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Other Lives By André Brink: Realism And Social Reality Of South Africa

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André Brink’s novel Other Lives, subtitled as A Novel in Three Parts, is contaminated with prevarication and mistiness. The genre of this book is being somewhere between a collection of short stories and a full-fledged novel, traces it in a liminal textual space. Brink’s gesture of obscuring generic conventions and disturbing hopes of development and closure bestows the novel with the power of disruption and transgression. More than an artistic choice, the patchy interpretation of post-apartheid South Africa and the blurred worlds presented in the novel replicate the writer’s grappling with a slippery reality: a nation still probing its way towards social and political stability. With a loose knot interconnected, the three parts of the novel are immersed in realism and social reality of South Africa.

André Brink’s latest trilogy of novellas, Other Lives, first published in Afrikaans in 2008. Since the expiration of apartheid, his work has fluctuated toward mythography, and with Other Lives, set in present-day Cape Town, he infiltrates magic realism and fantasy. In itself, this would be a welcome development, but he doesn’t use them to explore new themes, but rather locks himself into another genre knocking on the same divisive doors of race and gender. This book is billed as “a novel in three parts”, but it would be more accurate to call Other Lives an anthology of uncanny tales, yoked together by theme and characters but in dire need of an overarching design.

The first novella from it is, The Blue Door, which features David, an unprofessional painter who hides from his wife, Lydia, in a not-so-secret studio in Green Point. One afternoon David bangs down to Giovanni’s delicatessen to pick up supplies. When he reaches back at the blue door to the studio, he is incorporated by a woman, “dark of complexion”, whom he has never met, but is by all accounts his wife and the mother of his two children. In spite of not having a clue what is happening to him, David follows her physically, and a cringe-worthy sex scene follows. An attempt to find his “real” wife, Lydia, at their Claremont apartment becomes an Escher’s nightmare that has David trapped in a building with no exits. He and Lydia are destined to be amusing the building’s architect and his wife, Steve and Carla, that evening, and here starts the first transmission between the novellas: Steve is the central character in the next story. Here also starts one of the reasons this book falls short. Brink introduces sarcasm, happenstance and a titillating element of psychopathy in all of the novellas.

A line from The Blue Door, part of David’s replications on his catastrophe to make good on a preceding adulterous predicament with “a meid”, as his then wife refers to her, aptly describes the predicament of the book: “I had made a move, but not far enough. I had never arrived ‘on the other side’ of whatever it might have been”. Mirror, the second novella of the series, is the most frustrating of the three. In a bizarre that gets white designer Steve awaken up black one morning, Steve undergoes a transformation seemingly envisioned as caricature, but the opportunity to smile never presents itself.

No one but a barge, and his children’s German au pair, seems to notice that Steve is now a black man and the transformation seems to be mainly in his mind. No badly-behaved so far. But Steve hasn’t been black for a day before he is expended with anger, as if he has been maltreated his entire life, sexually attacking the au pair after she tells him: “Your skin. I like how it feel, how it look”. “If this is what you’re after, this is what you’re going to get. F***ing little white bitch”, Steve thinks to himself. In a section that should probably not be reprinted here, Brink services the deadly custom of stereotyping, insulting black men, Germans and women in one fell pounce. The black man is a violent rapist; the German au pair has a penchant for black men, and actually enjoys the trial, reviving the myth of black men as marauders and women as malevolent scrubbers.

Well along that evening, Steve and his wife, Carla (who is also seemingly an unsatisfied nymphomaniac waiting to target on like-minded men), are dining out when the restaurant is overwhelmed by gun-toting robbers and the diners locked in a storeroom. Ostensibly Carla, for the first time, notices her husband is black and implores him to reason with the bandits: “You’re one of them. If there’s anybody here they may listen to, it’s you”. Also at the restaurant that night is melodiously and sexually exasperated Derek, and the object of his desire, soprano Nina, who has so damaged her previous lovers she now refuses any. This provides the link to the final narrative: Appassionata.

