Andre Brink vs JM Coetzee

The work of Andre Brink and J M Coetzee is widely critiqued.

But Brink has, in the past, been incorrectly accused of plagiarism. That he makes liberal use of inter-textual references to colonialism, history and even Coetzee’s works remains a moot point. Brink’s Donkermaan references Coetzee’s Disgrace;

“ I rest my case on the rights of desire …On the god who makes even the small birds quiver “

The liminality of Coetzee’s prose is praised for its “significant use of the present immediacy of the narrated events…”. His literary texts are usually no longer than three hundred pages long. Disgrace and his autobiographical novels, Boyhood, Youth and Summertime, are four such examples.

My comparative analysis of two literary works fall within the genre of biographical writing. English-speaking, I reference Brink’s translation of ‘n Vurk in die Pad, A Fork in the Road. Brink notes that his biography is his memoir. I compare Brink’s prose with Coetzee’s autobiographical trilogy. In order to grasp the effectiveness of Coetzee’s post-modern account of his life, written as fiction, it is necessary to refer to all three texts. Derek Attridge also mentions that the use of the present tense in Coetzee’s works heightens the immediacy of narrated events which are all conducted in the third person.

Responding to the unfair charges of plagiarism, I note that Brink always acknowledges his sources and references the origination of his selected quotations. He lists them and mentions the permissions granted to him.

Thematically, a sense of alienation prevails. Brink’s first person essayist writes from the distant location of Paris. The musings on the life of John Coetzee also has its place in a distant location. In Youth it is London.

Incidentally, Coetzee’s autobiographical trilogy is re-published in one revised volume, Scenes from Provincial Life.

Themes such as post-colonialism, apartheid and post-apartheid are foregrounded. Brink’s narrative is active while Coetzee’s third person narrator remains passive. Historically, Brink is remembered for his activism against apartheid and the racist ideologies of the National Party. His support for the liberation movement, the African National Congress, was unequivocal and unapologetic. Unfortunately, too little narrative space is given to this party’s current misrule and corrupt practices from within.

“ Today it has changed, and the ANC must bear responsibility for this: because today I find that there are some blacks standing between Africa and me. “

Coetzee’s participation in political discourse is reluctant and distant, and confined to his art of narrative fiction writing.

Both author’s works are influenced by previous classical works. Brink is expressive in his fondness and admiration of Miguel Cervantes and his Don Quixote, and Albert Camus and his Le Peste. Brink was infamously and, again, unfairly criticised for his use of the Algerian-born Nobel Laureate’s work. But he acknowledges Camus’ influence in his own Die Muur van die Pes.

In Coetzee’s Youth, the protagonist is influenced by Sterne and his Tristram Shandy, a story within a story, and the writings of Ford Maddox Ford;

“ With freedom to do as he pleases, he has soon read to the  end of the sprawling corpus of Ford’s writings. The time is nigh for him to deliver his judgement. “

Whilst Brink is unapologetic for his stance against apartheid and his Calvinist upbringing, and yet, expressing a fondness for rugby, one of the then preserves of the white Afrikaner – “What had first turned my interest into fanatic enthusiasm, was the All Black tour of South Africa in 1949.“ – , Attridge points out that Coetzee’s autobiographies, produced after the conclusion of the Truth and Reconciliation Hearings of South Africa, is self-confessional and theoretically, as a meta-fiction, it is self-reflective. He quotes Coetzee;

“We can demarcate a mode of autobiographical writing that we can call the confession, as distinct from the memoir , and the apology , on the basis of an underlying motive to tell an essential truth about the self.”

The post-modern device is significant during Summertime. Through the biography writer, Mr Vincent, based in London, and his female interviewees, Margot, Adriana, Sophie (part of this text is divided into chapters bearing their names), the reader learns that John Coetzee is dead. But the narrative from Boyhood through to Summertime, is chronological. During Vincent’s interviews with the women in Coetzee’s life, the story of John Coetzee is told retrogressively.

Brink’s memoir does not follow the chronological order of a conventional biography. In A Fork in the Road he expresses his reluctance to write about his life. That being said, most of his narrative is taken up by critical accounts of “other people’s lives”, significantly that of the late Afrikaans poet, Ingrid Jonker who tragically committed suicide during the nineteen-sixties. During the inauguration of South Africa’s democratic parliament, Nelson Mandela gave a moving homage to Ms Jonker by quoting from her poem, Die Kind (The Child);

“ Indeed, the child is not dead, and now become a giant, is still travelling in the wide world.

Without a pass. “

The protagonist, John Coetzee, focalised through the third person narrator, acknowledges his inability to conduct meaningful relationships with women. Brink, however, married no less than six times during his life, currently married to Polish-born writer, editor and critic, Karina Magdalena Szczurek, younger than his children from his previous relationships, accepts no culpability for the state in which he leaves his female companions, particularly, Ms Jonker.

My personal examination of Brink and Coetzee as biographical and literary writers is interdisciplinary, but more importantly, relevant in light of their prominence in and the contribution they have made to South African literature, and the different approaches they have taken to their writing. Such contributions are universally recognised. And they have made their contributions as academics having both served as professors of English Literature at the University of Cape Town. Having started his academic career at the University of Grahamstown, Brink has been nominated twice for the Man Booker Prize.

Coetzee, alongside (fellow) Australian, Peter Carey, has won the Booker Prize twice. He is one of two South Africans, Nadine Gordimer being the other, to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Such a prestigious acknowledgement of Brink’s life as writer, activist, academic and contributor to literature is, to my mind, long overdue.

Commenting on the oppressive tendencies of colonialism, apartheid, crime and the new hegemonies, both authors have produced texts which have summarily been described as controversial for its selection of themes and characters. Brink’s ‘n Droe Wit Seisoen (A Dry White Season) and Kennis van die Aand were banned by the apartheid regime, while Coetzee’s works, Waiting for the Barbarians and In the Heart of the Country, were overlooked by the censors because of their subdued interpretations and understanding of his works.

Coetzee’s Disgrace, the subject of his second Man Booker Prize and his later Nobel Prize, did not escape the scathing scrutiny of Thabo Mbeki’s ANC whose charge of racism was made to the (South African) Human Rights Commission during a supposed era of freedom of speech and expression within a democratic order. Attempts to ban his work failed and the charge of racism was dismissed by the Human Rights Commission.

In spite of the uncontrolled rise in crime levels in South Africa and his family becoming one of the many victims of crime, Brink chooses to remain in South Africa with his Polish-born wife. Coetzee emigrated to Australia after the publication of Disgrace. As early as Boyhood and during Youth, the protagonist rejects his Afrikaans heritage and acts on his desire to leave the country indefinitely.

The Belgian scholar, Gerard, mentions that the art of creative writing can contribute towards South Africa’s “cross-cultural fertilisation” which is facilitated by familiarity with the experience, plights and preoccupations of different ethnic and cultural groups. Such contributions are evident in the work of Brink, the Afrikaans writer, and Coetzee, the English writer. An overview of Michael Chapman’s South African Literatures and SA Lit also reveals the enriching possibilities of comparing literatures from a range of cultures and languages. Comparisons between these two writers in particular do not need to be complex, nor problematic, in light of Coetzee’s reluctance to acknowledge his Afrikaner heritage.

“He thinks of Afrikaners as people in a rage all the time because their hearts are hurt. He thinks of the English as people who have not fallen into a rage because they live behind walls and guard their hearts well.

This is one of his theories about the English and the Afrikaners.“


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