Before I Forget by Andre Brink: Depiction of Social Reality on The Different Facets of Race Relations

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Words: 4415 |

Pages: 10|

23 min read

Published: Mar 19, 2020

Words: 4415|Pages: 10|23 min read

Published: Mar 19, 2020

Even though skin color has been performing a decisive task in human relations for hundreds of years and still it has continually intended power relations, the concept of 'race' is comparatively new one. It is a primordial tendency of mankind to contemplate his own race or blood is of higher superiority than that of the fellow men. But, to recognize this conceit to genetic biological properties is a comparatively new concept. Michael Banton observes that, Race is a concept entrenched in a specific culture and a specific period of history which brings with it suggestions about how these metamorphoses are to be explained. It hints itself to use in a variety of contexts and gets explained into a whole style or idiom of clarification.

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The term 'race relations' deals with the relationship between the individuals of numerous races. Cambridge Dictionary provides a simple definition of race relations as 'the relationship between the members of different races. ' While Collins Dictionary defines the term as 'Race relations are the ways in which people of different races living together in the same community behave towards one another'. These race relations are intensely found in colonial societies and South Africa is the greatest case in point of such society. It has a variability of racial cultures. And as literature of Andre Brink is the representation of social reality, it allows him as an author to apply a remarkable stamp on soul of a particular person as well as of the whole community too.

The novelists of South African, white, black as well as colored, commented the discriminative practices in their country. In South Africa apartheid was existent for about four decades and was grounded on law until 1990. By this law, Black races were not permitted to mingling up with white races. Sexual relations, marriages amongst different races were considered as illegitimate. In fifties and sixties the major authors like Nadine Gordimer, Alan Paton, Dan Jacobson, J. M. Coetzee and Andre Brink portrayed this predicament provoked from realistic pictures of South Africa. Andre Brink is one of South Africa's greatest, flourishing and globally well-appreciated authors. His central thematic concern is the searching of interdependence of the Black and White races beyond the entrenched racial prejudices. The present thesis intends to emphasize representation of social reality on the different facets of race relations as articulated in Andre Brink's novels; one of them is Before I Forget.

The central character as well as the narrator of the novel is a seventy-eight year old South African writer, Chris Minnaar. He has fallen into that melancholy self-questioning state of remembrance, where all his former suppressions and relations with women have renovated for a long time. He has vanished whatever gift he had for writing. He encounters Rachel on New Year's Eve. She turns out to be the countless love of his life. His mother is more than hundred years old. So, his faith in that his prior purpose is to take care of her. But, he finds himself enthralled by Rachel and hence incapable to take proper care of his mother. He is pinched into a close acquaintance with Rachel's husband, George. Their friendship inescapably intimidates this uncertain trilateral relationship. Throughout this story, the story of his life is intertwined. The story bear a resemblance to of a lifetime love stories which comprise short affairs, prolonged affairs, a marriage, extremely fervent sexual encounters and gentle affections also. There are numerous types of women such as Daphne, the troubled dancer, Bonnie, his father's secretary etc. They are from approximately all races. These women delineate and inform his life. As it is clear that the present novel is Chris' final writing act of artistic life, one can comprehend that the recollection of these many loves is an effort to bring order to an otherwise disordered situation. As Godfrey Meintjes appropriately points out, “The narrator, Chris Minnaar … prompted by the death of his lover, addresses the deceased in a set of notes that take stock of his life and his loves; in the process, the private experiences recounted reflect broad tracts of South African history”.