Soaked in ostentatious conceits of art, music and wine, Appassionata is an overloaded cliché that eccentrics up the sex but thankfully gives racial inspection a breather. Notwithstanding Nina’s warning that she has been “consorting with ghosts”, Derek is anxious with desire for her and this brings the deduction to a climax in a most uncommon way. Other Lives is a lump-filled porridge – too much starch and no milk, sugar or butter. Eventually, you can eat it but it is likely to give you stomach-ache. Brink voices through narrating the blacks and referred to kinships, mainly sensory ones, at unveiling the racial practices of the past apartheid system as a policy of segregation and political and economic discrimination against whites. He used to make erogenous scenes between black and white people of both sexes. The novel Other Lives deals with sexuality, it also stands as an archetype for racial, colonial and political relationships between black and white people. And injustices from whites on black people. The oppression of blacks is also one of the major issues in it. To depict the history throughout writing Brink selected to write the history as a fiction. He opts for fiction in this novel to rewrite the history of South Africa and depicted the facts. He lays bare the remainders of the post-apartheid system throughout an innovative style, skilfully inserted several incidents, including sexual relations that were real or even personal, incorporating and resuming the aftermaths of the colonial experience.

At first reading, some erotic acts from the novel give the impression to be scenes of pure passion, but then, they turn out to be meagre longing for annihilation. For example, in the second part Mirror, when Steve, a black man, is aggravated by the utterances of the seductive young white woman named Silke telling him “your skin, I like very much how it feel, how it look” he becomes exasperated since he considers her words as a racial Remarque that echoes past memories of racial insults that he heard earlier in the novel such as “your mother’s black cunt”. Consequently his reaction may be depicted as an attempt to free the rein of his anger and revenge himself on the white race exemplified in Silke, by conducting violent sexual intercourse saying that “for the first time I become aware of what is happening inside me. Not passion, not lust, not ecstasy, but rage. A terrible and destructive rage”. Here we can find out the racism deeply rooted in social institutions. In all the novels of Brink, he travel around sexual relationships between blacks and whites and portrays them as natural sexual partners who might be natural political and social partners if only the Afrikaner establishment would allow it. In the first part of The Blue Door love relationship between a white man and a black woman, David Le Roux and Embeth, is perfectly illustrated in the example of the which is, even after the apartheid regime, still well-thought-out as a taboo kinship, completely disallowed by David’s family. Here we find out the racial segregation and discrimination between the whites and the blacks. The expiration of the apartheid regime in 1994 and the following democratic elections were two pivotal moments that marked the modern history of South Africa. The ecstasy of the beginnings, however, was soon shadowed by disillusion and doubt. Apartheid is not only a strategy of racial segregation; it is also a whole cultural heritage. Its downfall has positioned the country into a liminal situation, with two opposing forces: whereas the old tenet is struggling to survive, the new order is striving to come to life. This state of interval predicted in Nadine Gormider’s July’s People (1980), which was published more than three decades ago, seems like to be still installed in South Africa. Antonio Gramsci’s “The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms”, used as an epigraph to Gordimer’s novel, is captured in Brink’s Other Lives (2010), which was published after thirty years. Brink’s novel also narrates a scrambled reality wherein the past penetrates the present.

However, André Brink’s novel Other Lives, raises an even more relevant question: is it really possible to break with the past? Brink himself provided an answer in one of his interviews a long time before the novel was published. The “dismantling” of apartheid, he states, “threatens to be a long-drawn-out process because, sadly, apartheid won’t be easily forgotten”.

Other Lives by Brink published in 2010, is profoundly grounded in a present unable to separate its ties with a bleak past. The novel contends with residues of a distorted regime fastened in oppression. It offers a narrative of counter- power wherein revisiting the intimidation of the past obtains a purgatory effect. Here in this novel Brink’s concept of “offense” as related to literature and his vision of literary texts as sexualized bodies resisting the taming power of the reader. The sexuality used in the novel is a strategy to uncover the immersion of political power in the intimate lives of people. The narrative of the novel provides us episodes of sexual violence and humiliation. As well as Brink’s text delivers an appropriate case for trauma studies wherein literature has the function to write the abuses of power. Brink depicts the slavery, sexual abuses, malpractices as well as injustice with the unvoiced. Brink stresses the disorderly power of imaginative grips on reality and its capability to reconstruct both past and present. His fondness for the bizarre in later novels and especially in Other Lives tunes with his new aesthetic interpretation of a post- apartheid South Africa as he feels the requirement to construct and deconstruct new possibilities; to activate the imagination in its exploration of those silences previously inaccessible; to play with the future on that needlepoint where it meets past and present.

