News of the death of South African writer André Brink, who died at the age of seventy-nine on a flight from Belgium after being awarded a honorary doctorate. He was still teaching Literature at the University of Capetown.
When I last interviewed him, he talked about his book A Fork in the Road. The memoir draws from his life as god-fearing Afrikaner boy from a racist family, to banned anti-apartheid writer, and finally to a critic of current South African politics.
His emergence as one of South Africa’s best known writers came hand in hand with the vast changes that happened in South Africa in the 20th century, mirroring the changes in Andre Brink’s outlook. He wrote novels, plays and political essays. In 2009 he spoke to me from his home in Cape Town.
Ramona Koval: If a writer is fortunate in having been born into a place and a time which was guaranteed to provide them with stories, then André Brink has indeed been fortunate. Born in 1935, he grew up in a small South African town in the shadow of the local Dutch Reform Church. With a father who was a magistrate, an inner milieu that believed the ideas of white racial superiority, his emergence as one of South Africa’s best known writers came hand-in-hand with the vast changes that happened in South Africa in the 20th century, mirroring the changes that happened to André Brink’s outlook.
He’s written novels, plays and political essays, and now a memoir, A Fork in the Road. He’s joining us now from his home in Cape Town. Welcome to The Book Show, André Brink.
André Brink: Thank you very much indeed.
Ramona Koval: The title of this book A Fork in the Road, it’s taken from, I suppose, a pretty unlikely quote, from Yogi Berra the baseball guy who is known really for his misquotes, I suppose, and he said, ‘When you come to a fork in the road, take it.’ Tell me why this took your fancy.
André Brink: It was just so enjoyable, so ticklish that it stuck in my mind, and I knew from the moment I first heard it that one way or another, some time or another, I would simply have to use it and come back to it. When I embarked on the memoir it seemed to be the perfect moment because if one looks back over life, the obvious first image that comes to mind is that of a road, but a road with so many possibilities, so many forks in it, so many little paths that lead off it. And more and more as I’ve grown older it seemed to me that if one makes a choice, the choice of which way to go, the road less travelled by or whatever, the first impulse is to think of those not chosen as abandoned forever, as lost forever, but more and more it seems to me that actually somewhere in the background they still hover, they still accompany one and remain as unrealised or half realised possibilities. Very often these possibilities enrich a life in such a way that one can’t think of existing without them.
Ramona Koval: So you are saying that there are second chances, third chances, fourth chances..?
André Brink: Endless chances, yes.
Ramona Koval: Let’s talk about the memoir as well, before we talk about the story in the memoir. You didn’t start with ‘this was the beginning and that was the end’, you have come on a meandering way through your life. You cover all kinds of topics in the memoir. Tell me how you decided to do this, because you’ve got things about France, you’ve got things about writing, things about Sarajevo, things about your father, things about theatre. How did you decide to structure and order this book?
André Brink: There’s very little ordering in it really. The point was that I did not want to write the standard kind of autobiography where you get born at the certain point and carry on hopefully until just before your death. I was more interested in having a free ranging kind of approach, to let it happen as it presented itself to me. And I think the specific occasion that suggested this possibility to me was when I remarried a couple of years ago, and my wife comes from Poland and I’m from South Africa, so it’s really completely different worlds, and that meant that there was a lot of storytelling to and fro that started going on from the very first moment. I thought, well, why not structure the whole thing like a series of narratives to my wife to try and explain myself not just to her but to me in the process.
Ramona Koval: Let’s go back to this young man who, as I said, grew up in the shadow of the local Dutch Reform Church. You describe him as a fervent young Calvinist. Tell me about Andre Brink the young man and coming from that religious background.
