IN The Wall of the Plague Andre Brink addresses a question which in his earlier novels he approached or implied, but never fully confronted, and the result is both fascinating and unsettling, rather like watching a man attempt to examine his own entrails.
The question, of course, is apartheid, or more properly, what role a white South African writer should or may play in a society based on that complex and peculiar group of laws, ideas, and customs which we lump together under "apartheid." Not that Brink has ignored apartheid in earlier works: Brink and his fellow South Africans (Gordimer, McClure, Ebersohn, Coetzee) have proven repeatedly how much more alive, complex and insoluble South African problems are than we non-South Africans can credit.
Yet still the question remains, and in this novel Brink finally addresses it squarely, in his tale of Paul Joubert, white South African novelist and film-maker living in France, and Andrea Malgas, the fellow emigr,ee he loves, whose legal classification in the land of their birth was colored, that is, of mixed race. It is one of the book's great strengths that Brink does not follow the easy "boy meets girl, boy and girl meet State, State wins but is exposed in its brutality" plot such a pairing would imply; rather Brink explores the distance between, not just white and colored, but also old and young (Joubert is 50, Malgas just 30), artist and non-artist or "doer" (not activist, which role in the book is taken by another), and man and woman.
The book begins as the couple separate, he to attend a conference, she to reconnoiter filming sites in Provence for a film about the Black Death; Joubert has proposed marriage and Malgas wishes to meditate, in spite of her inclination to agree. Surprisingly, both for her and for the reader, what stays her "yes" is the knowledge that marriage would prevent forever her ability to return to South Africa, where colored and white mate only beyond the law. This is paradoxical, for the woman loathes South Africa, aware only too well that it scarred her childhood, spiritually dwarfed her mother and sister, jailed her brother, and eventually broke even her high-spirited independent sailor of a father, as well as forcing on her the physical humiliation of a coarse pelvic examination which the state police conducted to seek evidence against her white lover.
Brink's South Africa in these recollections (and those of the black activist, Mandla Mqayisa, whose life is harsher and more brutal than even that of the girl) is violent, chaotically unfair, and smotheringly repressive; yet is also beautiful, haunting, and in some way more real than the picture-postcard autumnal Provence and Vaucluse through which the girl wanders. As Brink has her say, "I knew exactly what he was holding, tasting: the bitter shrubs and sweet muscadel, the pervasive smell of buchu and aniseed, the tang of salt in the sea-wind, the shriek of gulls, kiewiets, hadedas; sunsets, nights, bare plains, mountains, bleached bones. Africa. Mine. His."
AS MUCH as anything else it is this palpability of Brink's evocation of South Africa which emphasizes the complexity of the dilemma Brink, or any other white there, faces, for Brink shows well that all his characters, colored and white as well as black, are Africans; although in a political sense each is enemy to the others, and though the black can see solutions only in a bloodbath and the white can see only that the highest priority is to avoid that massacre, all three are bound up with one another, are in some elemental way more necessary to one another than the rest of the world is to any one of them.
It is within that realization that Brink searches for his answer, with small result. Mandla's scorn for Joubert's pretensions is withering: "When I write a book . . . it helps other people to see what's happening," Joubert explains, to which Mandla replies, "You think you can tell a black man in South Africa what it means to be black?" Or as Mandla rages just before that, "Nice words you can stuff up your arse, man. It's what you do that counts."
Mandla's solution is no better though, for his "doing" accomplishes nothing beyond the death of his own child, the death of his father, the jailing, humiliation, and loss of the woman he loves; Mandla, whom Brink portrays as a man impassioned and loving in his anger, can offer nothing beyond more death and blood.
It is death which brings the books central metaphor, that of the plague, the Black Death. What Brink emphasizes both in quotations and the meditations of his characters is the irresistability of the plague; with no idea what caused it, how to prevent it, or how to cure it, the world was at its mercy. People tried everything -- perfume, incense, self-flagellation, campaigns against the Jews, seclusion, exclusion, piety, and license, some even going so far as to build the stone wall from which Brink takes his title, rocks frantically scrabbled up across miles of rugged Vaucluse hills, to wall out the plague; everywhere, always, the attempt was in vain. Randomly, with utter disregard for virtue, worth, or justice, the plague left some and took others, curdling their blood black, covering their bodies with explosive boils, and then, five days after the first symptoms appeared, killing them.
WHAT MAKES The Wall of the Plague larger than a simple expose of South Africa is that Brink equates the plague not just with apartheid, but with all the incomprehensible ways in which men hate and destroy one another; he examines specifically the Soviet invasion of Hungary, the petty but nasty racism of provincial French innkeepers, and the hundreds of ways in which men and women seem always to be at cross purposes. The plague begins as a symbol of politics but becomes by the end of Brink's novel amost life itself, the death and corruption which pervades and surrounds life, and in so doing defines it. Certainly this would be the implication of the only solution Brink seems to condone, that of Malgas. Challenged and aroused by Mandla to become her true self, she returns to South Africa, apparently to accept her African nature, to accept Africa itself. Man is born to his life, the message appears to be, and to run from that or avoid it is, Brink says, as pitiable and fruitless as the attempt to wall out the plague.
That conclusion would seem a repudiation of art, a declaration of the writer's surrender before unruly life, were it not for the structure of the book, the final words of which show the whole to have been written by Joubert, after Malgas has vanished, implying that Brink's blocked, defeated novelist has finally been moved to express at least the futility of his own vision. If only because the person to whom Brink dedicates this book and Andrea Malgas, his heroine, share the same "special" name (Nanna), The Wall of the Plague would seem to make Joubert's surrender also to be Brink's, thus conveying wonderfully the tension of a writer's self-examination. Writing, Brink acknowledges, is words, useless; it achieves nothing, corrects nothing. At the same time Brink both affirms and demonstrates that writing, able as it is to preserve, elevate, celebrate, is equally all, one of the few things which distinguish man from the beasts he too often imitates. It is a testament to Brink's skill that one can absorb the power of his dissection of South African life, in all its brutal hopelessness, and yet come away with the satisfaction and hope, that South Africa has also produced a novel as intelligent and rich as The Wall of the Plague.