Man and writer

2009-04-28 00:00

In the letter he addresses to his wife, Karina, in the final section of his memoir, André Brink, claims that he has “persistently refused … to write an autobiography” always having “felt uncomfortable with the artificiality and self-centredness of such a project.” Readers of A Fork in the Road will be pleased that he has overcome his qualms. While the work is at times — perhaps inescapably — self-indulgent, it is essentially an absorbing account of the influences and experiences that have shaped the man and his writing.

While in his youth Brink accepted unquestioningly the political and social perspectives of his parents, his thinking about South Africa was challenged during a sojourn in Paris (1959-61) when — among other things — he was deeply affected by the news of Sharpeville. A subsequent sabbatical in the same city, during which he witnessed the student riots of May 1968, highlighted his sense of being out of his own context and crystallised his commitment both to South Africa and to writing, the only way in which he might tackle the injustices of apartheid. Notable publications followed, not least of which was A Dry White Season, Brink’s account of arrest and torture, begun shortly before the actual arrest and torture of Steve Biko in 1977. While initially unable to proceed with his fiction in the face of such fact, Brink finally realised that writing the book was “not an obscenity, or an irrelevance, but an imperative.”

The writing imperative inevitably brought with it, in the seventies and eighties, bannings, surveillance and the ransacking of his home by security police.

While Brink reflects on his early fascination with language itself and his evolution as a writer of conscience, he also speaks of his love of theatre, music, art and travel; of the many writers whom he knows and whose work he admires; of the many significant relationships he has had, perhaps most notably with the troubled poet, Ingrid Jonker, who drowned herself off Three Anchor Bay in 1965 and whose poem, The Child, Nelson Mandela chose to read at the first parliamentary session following his inauguration as president. Brink speaks, too, of his experiences as part of delegations — between 1987 and 1989 — to visit the ANC in exile; and of his encounters with remarkable human beings, whose ranks include

Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

Brink writes movingly of the heady early nineties, filled as they were with promise. But at the end of his memoir he expresses his deep disappointment in, and disillusionment with, the ANC in power and determines not to be silent, since words have weight and writers, responsibility.

If writing has been one’s life, one is unlikely to stop wielding words until the very end of the road.

Moira Lovell

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