A Tribute to a Literary Giant – Andre Brink, 1935-2015

 

HOW I BECAME A STUDENT OF ANDRE BRINK

 

“The only triumph the human being can boast about is to go against the questions to try to find answers.” 

These were Professor Andre Brink’s last words during his acceptance of an Honorary Doctorate from Louvain University in Belgium. He delivered his speech in fluent French. A student at Sorbonne in Paris during the early nineteen sixties, Brink had adopted France as his second home. It did not offer him any reprieve from apartheid South Africa as he witnessed first-hand the student uprisings later in 1968. But it may have warmed his heart.

Andre Brink missed one milestone during his long and industrious life as a writer, academic and activist since the nineteen fifties. He did not make it to the age of eighty. But, this is mere trivia when you examine his oeuvre and history which, although always related to his reading and writing, was never confined within the walls of his legendary study. The books and papers that still fill them would enrich any library today.

Professor Brink’s death seems to have come at an auspicious time for both country and student. Tomorrow, South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, will open Parliament and may well be delivering his last state of the nation address. For me personally, this is inconceivable, but it is probably a dose of hoping for too much. Gracefully and triumphantly, I completed my first degree, a BA in Languages and Literature last year. But the formalities of this small milestone were only completed two days after Brink’s death.

In any case, I was preparing for the next stage of my literary life and had for some months been thinking a lot about Professor Brink and his long-time literary companion and colleague, Professor JM Coetzee who now resides in Adelaide, Australia. I wrote a challenging, uncompromising and critical essay on comparative literature with the two gentlemen as my subjects. It was well received. What was not appreciated was my early thoughts on Andre Brink as a high school student.

andre brink and jm coetzee

Throughout his long life as a writer and teacher, Andre Brink, will also be universally remembered for his vocal and active opposition to apartheid which spanned the rule and deaths of no less than four dictators, JG Strijdom, HF Verwoerd, BJ Vorster and PW Botha. In spite of death threats and banning orders, Brink was unrelenting and refused to lie down. But, after the unbanning of the ANC and other liberation movements and South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, Brink’s vigilance did not end. There were new challenges to Freedom of Expression and all other rights posed by the ANC regime. Significantly, Brink was chosen to lead a country-wide revolt against the new government’s Protection of Information Bill.

In his imposing, but honest memoir, A Fork in the Road, Brink responded to corruption, incompetence and alarmingly high rates of crime and anarchy in one single and striking sentence;

“ 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. “

The apartheid regime banned at least two of his literary works. Kennis van die Aand (it was later translated into English as Looking on Darkness), was the first to be banned by the apartheid regime and is perhaps the most famous example of Andre Brink’s “poke in the eye” at the Nationalist government. Most of his works, from Orgie (1965) to his last published novel, Philida, were controversial for a variety of reasons. Responses were political, aesthetic and literary.

Upon discovering Andre Brink’s works in our high school library during the early nineteen-eighties, I began to wonder how his works had slipped onto the dusty library shelves in the first place. The school was essentially a bilingual one, but its conservatism as a government-run school was always apparent. So, at a young age, I had begun to formulate my own thoughts and ideas on the brutality of inequality and racism which continues to this day.

Brink’s influence on my life began early. My discovery of his works was fortuitous, because, needless to say, his works were not recommended by my teachers. Wanting to enhance my ability to converse in a second language, Afrikaans, I began my literary search in a typically chronological fashion. A, B… Brink – A Dry White Season – Well, what have we here. And so it began.

In my quest for knowledge and growth I have been inspired by a few remarkable human beings. Andre Brink was one of them. I have written critically on some of his literary works in the past, but I believe that he would not have appreciated a receptive response devoid of honest and independent thought and the critical skills that he encouraged us to use.

 

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