Afrikaans author André Brink, 1935-2015: Remembering a conversation long ago in London

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Not what he looked like then. (Photo: Seamus Kearney)

André Brink, the Afrikaans author banned during the apartheid era, died Friday, February 6, after he became fatally ill during a flight from Amsterdam to his native South Africa. He had just received an honorary doctorate in Belgium.

I interviewed him in London, way back in the late 1970s, when I was working on Fleet Street. He was already an an awarded and acclaimed author, and already censored in South Africa. He was rather good-looking in a way I can’t find in any of the photos of him. Not craggy, as he was to become, nor with the bushy mop of hair he would acquire in the 80s. He was rather a “square” –  clean cut, professional, in a business suit. But his stories about being a banned writer were anything but square. He was continually watched by the security police, his phone tapped, and his mail intercepted and occasionally stolen. My cover story on him may no longer exist anywhere, except perhaps in one of the boxes in the garage. I think his book Rumours of Rain had just come out – or perhaps he had just published his Looking on Darkness in English.

According to the New York Times, “Mr. Brink’s work was often cited alongside that of Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee as an exemplar of South Africa’s ability to transform the experience of harsh racial politics into literature with a global reach.”

From The Guardian:

He was born in 1935 in Vrede, a small town in the Free State and became famous for using Afrikaans to speak against apartheid. His novel Looking on Darkness, was banned by the apartheid government in 1974. His other works include Devil’s Valley, Before I Forget and Praying Mantis. The books An Instant in the Wind and Rumours of Rain were both shortlisted for the Booker prize.

After circulation of copies of Rumours of Rain was held up for six months by the South African authorities in 1978, Brink reverted to private distribution for A Dry White Season.

darkness

Hard work.

“We had a subscription list of those who had bought the earlier books,” he said the following year. “We sold about 4,000 copies that way.” After several months the censors gave approval to the book, also lifting a ban on Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter, and it was released through formal publication channels.

Ten years later, Brando left retirement on Tahiti to take a small part in the film of A Dry White Season, which starred Donald Sutherland, Zakes Mokae and Susan Sarandon, and was banned in South Africa.

In 2012, Brink was again long-listed for the Man Booker prize for his slavery novel Philida.

His 1974 novel was the first book written in Afrikaans to be banned – so he translated it into English, thus Looking on Darkness launched his international reputation. And here’s the part of our conversation I do remember: I asked him what it was like to translate his own books into English. He said it was difficult, because Afrikaans was a young language and English a comparatively old one. In Afrikaans, you could express love and patriotism – and the emotions would be fresh and vital and new. But when tried to do the same thing in English, the effect would be overblown, hackneyed, and a little foolish. It was the difference between Shakespeare and Austen, he said. Shakespeare could express himself in English and he was inventing the world anew. Everything was possible. By the time Austen wrote, all the effects are understated. She achieves her effects by pulling back. (One reason why Darcy never makes his proposal to Elizabeth in her pages – it’s only the failed marriage proposals that are described in blow-by-blow detail.)

I’ve been thinking about what he said ever since. (And if I find the article in the garage someday, I’ll let you know.)

 

 

 


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