Andre Brink is one of South Africa’s most eminent novelists, essayists and scholars. The jacket introduction to his novel, ‘Other Lives’ also tells us that he is “Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Cape Town”.
This novel was published by Umuzi, an imprint of Random House Struik, in 2010.
The themes that Brink chooses to focus on in this modernist production, divided into three parts, are controversial. In this case, I do not think that the narratives endear to feminist readers. Three male protagonists persistently and perhaps lecherously gaze upon their female “others”
Even when roles are reversed, emasculated into dis-empowered men, confronted with the harsh realities of the pretentious notion of ‘transformation’it remains difficult to sympathise with these characters.
But perhaps that is the whole point of “Other Lives”.
As in previous literary works by Brink, the author explores the present-day dilemmas’ faced by modern existentialists.
The horrific transformation of David in the first part, entitled ‘The Blue Door’, and Steven in the book’s second part, ‘Mirror’ brings to mind the metamorphosis of one Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s modernist classic of the same name.
Indeed, the opening lines to ‘The Blue Door’ allude to Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’;
“Until the shocking moment in the early dusk. The kind of moment that once turned the life of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa upside down.”
To recall in detail how these transformations are enacted would be spoiling the event for the first-time reader of Andre Brink’s work, but it can be said that the reader will be shocked, disgusted, even. That will depend on the reader’s point of view.
The allusion to J M Coetzee’s character, David Lurie, has not gone unnoticed in my own reading. Brink is a life-long admirer of Coetzee’s work, and I am a little disappointed at his persistence with this admiration in his own work.
The closing part of ‘Other Lives’, while leaning heavily on the male muses’ preoccupations with the female form, it’s moods and movements, is a refreshing departure from the earlier horrors of change. It is aptly named ‘Appasionata’, and its Shakespearean epigraph endears the reader hopefully and expectantly.
Indeed, the first person narrative of the concert pianist is a literary work of art, although not original in its exploration of sub-themes such as classical music and culinary art. I, however, remain an admirer of the meticulous research that Brink lends to his words. As a life-long aficionado of classical music and opera, his research here would have been a little lighter than on previous occasions.
A refreshing aspect of the narrative of all three parts of ‘Other Lives’ is the vivid, pictorial images of the city of Cape Town, from the leafy Southern Suburbs, to the noisy dust and paper-strewn squalor of Green Point, to the opulence of Fresnaye.
The writer’s keen observation of other people is also visually pleasing and his reference to Coetzee’s character notwithstanding, his deft selection of characters’ names somehow matches the narrative’s focalisation.