In this new novel Before I Forget by André Brink there are times when you get the feeling he is sending up the emotional male novelist who attires his heart on his sleeve and is forever trying to get in touch with his feminine side. Before I Forget is stitch up from the memories of a 78-year-old writer, Chris Minaar, who measures out his life in love affairs. Minaar even comprises among his ex-lovers a couple of women from Brink's own novels. Minaar is Don Juan when he is not Peter Pan, remembering his serial liaisons across much of the 20th century. Tragic lovers from the great operas are a relentless reference point. He begins with his disturbed love for his mother, her memory vanishing but unable to forget her husband's infidelities. Minaar's last, unconsummated passion is for Rachel, a young, happily married sculptor who downgrades the old fellow to the roughness status of trusted friend. This is a post-apartheid novel, but also a post-potency novel. Minaar, the once-lusty satyr, has been abridged to babysitting Rachel when her photographer-husband George is away. Cape Town delivers a rather rigid backdrop for dialogues between Minaar, Rachel and George about love, art and Don Giovanni. For all the hotness of these discussions, the triad seems to live in a twilight world - as if the "real" things that once lit up their sky ended with the accession of Mandela. Rachel carves little, complex figures, and though Minaar claims on their physical force, you feel they serve much the same purpose as the complicated patterns Victorians sewed on samplers - an antidote to the rush and rudeness of the new world. They exist, these people, on the other side of the ecstasy that greeted the end of apartheid. An air of displacement hangs over them. And they fear about personal safety, because what has flowed into the space emptied by the "old" politics is accidental viciousness - a factor that will trigger tragedy.

Minaar's life has been a series of sexual happenstances with activists, followers, artists and spies. One by one, his lovers saunter down the catwalk of memory. Brink had a very good idea when he attached Minaar's sentimental life with influential moments of South African history, from the Sharpeville massacre to the Soweto uprising, to the emancipation of Mandela. It should work, but I don't think these unrestrained political events cast much light on the sexual adventures of a meditative elderly white novelist. There is an excellent moment when Rachel tells Minaar that he is a desperate romantic and an irredeemable sentimentalist. She is right and he knows it but pleads to differ. In some way it appears that the creation of Minaar is Brink's insubordinate affirmation that feeling matters, emotion is real, and if too much of it makes you look silly, too bad. That's courageous.

The outdated way of doing things in South Africa has been for public drama to demolish private feeling. South Africans, Minaar say he always been afraid of feeling, and embarrassed of intimacy. But perpetual dramatization of his own sentiments makes Minaar over-wrought. When he watches television pictures of the recounting Iraq war, he diagnoses the American incursion as a form of male stubbornness. An interesting thought turns out to be another way of emphasizing Minaar's sexual mortification at the hands of his father, and other aggressive males. To reach for apartheid to explain American belligerence is not convincing. Minaar buzzes with self-centeredness. His love affairs are pretty sodden; perchance because his women are really pegs upon which to suspend another chapter of the "real" story that he, like all writers from the age of apartheid, cannot forget: the frightening narrative of South African history. For Minaar the truly noteworthy other is not a person but a place. A matter of a life-time with the sort of partner, as he quizzically recognizes, no one in their right minds would fall for. In the end Brink's annoyed, indulgent attachment to South Africa is the strongest thing in this novel. Brink has mainly emphasized on intra-racial as well as inter-racial man-woman relations in his novel. These relations are established by portraying the hero's relations with various women. There are more than twenty women in his life. All these women play an essential part in his development as a true human being. We will deliberate here some of the representative of them such as his mother, nanny, wife, Rachel, Driekie, Daphne, Merlene, Bonneie, Venessa etc.

Chris Minnaar is in relationship with many women throughout his life. In the very opening of the novel, he confesses: ‘There are two moments in the relationship with every woman I have known in my life, which have brought me closer to understanding … what it means to be alive. ' (Brink 4) He is in relationship with not only black but also white and colored women too. He comes across a young married woman, Rachel. With the cumulative meetings, he secretly falls in love with her. After his wife's death, he is well escorted by Rachel. But after Rachel's death, Chris suffers from isolation. He can't cease himself from writing down memories of Rachel. While writing down these memories, he inescapably evokes other women in his life before Rachel. He thinks that his writing about Rachel attaches him with the memories of all those other persons especially women who have noticeable his life. While representing his relations with women, the novelist has made us cognizant of his relations with his mother, with his nanny, as well as with his wife also. He has strong relations with three of them. His mother is of plus hundred years old and she is in an ancient age home. He always goes to meet her, to take care of her. From his childhood, he used to portion his every experience with her. Even he asks for her guidance and assistance about girls. He chooses to get married with Helena as she suggests him security, expectedness and companionship. Before his marriage with Helena and after her death also he wanted these things as he admits, 'later in life I came to miss, dearly, the sense of a “home” to come back to'. Brink paints relation between a black nanny and her master's child by portraying relation between Chris and Aia. Due to his mother's extended sickness, Chris is taken up by a black Nannie. She is their old housekeeper. She recites rhymes and stories for him in her mother tongue, Xhosa. Chris used to say her old Aia. It is because of her, he develops conscious of black culture. It may be well thought-out that his relation with Nannie becomes the base for his impartial view towards other races.

