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Andre Brink: Literary Giant, Social Activist and Teacher

Andre Brink, a PortraitBy Ben Williams, for the Sunday Times

André Philippus Brink, the celebrated novelist, academic and critic of apartheid, died on Friday on a flight back to South Africa from Belgium, where he had received an honorary doctorate. He was 79.

The author of more than 20 works of fiction, nearly all published in both English and Afrikaans, and many translated widely, Brink was born in Vrede, in the then Orange Free State, in 1935.

After a seminal period in Paris in his 20s, he rose through the ranks of world literature, often approaching but never quite achieving its summit. He was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize twice, and his name was regularly mentioned in conjunction with the Nobel prize for literature. Both accolades ultimately remained beyond reach.

Noted nearly as much for his work as a teacher and literary critic, Brink held the position of emeritus professor of English at the University of Cape Town, where he served as a mentor to several generations of writers, including international bestselling author Lauren Beukes.

“I found him incredibly generous, a good listener, and with interesting ideas about character,” said Beukes, who wrote her first novel, Moxyland, under his tutelage.

“He told me I should know my characters down to the last detail, down to the kind of birth they had. It was good advice.”

Brink’s own birth was relatively inauspicious: Vrede in 1935 was a classic South African dorp, as he wrote in his 2009 memoir, A Fork in the Road: “It was a town of wide dusty streets, the pavements overgrown with thorns (which we called, with good reason, duwweltjies, little devils) in a predicable grid around the tall spire of the Dutch Reformed Church.”

He matriculated in 1952 in Lydenburg, in the then Transvaal, and attended Potchefstroom University, where he received degrees in English, Afrikaans and Dutch literature.

From Potchefstroom, one might have expected Brink to subside into a distinguished but uneventful career in the prosaic territory of South African letters. But the Western world was on the cusp of the convulsions of the ’60s and Brink, who had secured a place at the Sorbonne in Paris, was pulled into them. He went twice to France that decade, returning home the first time to help found one of South Africa’s most important literary movements, and a second time to challenge the apartheid state with his art.

A Fork in the RoadKennis van die aandAn Instant in the WindRumours of RainA Dry White Season

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Stephen Johnson, one of Brink’s publishers and former CEO of both Random House and Penguin Books, is a member of Brink’s literary trust. “In Paris,” said Johnson, “Brink had first-hand exposure to the Existentialists, and an artistic ferment that helped him establish what was, in truth, an entirely new direction in Afrikaans fiction. When he came back to South Africa, he turned Afrikaans writing on its head. He experimented with form, wrote about sex, changed the literature forever.”

“I was born on a bench in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, in the early spring of 1960,” Brink wrote of his first visit to France. In South Africa, this rebirth translated into the Sestigers, a dissident literary movement that Brink founded with the Afrikaans poet and littérateur Breyten Breytenbach. Other notable writers in the movement, which brought modernity to Afrikaans writing and whipped the conservative Afrikaans mainstream into frenzies of outrage, included Etienne Leroux, Adam Small, Elsa Joubert and, most significantly of all for Brink, the poet Ingrid Jonker.

When Brink met Jonker, he was married to his first wife — the first of five — Estelle Naude, with whom he had a son. He describes the moment vividly in A Fork in the Road: “It was in the late afternoon of a blue and golden late summer‘s day, Thursday 18 April, 1963, that Ingrid walked into my ordered existence and turned it upside down.”

Brink and Jonker had an affair, and were involved in a love triangle with the novelist Jack Cope, who had founded the South African literary magazine Contrast. Jonker fell pregnant and was forced to have an abortion, which was illegal in South Africa at the time.

Her suicide in 1965 left Brink and the Sestigers bereft. The scene at the funeral, Brink wrote, was surreal: “Jack Cope tried to jump into the grave like a latter-day Laertes, and everything threatened to implode in low drama. What strikes me when I look at it today is the realisation that almost everyone in that photo, in fact, everyone involved with Ingrid in one way or another, is now dead.”

Brink returned to Paris in 1967, and witnessed the waves of unrest, general strikes and riots that besieged France in the summer of 1968. The period ushered him from literary radicalism to final political awakening: when he returned to South Africa, he would catapult from notoriety in Afrikaans circles to genuine literary fame around the world.

It began with the publication, in 1974, of his novel Kennis van die Aand, the first Afrikaans work of fiction banned by the Nationalist government.