André Brink: Well, it was an existence totally dominated by the shaping forces of Afrikanerdom. Both my parents were fervent followers of the national party, supporters of the apartheid regime, and as we lived and as I grew up in a whole series of tiny little towns lost in the deep interior of the country, I never as a child or as a youngster and a young man had the opportunity of comparing the stifling little world in which I grew up with other possibilities elsewhere out there. So I never had an opportunity of measuring my little world against the other possibilities around me and around the country, in the rest of the world, which meant until I was about 23, 24 and left the country to study in Paris where, whether I wanted to or not, I was just thrown into the melting pot of Paris and discovered the world anew…until that moment, not having the possibility of comparing, I was in a zone of security, in a comfort zone, and then suddenly to be thrown out into the midst of the hurly-burly of a town like Paris…it was a total rediscovery, a violent rediscovery of the whole world, which was tremendously exciting, but in many ways it was also daunting.
Ramona Koval: You talk about the hurly-burly…let’s go back a little bit to what you say is a surplus of violence in South Africa, and it was very violent circumstances that went around you when you were growing up. Even though you were very secure as a young child, people were being beaten, black people were being beaten around you. You could see how the adults in your own family and your own community behaved. For someone reading the book it’s kind of shocking that these people that you lived with regarded themselves as Christians but had such a hardened attitude to the human beings around them who were not white.
André Brink: I think that was one of the most unsettling discoveries that I made in the course of writing the memoir because I used to think…or whenever I used to think back to my childhood it was a typical golden age of the security of family life, of predictability, of comfort, and being cherished and nurtured and all of that. It was really only a couple of years ago that my younger sister and I started asking ourselves and consciously discussing how on earth it came about that memories which used to seem to us so wonderful and glowing and rich and secure, how this could in fact have resulted in the people we have grown into because both of us discovered that we thought of ourselves as really messed up in many ways. So how and where did that happen?
As a result of that questioning to and fro between my sister and myself, when I embarked on the memoir I tried to probe just that; what was happening below the surface of that golden world? And I was shocked to discover the extent of the darkness and the violence that in fact had been surrounding me all my life, and to some extent at least explains why this country is still the violent place it is and is still so turbulent and still so unruly and still so difficult to come to terms with.
Ramona Koval: You say that as a writer I suppose language began for you the day you learned English at school as a six-year-old.
André Brink: Yes, indeed. That particular discovery, the memory of the violence, the wonderful violence of that discovery, that has accompanied me throughout the rest of my life, and more and more I realise that it was the discovery of language as a means of coming to terms with my world, as a means of trying to find out what was actually happening to me, perhaps to a certain extent in terms of the James Bond title You Only Live Twice; once when something happens, the second time when you really start to come to terms with it, to probe it, to find the meaning in it.
It was as a result of this that the whole memoir happened and that I became conscious of my world. The process of repeating it to myself, interpreting it to myself in language, and it was when I was six years old and heard English for the first time, because those tiny little villages where I grew up were not just predominantly but almost exclusively Afrikaans, certainly the little white enclave within each. And English suddenly brought the discovery of a whole different world just beyond the horizon of the familiar. That was something that returned to me every single time I happened to learn a new language. Every time that shock of discovery, of recognition of the familiar in the strange, of the extension of borders and frontiers, of crossing these frontiers, returned to me with a sense of elation and joy and rediscovery. And I think that is what ultimately led to my writing.
Ramona Koval: Yes, I was surprised to learn that although one might say your father is so, so different from you and would probably not understand you very well, he types out your first book that you wrote when you were 12.
André Brink: That was part of the world of conflict and paradoxes in which I grew up. We were a very tightly-knit family. He certainly did this, which was a hell of a job, he was a very busy person, and to part from his ordinary work in the magistrate’s office…at the moment he got home he used to get into his garden and start furiously gardening, but he made time and found time to type my manuscripts at a time when I couldn’t do it myself yet, when I was too small, to young. And he was really interested in nurturing what he saw as my talent, and that went for the whole family.