As the novel continues, it unfolds Chris' humanistic view towards other races, his political consideration as well as his antiapartheid temperament. But the novelist has made him only to think on the existing political status of South Africa as well as that of the World also. The characters are not permitted to take vigorous participation in politics. We can understand that this is the reality in South Africa during apartheid. Even whites who are in contradiction of apartheid, they cannot utter a single word because of State's oppressive policies. Christopher Hope records that, 'The traditional way of doing things in South Africa has been for public drama to obliterate private feeling. South Africans … have always been frightened of feeling, and ashamed of intimacy'. This is applicable to the mindset of one of the characters, Daphne. She is a dancer. Although a dancer, she can talk about a striking range of subjects like: 'the ice ages of Europe, bisons in America, colonial exploitation in Africa; and unfailingly she would return to the political situation in the country and her acute sense of implication in it'. Though she loves Chris, she always tries to keep safe distance between them. When Chris asserts her, she cannot stop herself and tosses her into his arms. But later she is humiliated of her intimacy and penalizes herself by dancing meticulously and throwing her own body in the thorny bushes in her garden while dancing.

Chris is incapable to judge her performance and reason behind her thought. She used to wear a bristly knotted rope around her waist so strongly that it leaves marks of many colors on her soft skin. She confesses to Chris that she dresses the rope to keep herself aware of reality. She is very much disenchanted with the Sharpeville incident. According to her: Even if I can't change anything, I can keep myself from forgetting. I want to make sure that with every move of my body, on stage or off, I won't ever allow myself to ignore what is happening beyond my own little world. Here, Brink has represented the discontent in the minds of people who are in contrast to apartheid and its oppressive policies. He upholds that political activities agree the nature of race relations on group level as well as they can touch race relations at individual level also.

Another episode alarmed with Sharpeville massacre decides Chris' fate as an author. But with the progress as an established author he starts dropping his relations with his father, Marlene etc. Chris has been writing from the time when he is twelve or thirteen. But it is Sharpeville massacre that hard-pressed him into real act of writing. He begins writing a novel on Sharpeville in an exercise book, which is exposed by his father. He gets very irritated and throws the book on the desk. He commands Chris not to write such nonsense again. But Chris continues writing in secret and his mother hides everything he created in her stoking drawer. But the outburst of Sharpeville stirs him so extremely that he could no longer endure silent. And he publishes A Time to Weep, a novel on Sharpeville. At that time he is under the inspiration of a young woman called Marlene.

This novel A Time to Weep grounds an astonishing protest and resolves his future as an author. He writes the novel in Afrikaans but there is no anticipation of getting it publishes in Afrikaans. With the assistance of Merlene he translates the novel in English and publishes in England. After publication of the novel, Merlene left him because she thinks that the book took him away from him. It is Sharpeville massacre that carries two individuals together but it is preconception that departs them forever. It is a demonstration of typical prejudiced mentality of White races. Concerning this we can consider Ghorpade's observation. She states: 'Racial relations have almost invariably been conducted in terms of conflict'.

Relations between Chris and his father determine stressed relations between a father and his son, which focus on tensions in the familial relations. The cumulative detachment between family relations is a result of apartheid as well as dissatisfaction of apartheid by younger generations. Bonnie Pieterse is the only colored person in Chris' father's office. She is the only person who apprehended in a noteworthy regard to have her surname accredited. She has been employing there for at least five years. Initially she had been appointed as a 'tea girl'. Because of her substantial skills as a typist and a stenographer, she is promoted quickly. Even she acquires her promotion as a secretary. The novelist gives two reasons for her promotion which are significantly true in the South African scenario. One intention is that it is inexpensive to appoint a colored woman than hiring a white woman and the other is her unbelievable beauty. Chris' father likes presentation her off. He thinks that she replicates well on his bigheartedness as a good Christian and a leading businessman. Even though she knows her place, she has an unobtrusive, healthy self-assurance. On the day of Van Riebeeck Festival there is 'a series of historical presentations and tableaux'. Chris' father provides the day off to the whole office staff, together with Bonnie. So that they could lookout those presentations; as well as 'pick up some edifying lessons from history'. They all go to see the presentations. Bonneie, Gerald and Solly are already present there in their 'Sunday best clothes'. The rest of 'their people' were also present at the event. The presentation discloses the history of the entry of a White man on the African Continent. These presentations made of the unconcealed display of how the chosen people of God had, by heavenly providence, come to rule this land … van Riebeeck's arrival at the Cape of Good Hope and the first encounter between his handful of colonizers in their resplendent finery straight from Rembrandt's Night Watch and the story band of cringing, beaming Hottentots, soon to be lured into abject submission by the fumes of arrack and tobacco.

