Philida by Andre Brink (Vintage - August, 2012)
Philida, I had heard, was a “difficult” read. Readers must confront shifts in point of view, a dominant first person account from Philida herself, her language held tightly in the rhythms of her vernacular, not to mention the subject matter, with graphic accounts of the severe punitive and sexual violence that nineteenth century Cape slaves endured.
The subject matter itself is hugely challenging and so it should be. It would be remiss of any writer to write a book about slaves and simply gloss over the part that squeamish readers might find upsetting. If you don’t like it, go and read Jojo Moyes.
The first person narrative that switches from Philida to her owner’s son and lover, Frans and then to his father Cornelius and around again, augments the tradition of white South Africans at the confessional. I did not find the change in point of view troubling. The transitions were, for the most part, seamless and are not only appropriate to the narrative, but organic to a South African novel of this sort.
A first person narrative voice implies confession and for white South Africans there is much to repent. So much so that the country created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission where the nation was allowed to confess their sins under Apartheid to Archbishop Tutu. Even a secularist could not argue that the nation was on Dr Freud’s couch, and so a “talking cure” for guilty South Africans comes naturally. So embedded is this compulsion that white South African novelists often seem to write themselves into the story in semi-autobiographical ways. The most obvious examples are JM Coetzee in The Life and Times of Michael K, in Disgrace and others. Riaan Malan’s confessional My Traitor’s Heart is part fiction, part confession about his family’s involvement in the Apartheid government, and now of course Philida follows along in this tradition, it being a fictional account of horrific events that unfolded on Brink’s ancestors' farm where slaves were kept.
Philida herself is an astonishingly well-drawn character. Her verve and bravery (and that is too light a word by far) in the most extreme circumstances are countered with a practical determination to not only survive but do better. She quite literally demands it. She is clever, creative (knitting, wool, the different stitches, are all part of her natural language) and at times cunning too. Then, to counter any complacency in the reader that Philida is a strong and able woman, Brink takes us back to her childlike adoration of her little cat which she rescues from drowning. It is deftly done and I found myself charmed from her first few words.
There are beautiful observations from Philida too. She describes a colonial official as a piece of knitting that looks as if he had been badly cast-off the needles when whoever was knitting him was done.
Her vernacular, which some readers have found to be a challenge, is, for me, pitch perfect. The Cape verbal specificity is not only in the words themselves, which Brink largely omits, but in their cadence. Her voice walks an exquisite tight rope between its lyric and percussive elements, and it is captivating.
Brink is careful to offer an insight into the Afrikaner slave owners dilemma too. Increasingly they themselves are becoming the chattels of British Colonial law and are finding their autonomy curtailed in terms of legislation and its financial implications. Brink does not labour the point but he does leave us with at least some understanding of the fear and impotence (another appropriately recurring theme for the male slave owners) that takes hold of a ruling class as they feel their position wane.
As a long term reader and admirer of Brink’s work I did have a sense of deja vu here. This is very well trodden territory and begs the question as to when territory becomes one-trick-pony. Part of the reason for repetition of subject is I am sure less about writerly compulsion to exorcize ghosts and more to do with publishers. The international publishing establishments endorsement of it, suggest that outsiders looking to South African for literature are still looking for more of the same. The grand Apartheid narrative still infuses the South African literary brand. Depressingly, nearly 20 years after the fall of Apartheid, there is still no new way of writing about South Africa that international readers understand. And not for lack of trying by South African writers. Publishers and, depressingly, other writers are all still demanding a grand political/social narrative from the country, rehashed in some charming new tale. Zakes Mda, the godfather of a new generation of young black writers in South Africa was famously told off by Norman Rush in the New York Review of Books for failing to address AIDS in South Africa in his novel, Ways of Dying, as if South African writers are not allowed to write about anything other than good old South African social, political issues. Mda’s books are difficult and have been broadly described as an African magic realism. He creates strange other worlds laden with the images and language of the fable and folklore of traditional Africa. Rush took this to be a testament to Mda’s retrogressive, conservative take on progress, commerce and modernity. (Mda has pointed out that no one ever took JM Coetzee to task for not including at least two AIDS related deaths in each of his novels.)
So far, there is no way of writing about South Africa for a South African writer that will please publishers and literary critics. Genre writers such as Deon Meyer are making a name for themselves internationally but as far as literary fiction goes, the options are limited. Of the exciting new writers, who began publishing around the turn of the most recent century; Duiker and Mpe have both passed way, leaving Mhlongo, author of Dog Eat Dog (and others) to carry the moniker of “voice of a generation.”
However, for all this, Brink has, with Philida, moved the argument along. Despite this well-trodden path in terms of subject matter and a sense of “here we go again,” he does ask an important and milieu appropriate question through the daily struggles of this astonishing slave girl: At what price freedom? How much freedom is “enough” and can we ever, truly, be free? His answer seems to be, that for now at least, freedom is a relative value.