In the preface to her compilation of forty-four essays reflecting on encounters with the internationally acclaimed South African author André Brink, Karina Szczurek states: “Together, in these essays, we’ve explored some of the many facets of his versatile personality. He emerges not only as the renowned author, attitude-changing public figure, leading intellectual, or the motivating teacher that he is mostly known as, but also as a music aficionado, passionate rugby fan, magician, shy boy, food lover, or a knight in shining armour, and even more importantly and intimately, a devoted family man and dear friend. The resulting collection forms a tapestry of unique stories which span continents and lifetimes reflecting on André’s life as witnessed through the eyes of people close to him: family members, friends and lovers, publishers and translators, colleagues and students, fellow writers and other artists” (10).
This publication will draw a wide circle of readers. The 20th-century emphasis on the text and the resultant decentring of the author paradoxically kindled a curiosity regarding the real author. However, those who attempt to search for André Brink, the person, in his dozens of publications, will be confronted by a tight textual web generating a plethora of narrative voices and a multiplicity of perspectives. In his essay, a South African neuropsychologist, Mark Solms, with reference to Brink’s novel, A Chain of Voices, mentions Brink’s ability to narrate “events from everybody’s point of view” (192). Time after time Brink’s readers will be confronted by a captivating, even bewildering, but always engaging: on the contrary. In the Brink oeuvre Derridian différance confronts the reader in search of finality and closure and the body of work becomes a manifestation of endless postponement. One of the contributors to this collection of essays, Brink’s youngest sister, Marita, indeed captions her text with “A presence and an absence” (11). His son, Gustav, in a moving contribution, refers to a poem he himself once wrote in which he enquired of André, “Are you there?” He concludes the essay by stating, “I know that, that if I were to reconsider my poem, the answer is not that he is there now, but that he’s always been there, even when I was not aware of it” (91).
In 2009 André Brink published his memoir, A Fork in the Road. This fascinating publication certainly provided the curious reader with important insights, not only regarding a complex personality, but also regarding the socio-political climate informing a large part of Brink’s life. However, the memoir confirms that autobiographical writing, by definition, is informed by a process of selection and combination and therefore becomes a form of fictionalisation. This is all the more evident when the subject is complex and larger than life. In this regard writer Chris Barnard, in his essay, expresses the opinion that “[e]verything you allege about him requires footnotes.” He concludes his essay by saying: “Who is the true Brink? Everyone hoped that his memoirs would help clear up this uncertainty. And he sidestepped the issue even in the motto of the book. He is one big anomaly. A lasting antithesis. A counter for everything that is regarded as self-evident. And that is the reason, among many others, why he became the remarkable writer that he is” (66).
In the light of the above, Karina Szczurek’s book is timeous, interesting and valuable. In a long essay in seven parts Naas Steenkamp, a university and lifelong friend, provides an interesting backdrop which places the other contributions in relief.
Antjie Krog concludes her contribution by stating that “apart from bringing heightened energy, wit, and fathoms of knowledge, bedded in unwavering memory, he has above all else, compassion” (199).
Compassion runs like a thread through the essays. Publishers Koos Human (32) and Hettie Scholtz (133), both refer to Brink’s generosity towards and support of new writers, which is echoed by Sindiwe Magona (148). A writer and former student, Emma van der Vliet, describes him as “unstintingly generous” (156), while Chilean-American Ariel Dorfman refers to Brink’s ability to “really care about the person in front of him” (79).
This ability to care also informs Brink the teacher. More than one of the contributors refers to him as the consummate lecturer. In this regard Malcolm Hacksley has the following to offer: “All his lectures were delivered rapidly and with a combination of infectious enthusiasm and confident authority: here was an academic who was not only familiar with his own subject but had already read widely right across the entire spectrum of European and English writing. His literary judgement was something you felt that you could trust. The ideas he introduced in his lectures were intensely challenging, ‘mind-blowing’ even, but he paid his students the compliment of assuming that we were intelligent enough to grasp them. He taught us to see beyond the surface of literary works ...” (41).
Elleke Boehmer, novelist and professor of World Literature in English at the University of Oxford, describes her student encounter with Brink as follows: “This was my first encounter with Big Writing, writing that was new or very recent with work by living writers, and now brought to life, mediated for us students via a literary voice that was in possession of itself, distinct, confident” (111).
