ANDRE BRINK'S fifth novel takes as its starting point a minor slave rebellion that occurred in South Africa in 1825. Three whites were killed but the rebel slaves were swiftly rounded up and their ringleaders executed. Brink begins and ends his book with what look like official accounts of the insurrection and the verdict of the court. The mass of material in between, however, is fictional and consists of a form of verbatim evidence given by the protagonists, almost as if they were speaking directly to the reader from the witness box. Some 20 characters make an appearance and deliver their testimony in a literal chain of voices; they disclose a dramatic and emotionally highly-charged story about a small community relentlessly sowing the seeds of its own disruption and destruction.
The numerous human dramas boiling between owners and slaves, whites and blacks, men and women are powerful and gripping in their own right, but they derive an impressive extension and scope from the bitter and ironic analogies that one instinctively draws with contemporary South Africa. These analogies, it should be said, emerge with a natural logic of their own and--commendably and all the more forcefully--without recourse to any strident tub-thumping polemic on Brink's part.
The small community in which the action is set is the Bokkeveld, a straggling collection of farms sourrounded by mountains, many days trek from the seat of government in Cape Town. On Pier Van Der Merwe's farm four children grow up in an unremarkable, generally carefree way. They are Barend and Nicolas--Piet's sons--Hester, the orphaned child of a neighbor and Galant, the slave boy. The bond between Nicholaas and Galant is particularly strong, symbolized by the fact that they were both suckled by the same slave wet-nurse, Ma-Rose.
However, the onset of puberty notably in the person of Hester, bigins to drive the first wedges between the quarter. Galant is peremptorily forbidden to accompany the others on their usual swimming trips, and for the first time in his life his servile status is overtly revealed to him. Things can only go from bad to worse. A succession of incidents -the successful taming of a magnificent wild stallion, the saving of Nicolaas' life when he's attacked by a lion -only drives them further apart and steadily reinforces Galant's sense of injustice and strengthens his resentment.
The accumulating bad feeling gathering about their heads is coumpounded by the loveless marriages the two brothers enter into. The crass barend marries Hester -who is loved by both Nicolaas and Galant -and Nicolaas, on the rebound, shackles himself to the redoubtably plain and devout Cecilia.
Galant, now slave foreman of Nicolaas' farm, cannot reconcile himself to the gross inequality in which he is compelled too live out his days. Rumors of the antislaverly movement in Britain and certain reforms that the British introduce in South Africa quicken the impulse to rebel in Galant and stir other slaves from their quiescence or apathy. Legal protests are made to the local authorities, but these acts of independence are punished by brutal floggings and privations. The latent emotional undercurrents, too, are turning into a tumid mill-race, as an increasingly frustrated Nicolaas, exercising his droit du seigneur , seeks comfort in the arms of female slaves.
The inevitability of the bloody conclusion is remorselessly and skillfully built up by Brink as we move between the different narrative voices. There is an overwhelming sense of impending disaster, of reaping the whirlwind, a heralding of the release of massive tensions and retribution for generations of injustice and oppression. But when it ultimately comes it turns out to be a botched, unsuccessful affair.
Brink, it will be clear, takes some risks in this long and turbulent novel, both in terms of sensationalism and melodrama. As well as the familiar garish adjuncts of slavery we also have infanticide, bestiality, lustful white ladies and virile black slaves. It's a heavy mixture but the riskes are all justified by the serious concepts and attitudes the narrative dramatizes. A Chain of Voices is about the awesome consequence of absolute power. If you own someone's body and soul you can do with it what you will, whether that take the form of social degradation, physical violence, sexual brutality or caresses. But eventually such a one-way traffic in totalitarian liberties brings no satisfaction to the oppressor. Human nature, Brink seems to be saying, craves reciprocity. tThe slave owner becomes as much a victim as the slave, his power only serving to unleash darker impulses in himself and his subject that edge all parties to the abyss of collective madness.
Brink's analogous vision of these forces as they exist today in his own South Africa and his presentation of the causes and consequences of the kind of holocaust that will inevitably consume it, is as vivid as it is sobering. A Chain of Voices is a notable indictment of the evils that accrue on all sides under a system of blatant inequality. More than that, it's a compelling annd engrossing story written with a welcome narrative verve and confidence.