Yes, we had our dessert …
A few weeks ago I got a call from Bozar, about whether I wanted to do a live interview with André Brink. The writer was coming to Belgium, where he was to receive a honorary degree from the UCL, the Université catholique de Louvain, which is the French counterpart of the Flemish KUL, de Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. The answer was yes, sure.
On Thursday, before the interview, we had a light dinner in the Bozar restaurant. André was in a wheelchair; he looked frail and fragile. His voice was soft, and sometimes you had to lean closer to understand his words. The waitress brought him a kir royal as an apéritif. She was young, looking slightly exotic. André suddenly livened up. He paid her a compliment about the apron she was wearing. He spoke in French, the language of seduction.
The interview was a delight. To my surprise, André was lucid, forthcoming. His answers were to the point. There was an understanding with the audience. Jokes were made. About tennis, about the “skinderstories” as a favourite pastime of South Africans. We made a journey through his work, starting with the sixties of the last century, ending with Philida. But towards the end André was tired; he was struggling to find the right words. I skipped a few questions, and brought the interview to an end, saving him the embarrassment of a drifting mind.
At the end of the interview, André got a warm and long applause. No tricky questions had been asked, no revelations were made, no scoops. But there was a deeply felt sympathy for the lion who could no longer roar. André took his time signing his novels that were bought or brought.
We all thought that André would be exhausted, that he would want to leave Bozar as quickly as possible. That was not the case. We hadn’t had our dessert yet. André insisted, as if he wanted to stretch the evening just a bit longer. The chocolate mousse with pomegranate and grapefruit sorbet was delicious. I sat next to him. I remember touching his arm. I remember making a yes-we-did-it fist. There was a smile on his face.
I heard the news on Saturday around noon. Could this be true? Had the chocolate mousse been his last dessert? Had Bozar, which stands for "beaux arts", the Brussels Centre for the Fine Arts, been his last venue? How appropriate.
There should have been a tape of our meeting, but I have been told that due to a technical problem, there is no recording. At first I thought that was a pity. But then again, maybe we should cherish the moment itself. Something happened to us in that room, to André, to the audience, to me. There was a shared sense of intimacy, a heightened sense of awareness of something larger. Larger than life. Was this just an impression or is there a sacred dimension after all?
The camera had been rolling, but the tape is dark. That’s how it should be. Leaving this world is a private and intimate affair. While preparing for his exit, during the last evening of his life, the eye of the world went dead and refused service. As if on purpose. But André was surrounded by fans and literary friends. That’s a comforting thought.
This interview was the last time André Brink appeared in front of an audience in his life.