Other essays in this collection position Brink, the writer, in the context of world literature. Bernard Magnier, a French publisher, characterises Brink’s oeuvre as follows: “... all these titles in which the intimate is linked to the historical, commitment to the novelistic, memory to the imagination” (158) and expresses the opinion that Brink’s novel A Dry White Season “belongs to the general heritage of titles of the 20th century” (157). The Swedish author Bodil Malmsten, in turn, refers to Brink “the living, talking, speaking, walking legend of literature” (151), while the Argentinian writer and literary scholar Alberto Manguel sees Brink’s writing as a manifestation of the “struggle against power” (124), and he describes Brink’s person and his work by using the word “elegance” (125).
Another feature which forms a theme in the book is André Brink’s genius. Author Braam de Vries encapsulates this aspect when he refers to “unbridled intelligence and his astonishing erudition” (23).
Brink is known as a literary political activist. This conviction is expressed in On the contrary in the statement “Only by saying no, do you stay human.” In his contribution, the Croatian translator Rastko GariÄ‡ quotes Brink from a Croatian interview in which he affirmed, “My silence cannot be bought” (185). His political role is emphasised by Jakes Gerwel: “An then, of course, we envy those other levels of youthfulness at seventy-five, not least of which is his watchful and critical social consciousness, irrespective of who holds power. He was the conscience of a people at a critical time in the history of clashes of communities in our country; he did not deny his relationship with that people; he sought to challenge and redefine the content and meaning of community in our divided country. Today, youthful as ever, he claims the inclusiveness he fought for as artist and citizen and he continues to be a critical consciousness of that redefined, if yet unrealised, entity” (112).
Stylistically this book is beautifully written by a galaxy of sophisticated and capable contributors. The collection includes two Nobel Prize winners for literature. One of them, Nadine Gordimer, states: “André in his works of fiction was then as now in mastery of what the driving instinct of a writer is, what the purpose of all art is: a compulsion to attempt the discovery of the mystery of life as far as it can be fathomed in human manifestation, human understanding. Only the searching component of the imagination, dynamo of the arts, can go beyond science” (117). Gordimer concludes by saying, “André Brink is one of those who stir us to self-questioning and illuminations through the pleasure of his use of the word” (117).
JM Coetzee, another Nobel laureate, says in his essay: “Through his writing, in which he imported into the Afrikaans novel the methods and concerns of European and American modernism, but equally well through the life he lived as a public intellectual (a much-abused term that happened to fit very well in his case) and to a degree as a political intellectual, he played no small part in bringing Afrikaners out of the complacency and cultural torpor of the post-1948 dispensation into the dangerous but exciting world of the post-colonial” (130). Coetzeeends his essay by referring to “a career, all in all, on which one may look back in pride” (130).
Brink is portrayed in this book as an intellectual giant, a world-class writer, a great teacher and the political conscience of a people and a country. However, the gentle picture which emerges from the charming short essay by his daughter, Sonja Kershaw, adds a memorable dimension to this book. Sonja thanks him for allowing her to create her own “little space in this big room we call life”. “André is my father, my friend and still is my hero” forms part of her touching conclusion (76).
The compiler of this book, Andre’s wife, Karina Magdalena Szczurek, concludes this beautiful collection on an intimate note. After her contribution, those in search of Brink, the person, will have a slightly clearer picture. She draws the outlines of an exceptional man when she states: “I love the fearlessness with which he encounters every new windmill in his path and the eagerness with which he approaches every new adventure. To experience life with André is to enter a space where the boundaries between the everyday and the extraordinary blur, where duty merges with passion, and a mere possibility becomes intoxicating reality” (200).
All the encounters described in this book do justice to the man. Spatial constraints, unfortunately, do not allow for a more in-depth discussion.
Michiel Heyns expertly edited this book, while Michelle Staples was responsible for the unique cover design. Generous financial support by Jannie Mouton made this Human & Rousseau publication possible.
Karina Szczurek deserves congratulations both for the concept and the execution of this project. This is a gem of a book which will bring many happy hours of reading to a wide public. One can but hope that her next project will be an up-to-date collection of scholarly essays on the formidable oeuvre of André Brink.
I recommend that readers buy three copies of this book: one for the bedside table, one for the guest bedroom, and one for a good friend. All the royalties will be donated to the Nelson Mandela’s Children’s Fund.
Godfrey Meintjes teaches Afrikaans and Literary Theory at Rhodes University and is an ex-student and colleague of André Brink who has published on Brink’s work.