Magazine article The Spectator

Sins of the Fathers

Magazine article The Spectator

Sins of the Fathers

Article excerpt

Philida by Andre Brink Harvill Secker, £14.99, pp. 310, ISBN 9781846557040 The location of Philida is a Cape farm which used to be named Zandvliet and is now the celebrated vineyard Solms Delta, owned jointly by Richard Astor and the eminent neuropsychologist Mark Solms. It was Solms who brought to Andre Brink the story on which the veteran South African novelist bases his 21st work of fiction, which has been longlisted for the Man Booker prize.

The novel's eponymous heroine is based on a real-life slave who in 1824-32 worked as a knitting-girl at Zandvliet, which then belonged to collateral ancestors of the author. Brink has delved in Solms Delta's private museum, conned slave registration rolls and mortgage bonds, and perused tomes about child bondage, prison discipline and water resources, to create his story of miscegenation and sexual oppression.

Francois Brink, the sensitive, browbeaten son of the owner of Zandvliet and its slaves, loves Philida, by whom he has fathered four children, but is ordered by his brutish father to marry a white woman from Cape Town whose money may bolster the Brinks' failing fortunes. After Philida lodges a legal complaint against Francois, who has promised to set her free, his father sells her to owners in a more violent district.

The Brinks nevertheless go bankrupt, while on the farm of her new owners Philida befriends a Muslim slave called Labyn, who has been castrated by the white gangrapists responsible for his wife's death. The novel closes with the promise of liberating self-knowledge for Philida as she and Labyn endure a portentously symbolic trek to freedom.

The foremost narrator of these events is Philida, although the voices of the Brinks and others recount some chapters. Prose renditions of a woman slave's patois monologues, often spoken in the present tense but with the verbs wrong ('Here come shit'), and using words like 'poephol' (the orifice from which shit emerges), can seem artful and ultimately prove grating. …

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