History and the Inscriptions of Torture as Purgatorial Fire in Andre Brink's Fiction

By Diala, Isidore | Studies in the Novel, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

History and the Inscriptions of Torture as Purgatorial Fire in Andre Brink's Fiction


Diala, Isidore, Studies in the Novel


On 18 August, 1977, Steve Biko, the Black Consciousness leader, and a friend of his, Peter James, were arrested at a Security Police roadblock near Grahamstown in the Eastern cape province. Taken to Port Elizabeth for detention and interrogation, Biko sustained fatal brain injuries that caused him to lapse into a coma for six days. He died on 12 September, 1977.

Commenting on the impact of this event on him, the anti-apartheid Afrikaner writer, Andre Brink, says of A Dry White Season, which has as its backdrop the Soweto riots of June 1976, "An interesting aspect of this novel is that it was begun almost a year before the death in detention of black-consciousness leader Steve Biko in 1976. In fact the death came as such a shock to me that for a long time I couldn't go back to writing" ("Brink, Andre" 387). When Brink eventually went back to writing, he understandably set out to explore the many forms of state-sanctioned torture in apartheid South Africa, and to continue his probing of the psychology of the torturer. Typically, Brink's intentions were exemplarily anti-apartheid. Aware that torture constituted an inherent aspect of the National Party's programmes to retain power, his response to torture was horror and his attitude towards it was condemnation.

Such indeed was the depth of Brink's revulsion towards apartheid that his resistance to the ideology was not only aimed at comprehensiveness but also led to his attempt to strike at its very root even in his private life. Thus identifying religion as the cornerstone of Afrikaner morality, and aware of the privileged historical role the Afrikaner brand of Christianity (embodied in the Dutch Reformed Church) played in supporting apartheid, Brink renounced conventional religion and morality and became an atheist. Edward Said has argued that religious discourse, like orientalism, "serves as an agent of closure, shutting off human investigation, criticism, and effort in deference to the authority of the more-than-human, the supernatural, the other-worldly. Like culture, religion therefore furnishes us with systems of authority and with canons of order whose regular effect is either to compel subservience or to gain adherents" (290). Brink identified this appropriation of religion into the machinery of apartheid in the Afrikaner establishment's ideological interpretation of the myth of the sons of Canaan to perpetuate black servitude. His response was to explore the Bible itself for a counter-hegemonic valence that would debunk the myth of apartheid. In the New Testament myth of the self-sacrificing saviour, Brink finds an obverse to the Old Testament myth of the chosen race, existing in a Manichean relationship with its Others. (1)

However, Brink has privileged the role of language in fiction aimed at political conversion and invested it with the distinctive ideological power to break with conformist societal conventions and norms. He draws attention to the distinction between the language of society and that of the creative writer: "Society, by virtue of its very nature, must generalize and systematize language within a structure of acceptable common denominators: the writer must hone blunted words anew, rekindle the fire of `original inspiration' in them, rediscover original meanings or discover new ones, departing in every respect from the well-known and well-trodden syntactical or semantic paths, exploring whatever territory remains on either side" (Mapmakers 118). Rosemary Jolly comments: "Implicit within Brink's definitions of social and literary language is the notion that literary discourse constitutes some sort of critique of the conventions that afford social language its meaning whether that critique is overt or implied. For Brink this characteristic of literary discourse--that it is critical of conventional systems of belief as they are reflected in the meaning of social discourse--is integral to the identification of literary discourse as art" (19). …

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