The Political Limits of (Western) Humanism in Andre Brink's Early Fiction

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

The Political Limits of (Western) Humanism in Andre Brink's Early Fiction


Diala, Isidore, Studies in the Novel


Andre Brink's writing since the publication in 1974 in English of his first politically committed novel, Looking on Darkness, is usually read as an indictment of apartheid. Allan Findlay, writing in 1984, notes that "Brink has directed his writing firmly at the entrenched indifference of the white community to the difficulties and humiliations of the non-white, and against the brutality of those white instruments, the totalitarian police and judicial powers, given support despite their connivance in the unilateral furtherance of the interests of one ethnic group" (582). A. J. Hassall concurs: "Brink, like Alan Paton, Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee and Athol Fugard, has been preoccupied with the political and racial turmoil that followed the assumption of power by the Afrikaners in 1948 and the consequent implementation of the political philosophy of apartheid" ("Andre Brink" 182).

In reviews of specific novels, the pattern of interpretation has been basically the same. Jane Larkins Crain read Looking on Darkness as an "anatomy of racist South African Society" (45). Nick Totten reviewed An Instant in the Wind as a novel on "the immediate political mythos" of Brink's South Africa (29). In a particularly uncomplimentary review of the same novel, Raymond A. Sokolov argued that, while it was important for political reasons for Brink to be published, it was doubtful based on the evidence of An Instant in the Wind if Brink would be read for his art as a novelist (31). On the strength of Rumours ofRain, Lewis Nkosi included Brink in the coterie of distinguished English-speaking writers chronicling South Africa's national sins of commission and omission (1196). In their separate reviews of A Dry White Season, neither Blake Morrison nor Eric Redman concedes any artistic skills to Brink. Where Morrison finds Brink's redemption in the "urgency of what Brink has to report" (516), Redman pays him a similar back-handed compliment: "Although Brink has been touted in America as the obvious inheritor of Alan Paton's mantle, Paton speaks to the heart, evoking sorrows while Brink shouts to the conscience invoking anger" (50). At any rate, Brink's significance is usually sought in the urgency and political relevance of his work to his South African society.

Andre Brink's works are not allegories with only a tangential relevance to apartheid South Africa. He, instead, builds his revealing interrogation of being on the authority and urgency of specific historical moments and situations or their imaginative transformations. Brink's perception and documentation of the humiliations of blacks and colored people in apartheid South Africa are, indeed, truly insightful, passionate and varied. Although his basic propositions were almost always derived from the realities of life in South Africa, his grand equation and enveloping vision always transcended the overtly political. The artist in Brink was achingly aware that the writer who seeks relevance beyond his immediate society and beyond his generation must dig beyond the shallow surface of politics.

Brink affirms that the role of revealing the truth to people in a country dominated by official lies is of fundamental importance. Even then, he considers this merely journalistic. He contends that the uses of literature, deep and vital as they are, do not lie in the immediate resolutions of problems and anxieties of the experiential world: "it offers no protection against the rigours of the world: the heat or rain, wild animals, rivers in flood, an unremitting sun. If it is essential for survival, it is essential on another level of existence altogether" (Mapmakers 169). The measure of the writer's achievement, therefore, cannot be on any practical scale: his essential realm is that of the human spirit, and his aims are to change insights and sensibilities, to effect his subtler revolution within the hearts and minds of individuals. …

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