Even after I returned from my studies in Paris a completely changed person, somebody who had started rejecting the whole world in which I had grown up, which brought me inevitably into conflict with my family…and at a certain moment we had to sit down physically and consciously decide that in this house we will never again discuss politics because that would simply have caused all the centrifugal forces in the family to break us apart violently. And in order to function as a family and to respect the love which we still felt for each other, we had to steer clear of politics, which of course caused all kinds of other schisms and fissures among us, leading to a rather complicated life.
Ramona Koval: Yes, it must have been complicated. You describe yourself coming back and you are now completely changed politically in your mind and the sorts of writing you began to do was very challenging. You started writing for the theatre and you say that censorship played a part in you moving from writing for the theatre to novels. How did that happen?
André Brink: It came about mainly because when I started working in the theatre, not just as a playwright but also as a director, I had access to my students, I could work with them in student productions of plays, either by other people or by myself, but I’d never had a company of my own in the way that somebody like Athol Fugard, for instance, had, and that meant that I was dependent on the avenues open to me in state subsidised theatre. I first worked quite extensively in those theatres in various capitals in the country, but it meant that that sort of theatre, being state subsidised, was extremely vulnerable to censorship. In fact the moment a single person in an audience complained against a certain play being performed, that could simply and very often did simply take it off the stage and that was that. Whereas in the writing of novels at least there was the temporary security that we never had pre-censorship, so a book could be published before it was banned. A play doesn’t live before it is put on the stage, and if then at the first performance it gets banned you’ve had it as a director. So more and more I turned to novel writing…I started out as a writer of narrative, of prose, of stories, but this seemed to be the most obvious direction in which to go since the theatre was so very, very vulnerable.
Ramona Koval: But you did manage in 1974 with your novel Looking on Darkness to be the writer of the first Afrikaans novel to be banned by the South African censors. That list then I believe expanded to about 20,000 books after that. So you didn’t avoid censorship, did you.
André Brink: No, certainly not, and it did come as an enormous shock when it actually happened. One always knew that Damocles’ sword was hovering overhead, but at the same time for some reason we tended to think that the government would go for English writers because the English were regarded by the national government as their traditional enemy, but that they wouldn’t really resort to censoring Afrikaans work. And so suddenly when this happened almost out of the blue, it meant that having lived and worked in a small language like Afrikaans, which could be read only in South Africa, when you were banned you were cut off, you became a non person. I had to find another way of surviving. My only way of surviving was in fact to turn to English and start writing in English alongside of Afrikaans.
Ramona Koval: But why did you think they wouldn’t ban an Afrikaans novel? You’re the worm within the apple, why wouldn’t they want to eradicate that very, very quickly?
André Brink: It is such a complicated relationship because Afrikanerdom was a kind of family, and even though family feuds can be more vicious than anything else, there seemed to have been a little layer of tolerance surrounding writing in the country for quite a number of years. They didn’t want to be seen to act openly against their own, they wanted to give us some leeway, they wanted to tolerate the prodigal son within their midst, hoping that in the long run he would come back. Of course when that didn’t happen they started acting even more viciously against members of their own clan than against what they regarded as outsiders and strangers.
Ramona Koval: You talk about a loss of friends when books were censored. How did you respond to that?
André Brink: That was very painful because most of them had quite strong confrontations with me about it and calling me openly a traitor, and rejecting me totally, sometimes from friends who I had been very close to for many years, for all the previous years of my life. And suddenly to see them rejecting me so totally was a terrible feeling of being cast into the wilderness, but the wonderful thing about that was that at the same time for every friend, for every white Afrikaans-speaking friend that I lost at the time, I gained several others, most of whom were black, who sympathised with me because of the fact that my book was banned, because among other things it involved a relationship between a black man and a white woman, because it involved a rejection of apartheid and a frontal attack against the government. So even many of them who had never read me in Afrikaans knew that I represented something with which they could sympathise, and that changed the whole nature of my relationship with other people in the country. It became an opening up…a terrible closing down on the one hand of some relationships, but a wonderful opening up of others.
