Thursday, February 19, 2015

A Great Tree has Fallen

The great South African author, André Brink, died two weeks ago as he flew back after receiving an honorary doctorate in Brussels.  

In my opinion, he was of the stature of Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee, two South African Nobel Laureates, although he did not receive that recognition himself.  He was also short-listed for the Man Booker Prie, which also evaded him.  He was 79 years old.

After graduating from Potchefstroom University, a very conservative institution with a strong Christian bent, Brink went to the Sorbonne, where he was exposed to an environment radically different from that in apartheid South Africa.  Of that experience, he wrote: “I was born on a bench in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, in the early spring of 1960.”

A young André Brink

He returned to South Africa and turned Afrikaans literature upside down, writing about segregation and sex.  He, Breyten Breytenbach, Ingrid Jonker,and other prominent writers began a movement, called the Sestigers, that forced Afrikaans literature into the modern era.  Needless to say, mainstream Afrikaners were incensed.

Sestiger Ingrid Jonker

Sestiger Breyten Breytenbach

Sestiger André Brink

When he returned to Paris in 1967, he witnessed the unrest that gripped France – awakening in him a strong political spirit.  His 1974 novel Kennis van die Aand (English title is Looking on Darkness) was the first Afrikaans language novel to be banned by the apartheid government.  He translated the book himself, and its international sales brought him instant recognition as a great writer.  In rapid success he produced An Instant in the Wind, Rumours of Rain, and A Dry White Season.  He was short-listed for the Man Booker for the first two of these, while A Dry White Season was made into a movie starring Marlon Brandon, Susan Sarandon, and Donald Sutherland.

He became an articulate and incessant critic of apartheid and was always outspoken about government positions that intruded on people’s freedoms.  He was as critical about the current government’s attempts to pass The Secrecy Act as he was about the apartheid government’s segregationist laws.

It is worth the time to visit YouTube to listen to what Brink said as he received his honorary doctorate just before he died.  “This is what matters:” he said, “to say ‘no’ in the face of the certitudes of power.”

Hear, hear!

It is also worthvisiting Brink's Facebook page - it contains many moving comments of his.

In addition to being a wonderful writer, Brink was also a fine teacher and an outstanding literary critic.  He collaborated with JM Coetzee to produce an anthology of South African writing - A Land Apart: A South African Reader (1986).

If you haven’t read any of Brink’s works, choose one of these: An Instant in the Wind, Rumours of Rain, or A Dry White Season.  You will not be disappointed.  That said, naming those does not diminish the quality of his other works.  It is just that those three seared my soul when I was a young man.

Rest in Peace, Dr. Brink.  I thank you for what you’ve done for us, what you've given us.

Stan - Thursday


  1. A great loss. Andre Brink was a friend of Norway and I met him during a literature festival a few years back. Whoever has met Andre Brink, do not forget it. A tall man, laconic and hushed, a man with a natural authority and a subtle sense of humor.

  2. Thanks, Stan! I learn so much here.

  3. Andre Brink was a great writer and perhaps underestimated. Thanks for the tribute, Stan. It is hard to imagine the courage that it took for a heartland Afrikaaner to turn his back on the conventional wisdom and the politics of the 'Volk'.

  4. I've read most of Coetzee, now I shall back up a letter. Thank you.

  5. Like the others here, I'm on my way to a bookstore to pick up Brink's work. I'd heard of him, but never read him, and I think it's high time I rectified that.