well-stocked library.
That’s where I encountered André P Brink for the first time. His experimental romantic novel, Orgie (Orgy) about his then lover Ingrid Jonker, blew my 14-year-old mind. With the type set vertically, you had to page it like a Rolodex. Some critics might have found it pretentious when it was published in 1965.
For example, on page 92 the text was sparsely spread down the page (roughly translated from Afrikaans): “take me out (then two open lines)/ the rain is gone (10 open lines)/ take me out (again 10 open lines)/ take me (10 open lines)/ the night (10 open lines)/ in …” You turned the page and the next two pages were black – yes, dark as that night. Although some of the text might have been too complex or “adult”, the Dadaist layout and poetic style appealed to my teenage sensibilities. I had found a hero for life. Two years ago I interviewed Brink (then 77) after the release of his 21st novel, Philida, and he generously covered a lot of ground.
Orgie made even more sense when he spoke about the impact Albert Camus’s absurdist philosophy had on him when he went to study at the Sorbonne in the late 1950s. “I developed a real deep interest in him and then suddenly soon after I arrived in Paris he died in that terrible absurd way in a car crash, and that made the impact of what he wrote so much greater for me,” Brink told me.
“He was living absurdly and he demonstrated through his death what the absurd really meant – and with the absurd came everything that had to do with existentialism and so on. So that conditioned me for a very long time – I’m still probably not free from that.” Brink chuckled. “I’m still rather glad about that. I think it gave me some kind of padkos that could last me for the rest of my life.”
And of course there was the sex in Orgie – what was there not to love for this teenage boy? This was something Brink was obviously aware of when I asked him why he thought he was such a massive figure for many people of my generation. “One must be realistic and say the sex had something to do with it, certainly for the younger generation,” he said with a smile.
“And to feel in Afrikaans, for the age group in which they were then, that seemed like something rather unusual, that must have helped to draw them in.
“For me the most important part is that such people aren’t just drawn in and then left cold by what comes after. A certain number, surely not all of them, but a certain number of them stayed loyal to all that I wrote after that and that has been most deeply gratifying.”
Although Orgie and other books from Brink and his fellow Sestigers (a group of anti-establishment Afrikaans writers from the 1960s) opened my mind to possibilities, it was ’n Droë Wit Seisoen (A Dry White Season) that opened my eyes to the sick horror perpetrated by the apartheid regime in my ethnic group’s collective name.
While it was a fictional account about a black man’s death in detention, Brink told me that when it was published his father wanted to sit down and discuss it with him. “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 …” As a young man, Brink’s gripping novel, with its very close engagement of what was happening in 1980s South Africa, gave me an insight into the “workings of this whole odious system”, as he called it.
Like other Afrikaners, I had no excuse anymore to say I didn’t know. Brink was not only the chronicler of our times. He also used the pen as a middle finger to the dour apartheid establishment. Furthermore, he wore his hair long and a polo-neck like the French intellectuals. He was cool, handsome and sexy. He was clever and rebellious. Brink was our role model.
He showed us what could be. And for that we will remain grateful.
Rus in vrede, André.