Biased whites have always celebrated their whiteness, supremacy and sovereignty and consider other races brutal and prisoners. Chris finds this such embarrassing that he gets up and walks away. His father gets annoyed with him and later asks him the intention of leaving the performance. Initially Chris makes excuses but when his father insists he could not stop himself from clearing up him the real reason. He tells him that he can't envisage such a humiliating presentation before black and colored people. He states: “The point is, when van Riebeeck's landing was staged, I suddenly thought of how it must look to them to see their ancestors portrayed like that. Like many dogs crawling on their stomachs, begging for a crust of bread or a chicken bone”. On the contrary his father sees no mortification in it, rather he feels embarrassed of his son who talks such nonsense. He thinks about the carnival as 'a day of thanking God for having brought us through three hundred years of strife and turmoil to such a glorious conclusion'. Because of completely contradictory views towards racial dissimilarities, the relation between a father and his son is distorted.

On the contrary, Chris' relation with his mother and his beloved, Rachel, become robust because of their comprehensive nature. Brink validates the dreadfulness and pressure in master-slave relations with reference to relations between Bella and Hottentots. Chris recalls one incident which happened at his Uncle Johnny's orchard. His cousin Driekie and her four sisters have gone for a gait to the farm dam. They removed their dresses before they enter the muddy water. But, when they step out of the water and go to lie on the bank to dry their bodies in the sun, Driekie hears a swooshing in the nearby bushes. She notices a young colored boy, David eying on them. He is the son of one of the workers at their farm. Their mother, Bella, becomes very annoyed when she comes to know about the event in the evening. She exclaims in rage, 'AHotnot! Spying on my daughters! You could all have been raped. ' Aunt Bella deliberates nonwhite races as vicious and belligerent; while her daughters, the next generation, has humanistic views towards them. Her daughters have a fairly dissimilar view about him. They try to tranquil their mother. Driekie tells her that: “He ran away the moment I saw him, Ma. And we all know him. He's always fetching and carrying for us. And sometimes we even help him in the kitchen with his school work. He's actually quite clever. And very polite”. But Aunt Bella is not in a temperament to listen anything. Bella order them to follow her and goes to the laborers' cottages. She screams at David's parents to come out and furiously tells them in brief about the occurrence. She orders his father and another two men to carry David to the outhouse. They slog him inside the old wine-barrel and torn his clothes. They tie his wrists and ankles with strings hanging from a hook in the corner. 'Tears and snot were streaming from him'. Then Bella instructs them to whip him with a hose pipe and a halter. Through the words of Driekie, Brink describes the dreadfulness in the master-slave relations. Driekie says: ‘“It just went on and on, it didn't stop. In the beginning David screamed at every blow, but later he just whimpered, he had no voice any more. It wasn't like crying, it was like an animal. And still they went on and on and on. They only stop when Driekie cries out 'You're killing him!'” She surge into tears while telling the story to Chris. Brink determines that while the older generations are not prepared to change the unbending traditional relations amongst races, the new generations of both races have developed inter-racial relations from humanistic views. The relations between political protesters and people are portrayed by describing George's experiences at work. George, Rachel's husband, is a photographer. He has to travel due to his occupation. He visits numerous places to capture pictures of diverse themes. Chris asks him that why he wants to go in search of shadowy and awful places. George replies, 'Only because it is necessary for someone to report: …The unrecorded life'. He thinks that it is his accountability to record events and it is people's responsibility to pay attention. Here, George represents Brink, who himself considers that it is his responsibility as a writer to record the events and present them before the nation as well as before the world in an impartial way. Throughout which world could come to know the social as well as political reality of his nation.

