13 Jul 2013

André Brink and The Rights of Desire

The Rights of Desire is the first book that I have read by the South-African author, André Brink. I have been reading it, off and on, for some weeks now, interspersed with other readings, and have just finished it in a French translation.



Given the contents of this book, I would say that the title seems just a little curious, or rather slightly off the mark, despite the fact that desire (in this case of an older man for a young woman) is very much a part, and indeed one of the main themes of the book. Yet I am not sure that this theme is the central one. The narrator, himself a writer now aged over 60 and living alone, becomes obssessed with a young and slightly unpredictable woman for whom he provides a room in his large and now empty house (his wife is dead and his sons are grown-up and living elsewhere). And much of what happens to him afterwards results more or less from this obsession. But not only, as the theme of contemporary violence in South Africa is perhaps even more central to the way the book develops. My nit-picking with the title is perhaps more about the term "rights". Desire can provide no "rights" over the person desired, and this is clearly born out in the book. So why did Brink choose this title, rather than, say, "The results of desire" or "The powers of desire"? Or indeed something completely different. We will perhaps never know.







Unlike his compatriot Coetzee, about whom I wrote recently on this blog in connection with his published correspondence with Paul Auster, Brink has remained in South Africa where he lives and teaches in Capetown, and has also retained strong links with his mother tongue, Afrikaans. Indeed Brink, along with other authors like Breytenbach, worked within this language to speak out against Apartheid, and one of his novels (Looking into Darkness) was the first to be banned by the Afrikaaner government during this period.

Brink speaks very clearly about the violence that is sadly so much a part of contemporary South African life. Between the gated and guarded houses in Johannisburg and its rampant criminality to the apparently more tranquil Capetown, he makes it clear that there is just as much violence in and around Capetown. Robbery, rape and murder seem to walk the streets and parks, but Brink is not out here for sensationalism: he is an honest observer and weaves these into his story as facts of life that are linked, in all probability, to the dramatic history of the country and to the huge economic disparities that he also mentions as shocking. Personal or not (and surely all novels contain a complex mixture of the personal and the invented), the story he recounts in The Rights of Desire seems to draw on much of his own experience, as a writer, teacher and observer. His own close family has been victim to extreme forms of violence. Corruption among civil servants and incapacity (and/or complicity) of the police are also denounced, and so Brink, having totally opposed Apertheid, remains equally lucid as to the downside of contemporary South Africa, whilst seeming, through his main character, still very reluctant to leave, "because he is here".

Other important characters are a ghost (who is so revealing of the horrific violence and injustices of the past) and Magrieta, the narrator's imposing and incredibly wise housekeeper who has suffered more than her fair share of violence too, but who remains steadfast and philosophical until (almost) the end of the book.

On the desire aspect of title, the ageing narrator's desire for the younger woman, Tessa, is described both openly and subtly. She is young (about 30), free and beautiful, but also lost and given to mythomania. Ruben, the retired teacher and writer, is refined and complexed, but is also able, in his lucid moments, to face the facts of the situation, without being at any time able to fully understand the object of his love. His behaviour towards Tessa oscillates to the rhythm of the ambiguity of the situation: he acts at times like a father towards her, at others like a jealous and rejected lover.They also have a friendship, of sorts, depite the destruction that she causes in his life. In a way, the best title might have been "The destructions of desire".   

I may well read more of Brink's work


Read on....