“I fell in love with his writing through that novel,” said Johnson. “And its banning is what provoked him subsequently to write each new novel simultaneously in English and Afrikaans.” Kennis van die aand tells the story of a mixed-race love affair. After its banning, it was published abroad, to wide acclaim, as Looking on Darkness. It was the novel that launched Brink‘s international career.

This career burnt white-hot — and perhaps too brightly to be sustained beyond a decade. Brink was shortlisted for the Man Booker in rapid succession, for An Instant in the Wind (1976) and Rumours of Rain (1977), then achieved the summit of his fame with the publication in 1979 of A Dry White Season — a book that shot around the world like a bullet, and was made into a film starring Marlon Brando, Donald Sutherland and Susan Sarandon.

Tracking the transformation of a complacent white South African into a politically aware crusader against apartheid, the novel remains perennially in print, and is synonymous with Brink‘s name. “I read A Dry White Season in high school, in 1991,” said Beukes. “That was when I realised how evil and diabolical the state was.”

Brink published prolifically in the decades after A Dry White Season, but never again to such worldwide recognition. Outside South Africa he was lionised, especially in France, which laid almost equal claim to him as a writer. He was twice awarded the Legion of Honour by the French government, its highest decoration.

In South Africa, he won the CNA Literary Award twice, the Sunday Times Fiction Prize, the M-Net Literary Award and the University of Johannesburg Prize for Creative Writing.

In 2006, he received the Order of Ikhamanga in silver from the government, for his “excellent contribution to literature and fighting for a just and democratic society”.

“He‘s one of our literary heroes,” said Eloise Wessels, CEO of NB Publishers, whose imprint Human & Rousseau published Brink from the beginning. “One of the greatest Afrikaans authors and indeed one of the world’s great authors — and it feels like the end of an era.”

Shortly before he died, Brink travelled to Belgium to receive an honorary doctorate. The full ceremony, including his acceptance speech, was posted to YouTube. “His final speech, in French, moved me deeply,” said Wessels. “What he said about constantly looking for answers, and moving into the shadows to find them, and not knowing whether they were there, is really the way he lived his life.” Brink was in a wheelchair in Belgium, having suffered from back pain and general frailty.

In 2005, at his 70th birthday celebration at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town, the Afrikaans poet Antjie Krog read a tribute, concluding: “André P Brink speaks Afrikaans, English, French, Spanish, Dutch and German. But the language he speaks best is attentive grace. They don’t make men like that any more in the world.”

Similar tributes emphasising Brink’s humanity have poured in since his death.

“He was that rare thing, a happy writer,” said the novelist Imraan Coovadia, a colleague of Brink’s at UCT.

“He loved being a writer, but he could be it and also be a human being at the same time. He could be a father, a husband, and a citizen — and, to his credit, an unhappy citizen at that. He took his citizenship seriously. He was also a brilliant critic — his reading of Don Quixote was large, humane, original.”

“A great tree has fallen,” said author Sindiwe Magona, from Atlanta, US.

“He was a very good friend, a lifelong friend. When I started writing, immediately he was there for me. He was such a gentle, nurturing guide for other writers.”

Author Njabulo Ndebele said: “André Brink was a person for whom I had the greatest respect. Both for his intellect and his outstanding work as a novelist — and also for his independent and courageous stand on many issues that have challenged South Africa, both during apartheid and afterwards.

“One of the lasting impacts he made on me was an article he wrote on the 1995 Rugby World Cup. I attended a game of rugby for the first time in my life during that cup, and Brink’s article helped show me its essence.”

A tall man with a rugged build — Brink played lock in amateur rugby matches — he leaves four children, Anton, Gustav, Danie and Sonja.

The last years of his life saw something of a second rebirth for Brink, sparked by his final marriage, to Polish author Karina Szczurek.

As she wrote in the Festschrift that she arranged for her husband in 2010, Encounters with André Brink, “even if we work in our separate studies, each is aware of the other’s presence across the passage … I love the fearlessness with which he encounters every windmill in his path and the eagerness with which he approaches every new adventure.”

In A Fork in the Road, Brink wrote a letter to Szczurek that thanked her “for bringing a roundness and a happiness and a meaning” to his life. He published more than a half a dozen works of fiction since 2000.

Brink remained actively engaged in public affairs, standing publicly against the secrecy bill, and campaigning against violence after the murder of his nephew in 2008.

Brink’s speech in Belgium touched on the motivations that drove him as a writer, and may be considered his last public utterances: “This is what matters: to say ‘no’ in the face of the certitudes of power.”

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