André P Brink: In his own words

2015-02-10 08:58

Cape Town - Following the death of André P Brink, Channel24 chronicles the views of the iconic South African writer.

The first Afrikaans writer to have a book banned by the South African government, Brink was famed for scrutinising the harsher aspects of our society.

A poet, novelist and teacher, Brink was best known for his book A Dry White Season (1979) which was made into a film starring Marlon Brando.

Brink won South Africa’s most important literary prize - the CNA award - three times, was short-listed for the Booker Prize twice and nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature.

But what do we know of him beyond his pages? Channel24 finds out.

On resistance (in his last public address)

On 2 February, Brink received an honorary doctorate from the Belgian Francophone Universite Catholique de Louvain (UCL).

Accepting the award in an elaborate ceremony, Brink was celebrated alongside two other authors for having a common voice that helps resist, push and alert people to what really matters.

Delivering his address in French, Brink thanked the audience and those who continue to probe and study - always searching for more.

During his address he insisted that if we did not search, if we did not pose questions, there would be no adventure.

"If we knew the answers in advance, there wouldn't be adventures, there wouldn't be true choices," he said.

"Essentially that is all matters: to continue looking for a response."

On writing historical fiction

In an interview with the publishers Harcourt Books, Brink was asked whether he favours historical fact or the "feeling" of the period and story, in bringing history alive for his readers.

He replied: "Facts are important, but only as a starting point. Then the truth that I can sense about the period, through a myriad of documents and testimonies; many of which may have no direct bearing at all on the story as such; in this case the political histories of Bismarck and others, the philosophy of history as written by Taine or by Carlyle etc, takes over. Because only through that can I, hopefully, eventually be true to my own time and my own humanity."

On his darkest hours as a novelist

In 2004 Brink published The Other Side of Silence, an allegory about the evils of colonialism and male chauvinism set in Germany and the former German colony of South West Africa, now Namibia.

"It was the most painful novel I have ever written," he said. "Ever since I first stumbled upon the story, I knew I would have no choice but to write it. But I kept on postponing it, as it was too terrible to contemplate. Yet in the end I had to."

Yet he continued to tackle the unthinkable and a decade later he told the Mail and Guardian that his 21st novel, Philida, was his "most difficult". 

The novel tells the story of the eponymous slave woman who had four children with Francois Brink, the son of her vicious master and a relative of Brink’s, just before slaves were emancipated in the Cape.

He told the newspaper: "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."

On the legacy of apartheid

In August 2012, Brink said South Africa was "still at a very difficult stage, trying to battle through".

Speaking to the UK newspaper, The Guardian, he revealed: "I went to a conference in Oklahoma a few years ago and it was one of the most remarkable experiences because I was surrounded by present-day white Americans who were becoming more interested in the miscegenation (the mixing of different racial groups) in their own families.

"They almost took pride in it, vying one another to expose the extent to which their own families had this experience. We’re not quite there yet in South Africa but it is happening more and more."

On the achievements of Nelson Mandela

Upon Mandela’s death, Brink wrote a "Letter to Madiba" which was published in the New Yorker magazine.

In the letter Brink "randomly" lists Mandela’s failures as proof of his "humanness".

Mandela was not Superman, he wrote, listing failures and laying the blame for the failure of Mbeki "firmly" - at his door.

These failings, among other errors, were however "completely outshone by the incomparable lustre of your achievements".

He concluded: "What you did achieve, Madiba, was to highlight the human dimensions of interaction with the world, rather than to fashion yourself as Mr Fix-all, or Mr Know-All, or Mr Do-All."

On President Jacob Zuma and EFF leader Julius Malema

Although President Zuma has expressed his condolences on the death of Brink, it is not clear if the two men ever met.

In 2010, Brink told The Guardian that he had been meaning to try and arrange a meeting with Zuma. He revealed: "But at the moment I have such a muddled impression of the man that it wouldn’t be fair either to him or to me to have a talk."

His thoughts about EFF’s leader Julius Malema, however, were less muddled.

"I am a bit apprehensive about this young shit Julius Malema," he told the newspaper. "He may well go on to the attack if somehow it gets through to him what I said on the news last night - that he should be stripped of any power or influence he has, because he is a danger to the system he’s supposed to represent."

By 2013, his view of Zuma seems to have hardened. Writing on Mandela’s death, Brink said the single term of Mandela’s presidency deprived him of the opportunity to firmly embed a constitutional democracy and solid political ethos in South Africa.

Though Mbeki might have made a difference, he wrote in the New Yorker, he failed. All of this, he argued "led to the mess which Zuma’s mismanagement of the Presidency has now saddled us with". 

On freedom of expression

In 2010, Brink joined another literary icon - Nadine Gordimer - in protesting against the ANC’s plans for a media tribunal and secrecy law.

In a joint letter of protest, they wrote that: "Freedom of expression along with the vote - universal suffrage - is the basis of democracy."

They argued that if the work and freedom of the writer was in jeopardy, then "the freedom of every reader in South Africa is in danger".

Their protest was, therefore, "by South Africans for all South Africans, committing ourselves to a demand for our free country: freedom of thought expressed, freedom of dialogue, freedom from fear of the truth about ourselves, all South Africans".

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