Ramona Koval: When you write that…when you think about South Africa today and you use the phrase, I suppose, ‘a battered child is likely to become an abusive parent’, when you write about what’s going on today, that must break your heart.
André Brink: It is one of the most devastating experiences of my life because I had met most of the present leaders in the country during the many years when they lived in exile. I met them in Australia in fact, I met them in Dublin, I met them in New York, in London, all over the place, and in Lusaka, which was the centre of the ANC in exile. Many of them became some of my very best and most cherished friends. I admire them as individuals, as people with strong convictions, with a total dedication to the cause of liberation. And to see that once they returned when the dismantling of apartheid began and once they came to power themselves they actually…and I suppose, looking at it now, they predictably started adopting the habits of the rulers…
Ramona Koval: Like what kind of habits?
André Brink: Of being exclusively interested in the group that brought one to power, to the exclusion of everybody else, of suspecting other people, of acting viciously and in a backstabbing way against others, of trying to redivide the country along the old fault lines of black and white, of abusing power, of getting drunk with power, of nepotism, or corruption, of everything that has characterised power from the very beginnings of human society. And for some reason I had thought that the ANC would escape that fate, that not all of them would fall into the same pitfall and yield to the same temptations. And to see those people whom I had admired so much turn into the actual monsters which they have now become, that was one of the deepest personal shocks that I’ve had to come to terms with in my whole life.
Ramona Koval: I remember when apartheid had been removed and the new South Africa began, and everyone was saying that people like yourself…what would you write about? There’d be nothing to write about anymore. Do you remember that?
André Brink: I remember that very well, although I never believed in that line of thinking. It seemed to me even then and even during apartheid that apartheid was just a peculiar shape and form that power assumed in South African society. There is no society in the world that is free from the abuse of power. And discovering that, even with apartheid gone, the forms of the abuse of power would remain with us because we are human and because we live in a human society, that was quite a discovery, and devastating, yes, but at the same time for me as a writer and for other writers there was something perhaps perversely reassuring about it because we knew there would always be other windmills to fight against.
Ramona Koval: You were regarded as a hero in anti-apartheid South Africa. I think Nelson Mandela said that he read you. How are you regarded now in the new South Africa?
André Brink: I think there are many attitudes and that makes it very difficult to determine one’s own position there. Many of the Afrikaans friends who had rejected me at the time when I turned against the government have now in fact come back to me and apologised and said, no, you were right after all. Others reject me more violently than before…
Ramona Koval: And say ‘look what’s happened now’?
André Brink: That’s right, ‘You’ve been bloody blind, you couldn’t predict this and we all saw this coming because the blacks are taking over.’
Ramona Koval: And how do you answer that?
André Brink: I still think and I insist on the fact that we all make terrible mistakes, especially when we land within the magnetic attraction of power, but that one has to keep fighting against that. I had initially, in the kind of euphoria that followed the demise of apartheid, I had thought that this would last for longer than it actually has, but that one has to prepare for keeping on facing the forces of destruction which are now lodged within the government itself as previously they had lodged within the apartheid regime. In the regime itself there are strangely ambivalent and ambiguous attitudes towards me. Some of them still cling to me. I just two days ago received an invitation to the inauguration of the new president. They still want to contain me.
Ramona Koval: Do you want to go? Will you go?
André Brink: Good God no, absolutely not, but in the old Marcusian terms many of them still seem to believe that one can contain the enemy and therefore make him powerless…
Ramona Koval: With a glass of wine and a canapé.
André Brink: That’s right, yes, these little petit fours which one has at these occasions…
Ramona Koval: And they are delicious.
Andre Brink: Not necessarily, a sort of bittersweet taste.
Ramona Koval: As you say, your time of silence is over. André Brink it’s a great pleasure to speak with you again, and thank you for being on The Book Show today.
André Brink: Thank you so much for having me.
Ramona Koval: Andre Brink’s book is called A Fork in the Road: A Memoir, it’s published by Harvill Secker.