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More Apartheid Literature… Yay!

by Kavish Chetty / 29.07.2010

Andre Brink is a full seventy-five years old, and his writing is as sex obsessed as a boarding-school adolescent. Whether this is vicarious fantasy or residue of wild days past is immaterial; his male characters in Other Lives think about sex, dream about sex, gaze at women and psychically drool over their measurements or otherwise just plain fuck. And in-between, they have little existential crises: you know, so the book isn’t just a compendium of spilled geriatric lusting.

Other Lives is a “novel in three parts” much like the front cover suggests: a novel in three gradations. The first is the best, the second is gimmicky and the third is strangely passionless. All three sections are written dreamily and are (do I have to use this word?) “Kafkaesque”. All three concern identity crises, wherein male protagonists wake up to discover their lives have metamorphosed.

The conceit of the second story is caked through with so much cliché it might as well have been thought up by a first-year student of the humanities. In it, a white guy named Steve wakes up and realises he’s turned black – oh shit! – and now suddenly, he’s got to navigate all the grim realities that come with being (another word the academics love) “the other”. It’s a subject handled well enough by an accomplished author to verge on the ludicrous without ever quite taking the plunge. That is, if you decide to pardon shameless passages like this: “How can I even tell who and what I am, right here, right now? Am I a white man in black skin? Or a black man? What makes a black man ‘different’? Or is there no real difference? Does it depend on who you ‘are’ or purely on the way others see you? Am I being determined from the outside (my image in the mirror), or am I black in and of myself? Or is all of this merely part of the hallucinations of this time and this country?”
All perfectly legitimate questions of course, if your head is quite firmly lodged in your sphincter, but why do they need be phrased so bluntly?

I’m perhaps being a little too harsh on Brink, because the truth is, while his writing style is quite sedate, it’s captivating enough to never make these little obvious racial ploys anything close to nauseating. In a lesser writer’s hands they’d have crumbled; but with his grasp for beautifully lean language and his eye for domestic drama, they stay entertaining through to the end.

Thankfully, the first and second stories are not quite as juvenile in plot as the above, but they still carry around a whiff of anything-goes fantasy: dreamy narration (is this dream or reality we’re reading?) of men discovering submerged aspects of their own lives as well as the country’s. It all culminates in a climactic episode, shared by all three stories, in which a group of black men with automatic firearms hold up a classy restaurant and bring out all the latent racism of the largely paleface clientele. It’s all gripping writing, the question you need to ask yourself is, are you willing to stomach more racial drama? It’s one thing to have graduated from apartheid literature, but if you move into racial drama you’re just playing the same game by another name.

If there’s one thing this country needs, it’s more apartheid literature. Yeah, right.

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