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On the Brink of Deja Vu: Rian Malan Reviews Philida by Andre Brink

PhilidaBy Rian Malan for the Sunday Times:

André Brink’s new book is dubious in more ways than one, writes Rian Malan

I suppose this should begin with an apology. A book review should not, strictly speaking, feature idle gossip about its author or the storm that attended its genesis. On the other hand, the story behind the story of André Brink’s Philida is irresistible, so let’s indulge ourselves.

Once upon a time there was a dashing Afrikaans novelist named Jan Rabie, whose great pleasures in life (according to his friend MC Botha) were red wine, lonely beaches and hanging out with Afrikaans-speaking “Cape coloured” people.

In old age, Jan and his wife, painter Marjorie Wallace, decided to set up a bursary to aid “deserving” Afrikaans writers. The Rabies’ will did not specifically state that their money should go to a previously disadvantaged person. On the other hand, says Botha, it was clearly not intended for a rich white man who’d already published some 50 books and achieved world fame.

When it was announced (in 2009) that the inaugural Rabie grant of R350000 had been awarded to Brink, a storm broke out in the Afrikaans press. “How could you even apply for it?” asked Botha. “Give it back!” declared veteran journalist Zelda Jongbloed. “Never again,” said poet Joan Hambidge, who faulted jurors for failing to inspect Brink’s bank statements.

In reply, Brink cast himself as a victim of jealousy and racism, stating that he’d won the Rabie bursary because he submitted the best proposal. Here he was on stronger ground.

As Brink tells it, he stumbled on the story of Philida while visiting pals on a Franschhoek wine estate that once belonged to a branch of his own family. These pals had discovered a skeleton in the Brink family closet – a slave girl named Philida who (in 1832) disgraced the Brinks by disclosing to the Slave Protector that her owner’s eldest son had begat four children by her.

Philida said she’d been promised freedom in return for sexual favours, but the Brinks had reneged on their word and were instead planning to sell her and her children down the proverbial river.

For Brink, this was almost too good to be true – a real-life saga of forbidden love and betrayal, involving his own flesh and blood and playing out in an arena that has always fascinated him: the Afrikaner-Gothic world of Cape Dutch homesteads, vineyards and slaves. A sketch won him the Rabie bursary, and now we have the novel, a ripping yarn about a mistreated slave who turns the tables on her owners and tormentors.

At the outset, Philida is on her knees in the bushes, servicing kleinbaas Francois, who loves her but is too weak to stand up to his domineering father, the patriarch Cornelis. Oubaas Cornelis wants Francois to marry a rich white girl whose dowry might save the Brinks from bankruptcy.

Philida refuses to accept this outcome and reports Francois to the authorities. Cornelis Brink’s first inclination is to murder her. When that turns out to be tricky, he decides to flog and rape her instead, only to be stricken by impotence at the critical moment.

This is but the first of many setbacks for the arrogant patriarch, who eventually winds up on his knees, begging Philida for forgiveness. Too late, alas; she has converted to Islam and become a woman of steel, determined to stand up to the evil whites who populate this novel, committing atrocities on every third page. “He caught her and cut off her feet.” “They beat him senseless and cut off his balls.” “Her little boy died after her baas beat him for dropping a basket of figs.” And so on.

All this is of course evocative of several earlier Brink novels, particularly Chain of Voices, his 1982 account of a slave rebellion in the Bokkeveld. At the time, such writing was daring (and deeply disturbing to those of us whose ancestors were complicit in the crime of slavery). Thirty years later, it just seems manipulative and opportunistic.

But fear not, there are compensations, including some amusing caricatures of those who criticised Brink for glomming the Rabie money. The fat pig in Cornelis Brink’s farmyard is intended to be Joan Hambidge, for instance, with Zelda Jongbloed featuring as the mad hermaphroditic hen. We know this because Brink spells it out in the Afrikaans edition.

If this seems a bit silly … frankly, it is. Also silly is Brink’s assertion that almost everything in Philida is based on “historical fact”. Thirty years ago, I would not have dared to argue. Now, I wonder. It is true that the life of a slave in the old Cape Colony was unbearable. But the life of a lowly white sailor or soldier was not exactly pleasant.

White servants of the Compagnie were also flogged for the slightest infraction, tortured in the course of criminal investigations and cruelly executed if found guilty. Also, the food was kak, the work relentless and the pay negligible. Whenever a homeward-bound fleet appeared in Table Bay, desperate white knegte would swarm up the anchor chains, crying, “For pity’s sake, take us with you!” Like slaves, they would be returned to their masters and whipped for attempted desertion.

My source in this regard is Karel Schoeman’s Armosyn van die Kaap, a monumental history that consumed years of its author’s life but earned almost nothing, because it was written in an obscure language spoken only in a tiny corner of Africa.

I suspect Armosyn was precisely the sort of Afrikaans writing Jan and Marjorie Rabie were hoping to encourage. Philida is a good read, but it is, in comparison, just an entertainment.

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Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    September 10th, 2012 @17:21 #

    Reminds me, however, to recommend Marcus Rediker's 'The Slave Ship: A Human History' re relationships between slaves and sailors on slave ships. An ugly story, redeemed only by the instances of humanity shown by slaves (once in the West Indies) towards their ex-tormentors who had, themselves, been cast off when they had served their purpose.


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