Brink’s attempt to unshackle resourcefulness and redefine reality as a strategy to dismantle the authority of the past also finds expression in another literary and artistic movement. It is not by chance that the opening sentence of the first story in Other Lives strike at the foundations of the ladder between dream and reality: “There was, first, the dream”. The Biblical modulation of the sentence gives hegemony to the dream. Hence, it can be read: at the beginning there was the dream. And it can be said that throughout the dreams of characters Brink depicts the reality. The opening story from Other Lives “Blue Door” is about David Leroux, a painter who, one afternoon, unexpectedly discovers that he has another family. Upon opening the blue door of his rented studio where he withdrawals to paint, he is welcomed by two children calling him “daddy” and a beautiful young colored wife called Sara and to whom he has never seen before. His endeavors at recuperating his previous life are ruined to failure as he is unable to find his house. The narrative finishes with David going back to his studio, which is now with a yellow door. The second story, “Mirror”, possesses the same atmosphere of magic realism with Kafkaesque undertones. Steve, an architect, awakens up one morning to discover himself metamorphosed into a black man. The mirror in the bathroom replicates a completely weird person. Stressed and restless, he steps into a state of doubt over his identity and reality. Two vehement episodes make stronger his feelings of loss: first, his rape of the fair-haired au-pair girl and, second, the hostile hold-up in a restaurant. The story ends with the devastating of the mirror into pieces, announcing “a few years of misfortune”. The third and last story from Other Lives departs from both magic realism and surrealism; it rather swings, especially towards the end, to a Gothic atmosphere. “Appassionata” narrates the strong obsession of Derek, a musician, with Nina Rousseau, a soprano. Nina is a woman with an enigmatic past, declines to have a sexual relationship with the charmed Derek. The narrative ends with Nina transmuted into a fatal woman killing Derek in a highly sensual and abstruse scene.

Brink illustrates the sexualized relationship between his reader and text in the opening story of his novel, “The Blue Door”. David’s first sexual encounter with his newly-discovered wife Sara discloses as a reading gesture:And so we move through our unspoken, unspeakable text, following its rhythms and cadences, meandering along its possibilities, reaching out towards what may be its conclusion but which continues to elude us, moving ever farther away, just beyond our reach, as we writhe and pant and moan and plead; but it is ultimately too remote to reach. This passage exemplifies Brink’s aesthetics of the resisting text. Similar to David’s metaphorical text, Other Lives is also “too remote to reach”. In another self-reflexive incident in the similar story, Sara describes Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart as a “strange book … very disturbing”. It is exactly this effect of DE acquaintance and disruption that Brink’s novel purports to create. The text’s major endeavor is anchored in undermining hierarchies and distracting binary oppositions such as black/white, dream/reality, and love/hatred. In “The Blue Door”, the borders between dream and reality are annulled as the opening sentence of the story reads: “There was, first, the dream”. David arrive a dream-like space, a similar world or another dimension which becomes his reality. The reader is correspondingly entwined in this misunderstanding as David reappears in the second story as the husband of Lydia. In the third story, however, he give the impression once again as a painter married to Sara. “Mirror” also disappointments all efforts at reaching a comfortable understanding of the story. Steve, who wakes up one morning to find himself a black man, pollutes the reader with his doubts over whether he has always been black and acted white. The episode of the hold-up in the restaurant further obscures the situation. Urging him to negotiate with the attackers, supposedly black men, his wife says: “you’re one of them. If there’s anybody here they may listen to, it’s you”. The text ends without concluding whether Steve is really white or black. However Brink adds to Barthes’s vision of the erogenous relationship between a narrative and its receiver his own concept of “offense”. “In the act of offense, ” he explains, “we glimpse the possibility of freedom. As long as people can be offended by literature there remains a chance that they may be awakened from sleep in order to learn to face their world anew”.

