i have finally read an andre brink novel! hooray! and reading the afterword, it seems that this book contains characters, real people or imaginary, from his other books, which really just whets my appetite for more brink, because i have a bunch here, but without the “gotta read this or i will disappoint the netgalley folks” push, who knows how long i would have gone without enjoying him? and this brings my “books i have read about south africa” tally up to…three, along with Mafeking Road: and Other Stories and Time of the Butcherbird. so that’s another oversight to address in the new year.
this is a quasi-autobiographical, or at least ancestral-biographical, which i’m sure there is a better word for, novel about the brink family and their slaves, one of whom is named philida. it takes place in 1834, just before the slaves were emancipated in the cape colony, and details the convoluted nature of the baas-slave relationship, their interminglings, and the process of leaving behind a slave’s life, and finding selfhood in the aftermath.
philida narrates most of this book. she is a slave woman owned by the brink family, and she has two surviving (from four) children by frans, the son of her owner cornelis. frans has promised to give her her freedom and go and live with her and their children, but his family intervenes and tells him he must marry a woman of their choosing whose resources and power are the only way to save their farm. philida gets wind of this, and goes to file a complaint at the office of the slave protector. it is a very uncomfortable interview, and when frans is called to respond to her accusations, he betrays her once more.
philida realizes for the first time how untenable her situation is, and how limited her options.
What Frans say. That thing he say that really make me know for the first time what he is and what I am. I am a slave. He is not. And that’s all. Nothing else matter, not ever. A slave. That is not because of the beatings or the work, it is not being hungry or cold when the snow lie white on the earth, or to feel myself dying in the heat of the summer sun when I cannot lie down in the shadow of the Baas’s longhouse, it isn’t the pain or the tiredness or having to lie down when Frans—Baas Frans—want to naai me. It isn’t any of this that make me a slave. No. Being a slave, like I was today in that white office in Drostdy, with all the papers and the buzzing flies around me, mean always going back to the place they tell me to go back to. Not because I want to be there, but because they tell me to. I am never the one to decide where to go and when to go. It’s always they, it’s always somebody else. Never I.
…today I know for the first time ever that even this place, where I live, is no longer mine as I always thought. I no longer belong here. I belong nowhere. What happen to me will always be what others want to happen. I am a piece of knitting that is knitted by somebody else.
after philida’s public accusation and the perceived embarrassment, her presence at the brinks’ becomes uncomfortable for all parties, and she and her children are sold at auction. this is all taking place when the steps are being taken to emancipate the slaves, and there is so much instability resulting from these decisions, in terms of the slaveowner’s fears about the future of their farms, and the unwillingness to buy slaves that are going to become “useless” to their owners shortly. all is turmoil.
but in the midst of this turmoil, brink manages to write something that is both horrifying and also deeply funny. most of the horrifying stuff comes from cornelis, and his insufferable righteousness despite his immoral intentions and his own secret origins:
Frans told the Protector, a man called Lindenberg, about the two slave youths that had been with Philida and that, he said, was how the man recorded it. This is all that matters in the end: that it was recorded. One day in the future, when no one of us is still around, that is all the world will know, and all that needs to be known. We came to this land white, and white we shall be on the Day of Judgement, so help me God. If anybody is still in doubt, I always tell them: Just follow the coast up to the Sandveld, then you will see with your own eyes how we whored the whole West Coast white. God put us here with a purpose, and we keep very strictly to his Word. For ever and bloody ever, amen. Do we understand each other?
he is allowed a single moment of character-redemption, at the slave auction, but it is still easy to dislike him. trust me.
the humor is mostly in the shape of ouma nella, who is a free woman who acts as a mother-figure to philida. and she is astonishingly good. as a free woman, she does not have anything to fear from cornelis, but she is also a realist, and looks out for philida’s interests. philida herself is also very cheeky, and has a good sense of humor despite of, or because of, her situation, but ouma nella, who does not have to worry about her future, is a strong rock of a character you wish you had in your life, for tough love and advice.
frans…he is complicated. i don’t really want to go into his character much here, because i fear i would spoil, but that one left me all conflicted inside. mostly conflicted-angry, but also conflicted-sympathetic.
philida is a fantastic book that really clarifies the slavery situation in south africa. it is nowhere near as brutal as The Book of Night Women about the jamaican slave trade, but for a sheltered american like myself, it is really eye-opening to read about slavery outside of the american south, despite also making me feel quite ill.
You better watch out, say Labyn. For these four years and all the other years that still lie ahead. Remember, a man can only step as far as his legs are long. And they keeping our legs short. You forget one thing, I say. We can jump. And I’m not going to step carefully if i know I can jump. Remember, I wearing shoes now.