Further, George describes the most theatrical event of his career. He thinks that the hardest moment of all was in the late eighties. He memorizes one moment when he is on the way back from a funeral in Soweto. In Orlando, he stops for a moment to reload his camera and unexpectedly his car is encircled by a crowd of demonstrators on their way from a gathering. They had been attacked by police before merely a half an hour, where 'several youths had been killed'. So they are in a wicked mood. They encircled George from all sides and start disturbing his car. He is so scared that he thinks, 'I'm not going to get out of this place alive'. But he always places a secret armament in his breast pocket. It is 'a shot taken by a colleague, of Winnie Mandela and me [George]. Her arm round my shoulders. And she’d inscribed it. To George Lombard, with fond wishes, Winnie'. He reels down window of his car and blazes the photo at the crowd. After watching the photo 'the rage turned into jubilation'. And George releases safely. He thankfully remembers: 'There was only one person in the world could save me that day, and that was Mama Winnie. Her name was magic'. Here, Brink sustains that some whites are equally active in the black emancipation movement but because of their color, they are not trustworthy by nonwhites and their relations are strong-minded by political activists like Mandela. Christopher Hope, in a review published in The Guardian, discourses that 'Brink had a very good idea when he coupled Minnaar's sentimental life with seminal moments of South African history, from the Sharpeville massacre to the Soweto uprising, to the liberation of Mandela. '

Brink makes a statement on detachments between different races when he describes one event at Rachel's studio. There are numerous statuaries made by Rachel in her studio. One of them is a small, incomplete sculpture that catches Chirs' attention. It is tremendously smooth and finely completed sculpture by her. But Chris finds something poignant in the incompleteness of it. He describes the beauty of it: Two little figurines united in a sexual embrace, no more than fifteen centimeters tall … though even its frankness there was an endearing gentleness about it, distancing, as if the sex were only incidental to what was really happening between the two … Strange impression of distance between them: however closely they were joined together, the eloquent spaces that separated his body and hers, obtruded somehow, drawing attention to their separateness, injecting a feeling of ineffable poignancy into the whole relationship. Here, Sculpture signifies human beings, particularly man and woman from different races who are in love of each other but are not allowed to preserve relation because of racial differences, because of preconceptions and of apartheid system. Though they try to diminish this racial distance between them at individual level they are enforced to leave by the social discrepancies. By representing the beauty and sensuality in the sculpture, Brink has elevated a banner of rebellion against discriminations of apartheid. Chris enjoys some relations without bothering about racial dissimilarities but few of them are undoubtedly exaggerated by the racial disparities. For example, his relations with Isolde and a colored woman, Venessa approaches to an end because of politics. When the ANC enters into an association with the old National Party, Venessa is very much frustrated with these current political activities. She expresses her anger when she asserts: “We thought Mandela would give us back the dignity we once had. But we didn't realize that he wouldn't be allowed to have the final word. And now we're too white for the new fat cats, and we're still out in the wind. ” His closeness with Venessa and other black and colored women proposes that even though he is a White writer, Chris is equally worried about the place of nonwhites. Brink has expressed the quandary of nonwhites through Venessa's words. In short, Chris, the protagonist of the novel is in relation with various women of several races of many colors. His intra-racial as well as inter-racial love affairs do decide nothing, but it forces him to ask himself some disturbing questions.

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By illustrating these relations between Chris and other women, Brink throws focus on inter-racial as well as intra-racial relations such as, man-woman, master-slave, rich-poor, father-son, mother-son, political activists-public relations as well as relations between a black nanny and her master's child etc. These relations are overwhelmingly portrayed on the background of national as well as international political upheaval. Brink proves that how ongoing national political activities leave influence on the development as well as degradation of these race relations. He proposes the essentiality of cooperative transformations in the race relations from infelicitous to friendly and felicitous relations in South African scenario.

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Before I Forget By Andre Brink: Depiction Of Social Reality On The Different Facets Of Race Relations. (2020, March 16). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 21, 2024, from
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