Brink’s text offends on two levels: first, it outrages the reader’s excitement to control meaning; and, second, it challenges silence by speaking openly about the forbidden and against obliviousness. In the first story, “The Blue Door”, David recalls an old affair with a brown girl called Embeth, whom he hired as a model for his paintings. At that time, he was betrothed to a rich girl, Nelia. His first sexual encounter with the brown Embeth unfolds as a rebellious act braving statutory, racial, and social prescriptions. David’s declaration “Embeth, I love you” is answered by Embeth’s “shockingly straightforward: ‘then fuck me’, a clear insurrection of the Immorality Act. Such subversion attacks the linguistic purism of the legislator and destabilizes the state authority’s regulation of South Africans’ sexuality. Their relationship swiftly comes to an end as David’s fiancée notices their illegal affair, which she describes in a rhetorical question: “with a meid, David? David, with a meid?” – a question that sums up a history of racial and social discrimination. As it is impossible to have a relationship without impinge on the law, Embeth proposes to David to leave the country together. David, however, proves too pusillanimous to endanger his comfortable life.

The second story, narrated by Steve in “Mirror” which revisits the way the state power intruded upon the sexual life of South Africans. Waking up to find himself a black man, Steve starts suspicious to his legitimate sexual relationship with his white wife, despite the fact that he is aware that apartheid laws were annulled a long time ago. He remembers the story of his friend Martin during his student years. Martin “had a brief and surreptitious fling with a brown girl. She was studying law with him. They were trapped by the police”. David’s story in “The Blue Door” interconnects with that of Steve’s friend in the moment of getting caught red- handed as the sexual act is transmuted into a wrongdoing. In “The Blue Door”, David recollects “with painful precision […] Nelia walking in on us […] Her face as she stood in the doorway, staring down at the two of us on the floor. No longer joined at the hip, but still naked”. Nelia’s verbal forcefulness is associated with police forcefulness in the second story: I remember how he told me about the irruption into the little room. How the sheets were pulled from them, and how one of the men spread an open palm over the damp patch on the bottom of the sheet. How one of the others ordered Martin to stand up so that he could be photographed with his half-tumescent penis. How the girl — usually so sophisticated and self- contained and smart — kept on sobbing uncontrollably throughout, while they pulled her arms and legs and enforced the back end of a torch up her vagina, and the things they said about her. Commenting on the violent intercession of the state in the sexual life of people, Steve says: “we all grew up with it, and were scarred by it”. The fact that the two stories are remembered demonstrates to a disturbance deeply covered in the memory, conscience, and consciousness of a whole nation.

The wound, being the etymology of the term trauma, is interposed again in “Mirror”. Brink renovates the fundamental of the apartheid policy based on skin color. Steve, transformed into a black man, provokes the reader with the post-apartheid reality: the color bar still regulates life in South Africa. As he becomes black, Steve recollects the major stereotypes connected with the black man, notably violence and sexual rapacity. Once again, sexuality emanates to the fore to present an allegory of power and counter-power. Steve’s sexual fascination to the white German au-pair girl located in his house is unexpectedly transformed into a brutal act of rape upon the girl’s remark: “your skin. I like very much how it feel, how it look”. Her words trigger an uncontainable response: “Not passion, not lust, not ecstasy, but rage. A terrible and destructive rage”. Rape turn out to be an act of reprisal for long years of an intimidating indoctrination of the black body. The violent sexual act empowers him: “I feel myself growing in strength and rage and fury, making and breaking, destroying and devastating without beginning or end”. Brink’s erotic explicitness is to be emblazoned within his tussle against all forms of coercion together with the state’s regulation of the private and the intimate. Revisiting the past roles as a reminder that the remainders of a long history of segregation and oppression gain access to the present; and Brink’s deterrent narrative is an attempt at dismantling the power of the past.

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