PHILIDA was published by Human & Rousseau in 2012 after the eminent South African writer, Andre P Brink, was awarded a grant by the University of the Western Cape in 2010, the Jan Rabie / Marjorie Wallace bursary, to research and write a new book. The English translation, published by Harvill Secker, was long-listed for the Booker Prize .
I was a little disappointed that the university had awarded this grant to Brink. Strangely, I had even anticipated that he would be given the grant, over and above so many deserving, up and coming and more needy writers based either in the Cape, or the greater part of South Africa. Indeed, this award hangs over Brink’s head accusingly when one recalls his intimate friendship with the late Jan Rabie and his wife, particularly during their halcyon years as the so-called sestigers.
Brink has been prominent in the South African literary landscape since the early nineteen-sixties, and, as an established and well-known writer, is more equipped than others to write his book, in this case a novel chronicling the life of a female slave in the Cape during the nineteenth century.
This chronicle is told from the perspective of the female slave. Brink uses the colloquial narrative voice to good effect.
The fruits of his labour is acknowledged at the end of the book, and appreciated by the reader. It is evident that Brink’s intensive and dedicated research into his own family history and that of the slaves who fell under their command in the nineteenth century is a remarkable improvement from his earlier novel, A CHAIN OF VOICES.
A CHAIN OF VOICES
In Brink’s earlier slave narrative, translated from his Afrikaans text of Houd-Den-Bek ( which literally means; shut your trap), the narrative is taken up by a long list of characters from both sides of the master and slave divide.
The central characters are the Khoi slave, Galant, and his master Nicolaas. While both characters are tragic and flawed, they are accurate interpretations of what is now a matter of history in the nineteenth-century of the Cape in Southern Africa.
The testimonies of the slaves and their masters are creatively narrated in a form which approaches the stream of consciousness model devised by the modernists during the early twentieth century. The version of events, as narrated by the characters, are sandwiched between an opening court document which lists the slaves who are accused of rebellion and murder against their masters and the accused slaves final judgement and condemnation.
The reader’s close observations of these testimonies will recognise that the slaves’ complainants within the constraints of Cape Dutch law at the time, are not only victims of heinous crimes, but oppressors of men and women who are subservient to them and restricted to work for little or no reward.
The symbolism in this story, beginning with its title, is telling. A CHAIN OF VOICES is easily recognisable as a metaphor for enslavement, as too, Galant’s yearning to wear shoes which is a symbol of his freedom that is never attained.
The metaphor of both farm and wild animals in the testimonies of both master and slave are cruel, yet tellingly effective.
The omission of inverted comma’s used to denotate dialogue between characters is effective in suggesting the stream of consciousness through patterns of speech, and enriches the narratives of both protagonist and antagonist.
The narrative ironically does not belong to Philida as a personal account recording the hideous trail of abuse that she is subjected to at the hands of her cruel masters.
It is an all too familiar account of persistent beatings and rape, reminiscent of the records of the slave rebellion in Brink’s earlier novel.
Philida’s abusers give their own versions of these horrific events which are a matter of history in South Africa, and in particular, the Western Cape, a former colony of the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, They justify their abusive behaviour to the embarrassed conservative clerk in the court of the local magistrate which has received Philida’s charge in which she alleges that they kidnapped and raped her after she was legally entitled to the freedom which is still being denied to her.
Her abuser and primary antagonist, Cornelis Brink, justifies his “God-given” right to rape and abuse his “property”, and his misguided son, Frans, does not help Philida’s cause by cowardly denying his father’s mistreatment of the slaves (although he does challenge his father). Frans is deranged, believing that his coupling with Philida is love and affection for the other. But it is nothing of the sort. Through his colonising eyes, although disproving of his father’s actions, Frans still treats Philida as a form of property and a selfish object of his own sexually depraved lust for non-white women, or the exotic female “other”.
The promise of freedom is foregrounded in the form of Fran’s bribery of Philida who reluctantly enters into the sexual tryst with her master in the naïve belief that she will attain her freedom as a result.
These records form part of the story’s early narrative, told consecutively in the first person by Philida, Cornelis and Frans Brink. This encompasses the story’s first part, headed as Complaint. The second and third parts, Auction and Gariep, reverts to a third person narration in which an exterior view of the characters can be formulated. The final part of the story is both significant and symbolic of Philida’s freedom. Gariep is a region of South Africa which is historically important to ascendants of the slaves of the Cape. It is a region to which they sought their own Biblical promised land, not unlike that sought by their oppressors, the Voortrekkers.
THE QUESTION OF RELIGION
In his research for this story, Andre Brink relies on early accounts of his own family’s history during the nineteenth century and fictionalises colonial activities and the lives of his ancestors’ slaves in gruesome and graphic detail.
Brink, in his memoir, A FORK IN THE ROAD, and other essays, denies the existence of God and declares that he is a de facto atheist. As a South African literary luminary, he questions how it is possible that God could allow such inhumane treatment of the “savage other”.
These questions are also pertinent to the narrative accounts of PHILIDA, where the slave uses Old Dutch quotations of the Biblical texts to question the unGodly treatment and abuse of her person. Her abusers, in turn, use portions of the Old Testament to justify their right of ownership of ‘weaker and inferior’ human beings and perpetuate the fantasy that they, the white colonisers, are God’s chosen and supreme race.
As a Christian, even an agnostic one at best, the reader can ponder on the author’s selective use of the Word of God. It is interesting to note that in this tale, and in other similar post-colonial novels, there is little or no referencing of New Testament, or alternative Biblical scriptures. There is little or no referencing of the Q’uran, which informed Cape slaves spirituality during their earliest settlement in the Cape, and which ironically informed their previous slave masters and traders. There is, however, a brief mention of the mythological aspects of the Khoi-khoi religion and the God Heitsi-Eibib, but this does not, to my mind, justify, or assist, the biased treatment of Christianity.
The religious bias of the narrative is prolonged in the sense that the so-called masters’ reliance on the Bible’s Old Testament for guidance on how to run their farms, and ultimately their slaves, is justified. The misguided belief in being a master race over “others” is foregrounded to the extreme. Any conscionable reader, whether a believer or not, could recognise the religious bias and the absence of the radical reconciliatory and forgiving aspects of Jesus Christ’s recorded teachings in the Gospels remain starkly absent from Brink’s narratives, in A CHAIN OF VOICES, PHILIDA, and any other selection of his novels, both past and present.
Certainly, Brink has acknowledged his atheistic confession (or profession) that there is indeed no God, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or otherwise, and this acknowledgement can be found in Brink’s lengthy memoir, A FORK IN THE ROAD.
While my interpretation of Brink’s atheistic narrative is subjective, I remain resolute in my objective view that one of South Africa’s most highly acclaimed novelists, has missed a grand opportunity to present at least a balanced portrayal of interpretations from the perspective of his characters. I say this as I recall his interpretation of the Khoi and San belief systems, particularly those experienced by Galant and the enigmatic matriarchs, Ma-Rose and Petronella, who superficially rely on the slaves’ superstitions, rather than their qualified oral history, for their own survival.
Nevertheless, the re-lived testimonies of both master and slave (in particular) in PHILIDA is a sensitive, heart-warming and inspirational narrative, without disguising or desensitising the brutal and racial (not racist) themes of the plaas roman (farm novel), in comparison to the heartlessness and desolation of the earlier narrative, A CHAIN OF VOICES.