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André Brink (1935 – 2015)

To stay on in Paris would imply that literature, to me, had become a luxury to be indulged in, an intriguing diversion. If, on the other hand, writing was as important to me as I knew it was, it could be done in one place only: in the midst of that society to which I had now come to acknowledge my profound and agonizing commitment. Returning to South Africa meant one thing: that writing had become an indispensable dimension of my life; and that I was prepared to assume full responsibility for every word I would write in future.

André Brink is possibly the most well-known of the Sestigers. He has twice been shortlisted for the Booker Prize and three times nominated for the Nobel in literature. His novel “A Dry White Season” was made into an international film.

He was the movement’s intellectual mirror, publishing dozens of essays outlining the Sestigers aims and eventual effects. His 1969 essay Writers and Writing in the World reflects the Littérature Engagée inherited by Jan Rabie with its roots in Sartre’s literature-for-change manifesto: Qu’est-ce que La Littérature. His work was deeply influenced by Camus, also. He saw “the writer as the rebel who fights in the name of the essentially human values – against everything which threatens the human, against everything which is essentially inhuman.”

His 1973 novel Kennis van die Aand was the first Afrikaans novel to be banned. The book’s publisher ended up taking the case to court and it was eventually heard by the Supreme Court. The government responded by creating its own Appeal Committee which would hear cases from writers who believed their work was unfairly banned and who would pass the final judgment. From this point onward the Apartheid government made it easier and easier to ban books.

A book which fails in its exploration of significant patterns in society and in the relationships of individuals is doomed to die – whether attacked by the puritans or not; and a truly good book will inevitably survive, in spite of all attempts to kill it. – André Brink

Every book that came after Kennis van Die Aand was explicitly political. His best known, A Dry White Season, focused on police brutality in the Apartheid state. But like all of the Sestigers, his dissidence began with attacking the puritanical culture of the Afrikaner volk. His early novel Labola vir die Lewe introduced sex openly for the first time in Afrikaans fiction. It sent shock waves through the old guard of Afrikaner orthodoxy. The clergy and rightwing politicians immediately condemned the book. It was an important start.

When Kennis van die Aand was banned, Brink immediately translated it into English and it found a significant international audience. The necessity of translation marked the birth of Brink’s very interesting writing method. All of his books are published in both Afrikaans and English but neither is a direct translation of the other. He writes the versions in parallel and allows discoveries in each language to inform the writing of the other.

Despite his proficiency in English, Brink never once stopped writing in Afrikaans even as it became politically more and more difficult to do so. He has written widely on the peculiar position of the Afrikaans writer and their specific responsibility during the time of Apartheid:

In the minds of many people the Afrikaans language is associated with the apartheid Establishment. This could lead to cultural tragedy. Consequently it becomes imperative that Afrikaans writers should be made more aware of the enormous social responsibility they have to bear in addition to their normal human conscience as writers. They have to prove to the world that the Afrikaans language can – and must – be something different from the language of Apartheid.

As will be seen, this particular attitude put him at odds with his friend, Breyten Breytenbach. Whereas Brink saw as his responsibility to change, inwardly, the beliefs of the Afrikaner through his work, Breytenbach was far more pessimistic about their ability to change anything from within and believed they should work to overthrow the political system in spite of prevailing racist attitudes.

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