André Brink’s new trilogy of novellas, Other Lives, presents his fans with a conundrum: Is the lurching, overstated quality of these stories a lapse for Brink? Or is it part of a calculated effort to approach, from an intentionally awkward angle, some of the issues that have long preoccupied this fine South African writer: the unknowability of the people closest to us; the relationship between race and identity; the abrasion of the political by the personal?
Brink, now seventy-two, is the author of many acclaimed works, including the masterful A Dry White Season, published in 1979 and recently reissued in this country. In that novel, a Boer schoolteacher’s sympathy for a black employee whose son has died at the hands of the security police results in the systematic dismantling of a great many lives, his own included. Brink’s scathing portrait of the bureaucracy charged with crushing those who so much as question apartheid (all in the name of fighting terror) has a chilling relevance for Americans today.
The novellas of Other Lives unfold in present-day Cape Town, a version of South Africa that would strike the inhabitants of A Dry White Season as an impossible dream—or a nightmare. The novellas’ central conceit can even be read as an echo of South Africa’s political transformation: What happens when an alternate reality abruptly displaces the one we have always taken for granted? In the first story, The Blue Door, a white painter returns to his studio after a shopping trip to find that it is no longer his studio, but a home he shares with a beautiful black woman—apparently his wife—and their two children. When he tries to return to the apartment where he lives with his white wife, he finds himself confounded by a bank of uncooperative elevators and can’t get in. In the second novella, Mirror, a famous white architect looks in the mirror one morning to discover that his skin has turned black. The third, Appassionata, mostly puts aside the racial question, concerning itself instead with the nature of art and creativity. The protagonists of the fictions are loosely connected, though their versions of reality contradict one another.
At its best, Other Lives achieves flashes of philosophical intrigue reminiscent of Kafka and Borges—especially in Mirror, the most ambitious tale. Soon after discovering he’s black, Steve, the architect, attends a meeting on a building site, but none of his colleagues remark on or even seem to notice his skin color (though a drunk has already vomited on his car, shouting, “You blarry people think you can drive fancy cars and take over this country?”). Still, Steve’s heightened self-consciousness makes him behave differently in his coworkers’ presence. “I have to convince them that I am Steve. I have to convince myself that I am Steve. And it does not come naturally, for at every turn I discover that I actually do not know this person as well as I have always assumed: certainly not well enough to give a convincing performance of his life, his behavior, his thoughts, his being. I have to work very hard at it.” Brink wisely leaves open the question of whether Steve’s metamorphosis is literal or imaginary, but that doesn’t stop him from using it to make some cutting observations about his homeland. Steve and his wife are dining in a trendy restaurant when a group of black thieves burst in and rob everyone at gunpoint. “They are wearing khaki balaclavas over their heads,” Brink writes. “Designer jeans and T-shirts or sweaters. Nikes. These are not down-and-outs driven by need. This is the New South Africa. Thugs smelling of expensive aftershave.”
Back at home after his business meeting, Steve encounters his daughters’ German au pair, naked after a swim in the family pool and apparently unconcerned about covering up in front of her employer. When she says, “Your skin. I like how it feel, how it look,” Steve reacts with fury, shoving her up a flight of stairs to her bedroom:
If this is what you’re after, this is what you’re going to get. Fucking little white bitch. . . . For the first time I become aware of what is happening inside me. Not passion, not lust, not ecstasy, but rage. . . . We couple on the narrow bed . . . with a violence I have never known myself capable of, attacking her, assaulting her, forcing helpless sounds from her mouth against mine.
Huh? Steve has been black—or has believed he is black—for all of three or four hours. The suggestion that he’s reached such a state of fulminating rage over racial grievances that he’d want to rape a white woman for vengeance (a fantasy she seems to share) is—to put it kindly—problematic. But from the writer who gave us A Dry White Season, with its deft and aching awareness of the long gestation of racial injustice, it’s baffling. Can this really be the same Brink who wrote in that earlier novel, of his white protagonist,
Reminiscences of my childhood. Driving with Pa, in the spider or the little green Ford, Helena and I played the immemorial game of claiming for ourselves whatever was seen first. “My house.” “My sheep.” “My dam.” And, whenever we passed a black man or woman or child: “My servant.” How natural it had all seemed then. How imperceptibly had our patterns fossilized around us, inside us. Was that where it had all started, in such innocence?—You are black, and so you are my servant. I am white, which makes me your master.
The triumph here is the complexity of Brink’s insight: He ably captures the commingling of innocence and dominance that is the very essence of hegemony. These nuances and contradictions are absent from the new book, as if it were missing an entire dimension so forcefully present in earlier work.
There are more stereotypes in Other Lives; in The Blue Door, the painter recalls a black woman he fell in love with as a young man but lacked the courage to run away with. “In her lurked, who knows, danger of a kind I could not explain,” Brink writes, depicting the woman as a two-dimensional angry temptress whose interactions with the painter are devoid of specificity or interest:
There was something wild even in the rashness of the first moment I blurted out, “Embeth, I love you!”
Her answer was shockingly matter-of-fact: “Then fuck me.”
And so we did.
It’s tempting to credit Brink with purposefulness in his use of these clichés, but the fact is that Other Lives is dogged by tired, stilted writing throughout. When the newly black Steve is rejected by his cat, he ruminates,
But if her reaction—which certainly was as unequivocal as they come—means that what the mirror showed me this morning is the unadulterated truth, then how am I really going to handle it? Is this a charade and can I go through with it? Or is it reality—my own, new reality? What does that make me? Who does it make me?
When will I find out—how can I find out—who I am? Who I have been? Who I may yet be?
Appassionata concerns a male pianist’s collaboration with (and lust for) a beautiful soprano whose questionable past makes the final Roald Dahl–like twist seem inevitable from minute one. Awash in windy reveries about art and music, the story is dense with clichés that nudge it toward bathos. “Her voice had been like liquid fire,” recalls the pianist, describing a practice session. “The cadences and phrasing and rhythms of her singing were still throbbing through my body. The memory of her long blonde hair was like a river in which I would willingly drown myself. . . . After the last aria . . . she bent over and remained standing like that for a while before she slowly stood up again to whisper, ‘Jesus! What happened?’
“‘You were unbelievable,’ I said.”
It’s difficult to read this as anything other than parody, but Appassionata lacks the winking collusion that would signal it’s meant to play for laughs. Instead, there’s just more of the same: “The passion smoldering in her voice like a barely contained veld fire” or “The feverish desire still brooding inside me like an afterglow of the sunset.”
South Africa has transformed itself in the years since Brink wrote A Dry White Season; the corrupt and unjust system he indicted has been flushed away, taking with it the moral certainties on which the novel was built. But what undermines Other Lives is something far more banal than race, politics, or geography: It is weak prose. We can only hope that for Brink, the transformation is temporary.
Jennifer Egan’s most recent novel is The Keep (Knopf, 2006).