Afrikaans novelist told of apartheid
André Brink was the Afrikaans novelist, academic and anti-apartheid campaigner whose work was often banned in his native country. To escape this censorship, which reflected his political activism as much as his fiction, Brink switched to English and was twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Brink died on Feb. 2 at age 79. It was for his 1979 novel A Dry White Season, made into a film starring Marlon Brando and Donald Sutherland, that he was best known. The story of an Afrikaans schoolteacher politicized by the savage police beating of his black gardener’s son, the novel explores both the horror of apartheid and the trouble incurred by anyone who dared to cross the colour lines.
Brink was a high-profile African National Congress sympathizer when to be so was to be labelled a traitor to his race. Not only did he join a group of liberal Afrikaner intellectuals who met the exiled ANC leadership in Senegal, he also wrote a succession of novels characterized by their unequivocal stance toward racial injustice.
Fellow novelist J.M. Coetzee called him a man of “great courage and integrity.” Brink considered he had no choice but to be so. A South African novelist in the late 20th century had to write about apartheid “not because anybody expected you to ... but because you couldn’t not” do so. It was this moral commitment that led Nelson Mandela to recommend his work to all new arrivals at Robben Island.
After the collapse of apartheid, Brink helped to forge a new, widerranging South African literature. He was, however, forever “drawn to the underdog” and continued to write novels such as Imaginings of Sand (1996), which explores the realm of women — black and white — whose existence lies “hidden below the master narratives of male histories.”
André Phillipus Brink was born on May 29, 1935 in Vrede in the Orange Free State. His father was a magistrate, and as a child Andre would creep into the courthouse and listen to the cases he was trying: “It left an indelible mark,” he later said.
Though he was brought up in a strict Calvinist, Afrikaans household that worshipped rugby and refused to acknowledge spoken English, his parents loved Dickens and Shakespeare and encouraged him to read them in the original. When André was 12 his father typed up his son’s first novel and sent it to publishers. It was rejected for being “too erotic.”
Educated at Lydenburg High School, he went to Potchefstroom University, where he sold short stories to magazines and gained an MA in African Literature.
Having published three low-key novels in Afrikaans, he spent two years at the Sorbonne.