Obituaries: Afrikaans novelist Andre Brink
Afrikaans novelist specialising in the horror of Apartheid who was best known for 'A Dry White Season'
Andre Brink, who has died aged 79, 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.
It was for his 1979 novel A Dry White Season, which was made into a film starring Marlon Brando and Donald Sutherland, that he was best known. The story of an Afrikaans teacher politicised by the savage police beating of his black gardener's son, the novel explored both the horror of Apartheid and the trouble incurred by anyone who dared to cross the colour lines.
Brink was a high-profile ANC sympathiser 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 characterised by their unequivocal stance towards racial injustice.
Described as a man of "great courage and integrity" by fellow novelist JM Coetzee, Brink considered that he had no choice. 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". 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, wider-ranging South African literature. He was, however, forever "drawn to the underdog" and continued to write novels such as Imaginings of Sand (1996), which explored the realm of women - black and white - whose existence lay "hidden below the master narratives of male histories".
Andre 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."
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 Andre 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, Andre 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, where he was inspired by the existentialists.
He also enjoyed "the sense of liberation . . . when I realised I needn't go to church on Sunday morning if I didn't want to" and later described himself as being "born on a bench in the Luxembourg Gardens".
On returning home Brink wove his European experience into his work. Price for Life (1961) discarded Afrikaner naturalism - "droughts and locusts and poor whites" - in favour of the more experimental structure that increasingly distinguished South African literature from the other Anglophone ex-colonies.
In the same year he accepted a lectureship at Rhodes University, where he became a Professor of African and Dutch literature, leaving only in 1991 to join the English faculty at the University of Cape Town.
Described by his head of department, the poet Stephen Watson, as "one of the best teachers I have ever seen . . . at times quite mesmerising", throughout his academic career Brink published literary and political criticism in English and Afrikaans alongside his fiction.
He was a frequent contributor to Afrikaans newspapers, and his collected essays include Writing in a State of Siege (1983); A Land Apart (1986), co-edited with Coetzee; Reinventing a Continent (1996); and The Novel: Language and Narrative from Cervantes to Calvino (1997). He also found time to edit the radical literary and counter-cultural magazine Sestigers ('Sixties-ers').
Brink's literary reputation rested on his work as a novelist, however. He achieved a measure of infamy in South Africa with Looking on Darkness (1973), in which a black actor awaits execution for the murder of his white lover: it became the first book to be banned under the National Party's censorship laws. A love story enacted in the shadow of Apartheid, the novel's sensitive evocation of place and character was deemed insufficient to offset its incendiary plot.
Although he retained his lectureship, Brink found himself under constant surveillance at home and abroad - a constraint that he found "boring and very exhausting". He was honest enough to admit that censorship was "slightly flattering, and Afrikaner writers never ran the same risks as black writers, who were under far greater threat".
An Instant in the Wind (1976) describes the turn-of-the-Century relationship between an educated white woman and a black slave, stranded in the interior, who become romantically involved as they struggle towards black civilisation. On account of Brink's ban, the novel was published "privately", for subscribers only, but it was nevertheless nominated for the Booker Prize. His next work, Rumours of Rain (1978), which shone a light on the humanity of domestic servants overlooked by white society, was similarly nominated.
For A Dry White Season, Brink's publishers had to resurrect the subscription lists and indulge in clandestine meetings and cloak-and-dagger communication. The initial ban was lifted after several months and it was then published in the normal way.
The 1980s proved an expansive decade. Although he had been denounced as "a subversive influence" and "an enemy of the volk", Brink was able to publish essays, criticism and book reviews in the mainstream Afrikaner press relatively unimpeded.
He also wrote several plays; translated into Afrikaans classics ranging from the work of Shakespeare and Cervantes to the Mary Poppins series into Afrikaans; and published the novels A Chain of Voices (1982), States of Emergency (1988) and An Act of Terror (1991). In recognition of his work he won the Prix Medicis Etranger, the 1981 Martin Luther King Memorial Prize and was appointed a Chevalier of the Legion d'honneur.
Brink was not content to confine himself to the world of letters. In 1987, he travelled with Frederik van Syl Slabbert, the former leader of the opposition, to Dakar to meet the exiled ANC leadership. Chosen by Slabbert because "he opposed [Apartheid] when there was a real personal risk involved", Brink was loudly condemned, even by liberal Afrikaners, as a misguided idealist. Consequently he felt slightly aggrieved when the ANC won power in 1994 and appointed former National Party executives - and none of the Dakar delegation - to ambassadorial and cabinet posts.
The ascension of the ANC also rendered his main theme redundant. Brink admitted that, in writing about Apartheid, novelists had the opportunity "of being engaged in something larger than ourselves". But despite coming to "the end of a way of life and looking at life", the author and critic took a step back and saw the scope for "more variety . . . a lighter touch, a move away from the Manichean opposites imposed by any experience of dire oppression".
This realisation that priorities had changed led to Imaginings of Sand (1996) and Devil's Valley (1998), in which he created an African version of magical realism. Both novels involve elders telling stories and myths inspired by memories of Brink's childhood, when he had sat transfixed by the fireside yarns of elderly Boers or his black nanny.
His new theme was the upheaval of a society striving to come to terms with its past. In The Rights of Desire (2000) a widower becomes obsessed with his young lodger exactly as one of the house's previous occupants had become obsessed with a slave whose ghost haunted its corridors. It is written in Afrikaans and English, a parallelism elegantly reflected in its plot.
The Other Side of Silence (2002) describes the brutal transportation of Hanna from Europe to southern Africa in the early part of the 20th Century; however, her journey is so oppressive that even her vengeance is barely cathartic.
Although his writing still wrestled with the vernacular of oppression, Brink welcomed the new literary focus. "You can be judged on the quality of your writing and no longer on who you support or attack," he observed as he received ecstatic reviews for Before I Forget (2004). His subsequent books included Praying Mantis (2005) and Philida (2012). In 2009 he published an autobiography, A Fork in the Road.
Andre Brink was married six times, and is survived by his sixth wife, Karina Magdalena Szczurek, and by three sons and a daughter. He died on February 2.