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Chain of Voices

By Geoff Wisner

Chain of Voices book coverAlthough André Brink is one of South Africa’s leading Afrikaans-language writers, and although his work has appeared in English, at least one article has questioned whether we can categorize those works as African literature in translation.

By his own admission Brink remains, in essence, an Afrikaner, but his recent novels are not “translated.” Brink maintains that he produces the novels in both languages more or less simultaneously, starting out in Afrikaans, but completing the first “final” draft in English. However, Brink is far more idiomatic and comfortable in Afrikaans, and his English versions sometimes suffer from a certain rigidity of style.

Nonetheless, Brink’s novels have considerable power and offer valuable insight into the history and thinking of what has been called South Africa’s biggest white tribe.

A Chain of Voices is set in the early 19th century. It takes places on a South African farm as it prepares for the harvest. This is a Bible-haunted book, and in it the threshing floor takes on the same spirit of righteous violence that pervades the books of the prophets. The words of Isaiah (41:15) might have made a good epigraph: “Behold, I will make thee a new sharp threshing instrument having teeth: thou shalt thresh the mountains, and beat them small, and shalt make the hills as chaff.”

One of the novel’s many ironies is that although the white slaveholders quote from the Bible, it is the slaves whose lives show the true biblical spirit. When Galant, who will become the leader of an uprising, is strung up by his hands and whipped by Nicolaas, his white master and childhood friend, the scene resembles a crucifixion. Pamela, a slave woman, washes Nicolaas’ feet, the act by which Jesus demonstrated his humility. And Piet, the white patriarch whose pronouncements have the cadence of the King James Bible but none of the compassion, is struck down by apoplexy in the fields as if by the hand of God.

A Chain of Voices begins with a legal document in which the revolt of Galant and his followers is set out in dry detail. Before any of the book’s characters have been properly introduced to us, we know what will happen: who will live and who will die. Yet Brink is able to keep the reader’s interest gripped throughout this long novel by breathing life into the dead letter of the Act of Accusation.

His method — along with some of his rhetorical flourishes – is borrowed from Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. The characters take turns in delivering monologues. Everything that happens, all events and motivations and descriptions are filtered through a dozen or more different points of view. Sometimes the same small event — as when one woman chops her hair short — is interpreted in several different plausible but contradictory ways by several different characters. It is left to the reader to make the final judgments.

Despite the book’s many voices, the conflict of Galant and Nicolaas early becomes the pivot. Raised almost as brothers — it is possible they are half-brothers, both sons of Piet from the old man’s randy youth — their closeness evaporates as the two boys grow up and into their roles of master and slave. The strain this causes is only heightened by the fact that Nicolaas is a sensitive, enlightened man, whose pain at the rupture is great. His attempts to show humanity to Galant, to preserve some of their childhood intimacy, only succeed in breaking down the barrier between their two conditions and goading the slave to disobedience and eventual revolt. And because Nicolaas is no saint — he has inherited his father’s quick temper and desire for slave women — the results are disastrous.

A Chain of Voices is packed with the most lurid and familiar elements of some novels of the American South: madness, deformity, rape, bestiality, miscegenation, escapes and search parties, the smell of blood and gunpowder — and beatings, lots of beatings. Men, women, children and even horses are beaten frequently and vigorously.

But what gives the book its relentless integrity is the author’s obvious care in making his characters live and move and have their being on the printed page. The stormy night in which Nicolaas and Galant take refuge in a mountain cave, Nicolaas pathetically trying to win back Galant’s trust, is as feelingly drawn as any of the scenes of lust and bloodshed.

Published Oct 15, 2009   Copyright 2009 Geoff Wisner

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