The fifth Mrs Brink, a memoir by Karina M Szczurek: a book review

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The fifth Mrs Brink, a memoir
Karina M Szczurek

Jonathan Ball Publishers
ISBN: 9781868428038

So much love, so much loss, all in one book. This is a beautiful love story with some steamy, sexy moments to boot, yet it also contains vivid insights into the body’s response to loss and grief.

The fifth Mrs Brink is a contemporary document about writing and literature told by someone who spent a part of her childhood in refugee camps.

A passionate love story

Many people who knew André spoke of his radiant love for the young woman who was his last companion. There were so many reasons why this love should never have worked, and yet, it did.

The fifth Mrs Brink is a real-life romance. The book has it all: bright young student meets weathered guru; there is electricity; the student says no, she is married … The plot could have been dreamed up in Hollywood or in André Brink’s head, yet this is real.

Most romance novels end when the two love birds decide to be happy for ever after. This book is different. In a romance novel, one never sees the tender moments when one partner goes through pain or suffering; one never knows how it all ends.

Karina asked André to marry her, not the other way round: “He’d made a fuck-up of it four times – I had better chances, I figured” (p 73).

What was André’s reaction when she was on her knees, asking? “Jou poephol,” he answered.

Indeed. It is all in the book.

The reader experiences the wedding, and then: “We were alone. Our wedding night began. The pages go consummately black” (76).

This refers to André Brink’s experimental novel Orgie; in it, there are moments when the pages simply black out, and the readers may happily dream their own thoughts.

Orgie was André Brink’s orgasmic, ecstatic ode to Ingrid Jonker, the lover who would never become Mrs Brink. Karina was able to embrace the ghost of Jonker.

Karina also walked into a marriage where Olga, the foster daughter of André and Marésa, the fourth Mrs Brink, was a near-permanent resident in the house.

And, yet, there is more. The last months of André’s life were not easy. His tall, proud body no longer supported the massive intellectual brain. Karina still loved him and cared for him. She shared his grief with tenderness, passion and beauty.

A document of loss and grief

This is a great love story, but unlike the typical romance novel, this one continues after the death of the loved one. Anyone who has ever experienced loss would find courage in these pages: “unlike a hawk, you cannot tame grief. No, but you can learn to live with it, tame yourself” (179).

How does one cope when a loved one dies?

Does one cope?

Should one cope?

“Death, no longer an abstraction, becomes flesh, turns to ashes. I lie awake at night, an urn next to my cold, empty bed. I lost my husband, I tell people, always adding a comment about the inadequacy of the term; it’s not as if he can be found. He is not late either. He hated being late” (95).

This is not a morbid book, but the author documents how her entire body, not only her mind, reacted to the sudden emptiness at her side.

“Grief changed my body. I lost a lot of weight, could not bear to touch my protruding shoulder blades when washing my back, which also packed up under the load it was carrying” (162).

Karina’s bluntly honest bursts of anger and hurt, loss and pain are well tempered with humour and beauty.

While in mourning, Karina fell passionately in love with Jack Reacher, Lee Child’s fictional crime-busting hero. Those who follow Karina on Twitter will know how often she went to bed with Reacher during her time of healing. “There is nothing like a hero, real, literary, fictional or otherwise – the best example of the saving graces of storytelling” (181).

This rather amusing crush on a fictional hero certainly helped her on her path to healing, but there is a lovely, poignant moment where she dreams of André being a Reacher Creature – only to wake up and realise that he might never have read any of Child’s books. The refuge she had found was not a shared one.

A refugee

So often, we think of refugees as people who try to cross the Mediterranean in unsafe boats, or we think of car guards in a parking lot with harrowing stories containing blood and mayhem in countries north of us.

Yet, here she is: Karina Szczurek, a beautiful woman with a PhD and a number of books behind her name, who used to live as a refugee. “It was tough, bone-breaking tough, and soul-sapping” (43–4).

Her family had fled from communism, and they had lived as refugees in camps for a sizeable chunk of her young life.

At a time when fascists like Trump, the far right in Europe and so many ordinary people in our own country spread xenophobia, Karina’s life presents itself as a corrective; it helped her prepare for a life on the southern tip of Africa. She says of her first time she visited South Africa, “it felt familiar, comfortable” (9).

It took her a while to figure out why, then she realised: “I had to explain myself much less to people; that my multicultural, migratory background did not seem as exotic here as anywhere else I had lived before” (9).

Being a refugee also made her absorb many different languages.

Finding refuge in language

As a child, surviving the constant displacement associated with being a refugee, Karina was not a reader. It all changed when a wonderful librarian in the USA suggested that she should become one. Karina admits that she only agreed to read the book because she liked the librarian, not because she really wanted to. Yet, something snapped. That book became the rabbit hole through which the young, awkward teenager fell into another world. It was a world where she belonged, a world that held so much promise: “I entered puberty and the world of literature at the same time. Awkward, breathless, budding, curving, menstruating, sprouting hair, I felt utterly lost. My desire seemed insatiable. Words consumed me. Literature fuelled my imagination” (32).

Books, and in particular English literature, embraced her: “Head over heels, I crashed into language. With almost careless ease, I discarded the ‘arranged marriage’ with my mother tongue to elope with my foreign lover. It was the beginning of a lifelong romance with English, as alluring and seemingly impenetrable as the ocean” (32).

