“Barkis is Willin’”: André Brink 1935-2015

17 Feb 2015

By Geoffrey Haresnape, Vice President, PEN SA & Emeritus Professor of English, UCT

The literary community is feeling the loss of an outstanding South African writer and academic figure. André Brink was born in Vrede in the Orange Free State in 1935. By the time that he matriculated in Lydenburg (old Transvaal) in 1952, the National Party was established in power and putting into effect its blueprint for a white Afrikaner dominated South Africa. At the University of Potchefstroom he specialized in Afrikaans and Dutch literature, and — significantly—in English literature as well.

The 1960s proved to be a vital decade in his development. On his first visit to Europe, Brink felt the cultural blinkers dropping from his eyes. In his own words, “I was born on a bench in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris in the early Spring of 1960”. Like JM Coetzee, who drew on his years in the US of A to change the face of South African English fiction, Brink capitalized on his French experience to enlarge the scope of Afrikaans writing. At first he wrote only in Afrikaans — novels that outraged conservative Afrikaners with their sexual and political outspokenness.

A jeu d’esprit, Orgie, derives from this period. Together with poet Breyten Breytenbach, André joined the Sestiger movement. This was a group of courageous younger writers, loosely bound together; their project — épater le bourgeois. Brink was, in short, into brinkmanship.

His meeting in April 1963 with the young poet, Ingrid Jonker, was a significant moment. If he thought he was ‘cool’, Ingrid, who was in conflict with her conventional NP father, took matters a whole lot further. Examining Brink through the lens of Jonker’s poetry, one realizes how difficult it was for white Afrikaner writers to stand out against their ’tribe’. Fearing lack of support, she defiantly invokes isolation. “I want to be myself travelling with my loneliness/like a walking stick.” Brink, too, must have felt at times that he had burned his boats. Both needed to come out from under the shadow “of the soldiers/on guard with rifles, Saracens and batons.” Jonker’s untimely death in 1965 foregrounded emotional complications and spoke of danger. A love triangle had ended in disaster.

Back in Paris, Brink got caught up in the student revolution of 1968. His political education at this time took him right outside the ambit of white South African concerns and he was in a position to ally himself with the Struggle for a fully democratic South Africa. His 1974 novel , Kennis van die Aand, was promptly banned by the apartheid regime. An English version, Looking on Darkness, was published overseas and placed him on the map internationally. Thereafter, Brink honed his bilinguality and wrote each subsequent novel simultaneously in Afrikaans and English.

A Dry White Season (1979) is one of his key texts. The development of the hero replicates Brink’s own journey from a small Free State town on to a world stage. For his title, Brink drew upon a line in Tsetlo by the black South African poet, Mongane Serote: “it is a dry white season, brother.” By so doing, he was identifying with a black stance on white South Africa. In Yakhal’inkomo Serote wrote: “White people are white people,/They must learn to listen.” From then on Brink was going to follow Serote’s advice by listening to the heartbeat of the nation through the problematic 80s and into the political transition.

He published many further books, always contriving to stay abreast of relevant issues in the literary world. His output was prolific, amounting in his long lifetime to some 40 titles. It is a sign of the change in his positioning that the erstwhile Professor of Afrikaans at Rhodes University, applied in the early 1990s for a professorship in the Department of English at UCT. JM Coetzee, later to be a Nobel Laureate for literature, was well established there at the time. He, together with his partner, Dorothy Driver, was clearly in favour of Brink’s appointment. When asked at a collegial meeting of the Department whether he would be prepared to do routine administrative work if required, Brink quoted the words of the old transport driver in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield: “Barkis is willin’.”

His response was intended to raise a laugh, but in actual fact contains a serious resonance. Brink proved willing to take on the burden of cultural leadership for all the years that remained to him in the new South Africa. At the time of his death he had further unpublished books ready to go to press and was still living in the deep southern city of his adoption. For poet Antjie Krog he exhibited the quality of “attentive grace.” The novelist and former Vice Chancellor of UCT, Njabulo Ndebele, has spoken of Brink’s “independent and courageous stand on many issues that have challenged South Africa, both during apartheid and afterwards.”

Together with JM Coetzee, Brink proved to be powerful draw card for the newly created Centre of Creative Writing at UCT. Although he did not rise to the apex of literary acclaim by winning a Nobel Prize, he was recognized with a sheaf of writing awards and honorary degrees. When Coetzee pulled up his South African roots and transplanted to Australia, Brink was arguably left to share with Nadine Gordimer the role of senior white South African English novelist resident in the country. Gordimer’s death last year left him uncontested in that position.

Unlike Laurens van der Post, an Anglicized Afrikaner and Free Stater who lived in a penthouse in Chelsea with a bird’s eye view into Buckingham Palace garden, Brink was enlarged by — but not overtaken by — Europe. A high flyer, he not inappropriately received the final call at 10,000 metres on an aircraft between Amsterdam and the Cape. Ingrid Jonker’s ‘Homesickness for Cape Town’ contains lines which may suggest his heart’s truth in those final moments: “She shelters me in the fullness of her lap./She doesn’t know I am afraid./She is my mother/And her hands are cool as spoons.”