Vividly, Karina describes her student years, discovering South African literature and eventually doing her PhD on Nadine Gordimer.

Obviously, André Brink, too, was an author she had read. That was why she agreed to meet with him. The fifth Mrs Brink tells the story about their courtship.

André, of course, was Afrikaans.

Karina claims that she only speaks Afrikaans to her and André’s cats, but it is no secret she understands Afrikaans very well and she reads it as well.

When André died, her connection with Afrikaans grew even stronger. It became a lifeline to her: “I insist. I seek out Afrikaans. I go to events where I know it will be spoken, listen to Afrikaans on RSG, read Die Burger. I cannot really speak it myself, but I understand; it gives me pleasure to be surrounded by it. Plesier. I have never longed for any other language this way. Verlange” (95–6).

Embracing the South African literary community

Before and during their marriage, Karina got to know André’s friends; they, in turn, embraced her. She writes about a special occasion where the literati drove out to Onrus to say goodbye to Chris Barnard: “Many people from the Afrikaans literary community were there. They had all embraced me so warmly when I became André’s wife. At the gathering, I felt the warmth, these were my people” (196).

Yet, due to her own interest in and love of English literature, Karina formed a bridge between the English literary community and its Afrikaans counterpart. André, too, taught English literature at UCT. He introduced to her many local English writers, like Helen Moffett and Sally Partridge. In the aftermath of André’s death, Karina also found solace among a band of sisters in the English-speaking world.

This ability of Karina to embrace both languages and both communities sets the book somewhat apart from many former biographies and autobiographies. South Africa has a wealth of books on the Afrikaans literary community; Karina’s writing embraces the worlds of both the Afrikaans and the English-speaking literary communities.

Embracing literature

There are some beautiful moments of passion in this book. Karina certainly did not arrive at André’s house in Cape Town as an innocent virgin. Yet, in André she found a love and a grounding that she had never felt before.

How does one write about it? In her own words: “It is easier for me to be naked with someone than to bare my soul to them. No one is better at hiding among words than a writer” (15).

That is the beauty of The fifth Mrs Brink. It is autobiographical, but it also is a consummate book about writing and loving books. “Books can heal you, as can the generosity and kindness of friends and strangers alike” (181).

Betrayal

The body yearns for touch, even when grieving, and Karina did reach out when the offer of a new friendship came along. There was a dreadful betrayal that followed. Karina’s account in The fifth Mrs Brink is honest, yet tuned down.

“And he left, of course, when I was no longer convenient. And I? I had to pick up the pieces, invisible fingerprints smeared all over my soul” (207).

She was enraged: “berating myself for having been such a gullible accomplice” (207).

She also felt that she had betrayed André’s legacy, something Karina cherishes on behalf of his readers.

To all who have lost André P Brink

The last line of André P Brink’s own autobiography ends with a thank-you note to Karina for lending meaning and joy to his world. His book spans decades and continents, he had met many famous people in his life, but he concluded his own story with tender words of love.

The fifth Mrs Brink mirrors this approach. While it is a beautifully crafted book about Karina’s life, it certainly also is an intimate obituary to a great literary genius.

“I knew André had never been ordinary. He did everything his own way. He also died on his own terms, quickly and without prolonged suffering – the way he wanted. He was not alone; the person who loved him most in the world accompanied him during these last minutes of his life” (216).

The news of his death spread quickly: “Within minutes, condolences and kindness began pouring back to my phone. I knew I would not mourn alone. It felt as if the entire literary world went into mourning” (220).

Karina was instrumental in getting the love letters of André Brink and Ingrid Jonker published. The fifth Mrs Brink never saw the immortal ghost of Ingrid as a threat. Instead, she, a fellow reader of their letters, marvelled at a younger André, so less sure of himself, yet passionately in love. Karina, by now widowed, attended a concert where Jonker’s poetry was sung. She writes: “they are singing about my husband, my André, when he was young and passionately in love, an effervescent but doomed love. And then so many years later, he chose me” (120–1).

This book is a fitting tribute to André Brink: a writer, a lover, a man who married five times, a political activist and a literary genius who spoke many languages fluently; it is written by a woman who had loved his work before she loved him, a woman who had been a lover and a divorcee, a writer, polyglot and literary figure in her own right.

Karina Brink is now crafting a life as Karina Szczurek, author, lover of others, and who knows what else. André Brink’s presence will always be with her on her journey, just as his writing and his work will remain with an entire generation of readers.

In some ways, Karina’s story sounds like an André Brink novel: a political refugee, a passionate writer, a young woman who adores books and sex … Yet, this is real. And unlike the nymph-like creatures Brink wrote into his pages, the fifth Mrs Brink is a strong woman. In life, she was nearly as tall as Brink was, and now, in his death, she will continue on her own journey.

It took a strong woman to remain at André Brink’s side during the last decade of his life. Her generosity allowed us to read the letters of Brink and Jonker; there are other projects under way as well. Now, in telling the story of André Brink’s last years and the intimate moments of his death, Karina Szczurek has once again embraced Brink’s fans.

Karina says on the last page that she will never be without a piece of André in her. Many others will want to echo her words. Those who cared for Brink, even if it was just for his books, would take comfort from this honest, passionate love story covering the last decade of his life and the moments of his death.

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