The voices on the phone have told him he will die, that his wife and children will burn with their house.
He has been interrogated by the security police. His mail has been opened, his luggage ransacked, his telephone tapped. His writings have been destroyed. And there have been many times, says South African novelist Andre' Brink, when he yearned to flee, "for the sake of the children, just until things ease up a little."
But still he remains, a living rebuke to the apartheid policies of his Afrikaner kinsmen, the 2 1/2 million descendants of Dutch colonists who make up much of South Africa's ruling class. Along with his English-language colleagues Alan Paton and Nadine Gordimer, Brink is one of the leading voices in the literary chorus of dissent, and for two decades his tales of black hope and white repression have shamed the nation. His 1974 novel, "Looking on Darkness," about a black actor's persecution at the hands of security police, became the first book in Afrikaans ever banned in his country; "A Dry White Season" (1979) was the first banned before it reached bookstores, condemned for its portrayal of a white man who discovers that his black coworker has been killed by the police. And now "A Chain of Voices," a fictional re-creation of a South African slave uprising in 1825 just published in America by Morrow, is an incendiary success abroad and a galling phenomenon at home.
"Chain" has benefited from a more lenient government policy begun in 1979 with the "unbanning" of "A Dry White Season" and Gordimer's "Burger's Daughter" following a Writer's Guild threat to start a samizdat network of underground self-publishing. But Brink--at 47 a veteran of official opprobrium--is skeptical: "We were under no illusion that they feared us." Instead, he says, South Africa, threatened by black nationalism without and growing unrest within, arrived at "a particular historical moment when they desperately needed friends in the West," and wanted to appear progressive to the new Thatcher and impending Reagan administrations.
Moreover, he fears that the new leniency is just a "breathing space" in which he is "being used. Any government with totalitarian tendencies has to allow a certain amount of dissent just to prove to the world that it needs its repressive machinery. The Censorship Act," he says darkly, "remains unchanged."
At first he seems an improbable crusader, this dapper professor with the mild lectern voice, boyish pink face and fierce Dutch crinkle of red hair forced into a lopsided part. And at first he was:
Growing up as the son of a conservative and devout small-town magistrate, he "never had the opportunity to think of blacks as people--they were simply out there, as servants," and his childhood typified the time-honored rites of rural passage. First black and white children would play together "with absolutely no social differentiation," and for Afrikaner boys, "the discovery of nature took part largely through small, black companions on the farms. Because they knew the veld. They knew how to catch snakes, how to eat tortoises. We swam together naked in mud puddles and rivers."
But "by the time one reached puberty, the gulf opened. The moment you crossed the threshold into that world where your parents dictated the law, one shut off that part of one's experience and became the obedient member of the family again." So did Brink, a reclusive child who conversed with imaginary friends, who published his first poem at 9, who was drawn to acquired English ("the language of culture," his mother thought) rather than his native Afrikaans. Although he had witnessed acts of brutal racial repression, his conscience was largely untroubled by the time he finished college, married and in 1959 embarked for graduate study in Paris, "totally confident of my identity as an Afrikaner, and of all the Calvinist, conservative, racist values to which I subscribed."
It proved a "shattering experience." One day in a university dining room, a black student sat down at the same table. "I was shocked," Brink says, "it was unthinkable. I almost wanted to get up." But as he came to meet and then admire many black students, his self-image was destroyed along with the predestination religion which, he says, has convinced Afrikaners that they are "a chosen people" and that the subjugation of blacks is "a system ordained by God."
He returned home in 1961 to take a teaching post at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, where he remains today. His new awareness was anathema to his family: "They rejected it out of hand," further outraged by Brink's refusal to have his first child baptized. "It was a very depressing episode," and to preserve his family ties, he vowed never to discuss politics or religion with his parents. That fretful truce still prevails.
Although convinced of "the total moral wrong" of his country's racial policies, Brink in the mid-'60s was more a literary than a political apostate. In 1958, he had written a novel in the sleepy, genteel Afrikaans tradition ("sweet, lyrical, cloying and unbearable," he says now), but soon became part of the young avant-garde straining against sexual and religious taboos. Although their chief interest was in transforming Afrikaans literature by "all sorts of abstruse metaphors and Greek mythology," the public outcry against them became a "political touchstone," and Brink became a dissident by accident: "Suddenly everything I wrote acquired a political dimension."
He was condemned in pulpits and press; old college friends refused to see or even speak with him; a love affair begun during his first marriage--the woman became his second wife--was blown up into "a constant glare of publicity" and his divorce was cited as proof of moral turpitude. In 1967, he fled to the esthetic haven of Paris; but within a year "living in voluntary exile, divorced from my society, became almost an obscenity," and he came home again, convinced that "writing could never again be a purely private experience."
The first result was "Looking on Darkness," banned three months after publication. "It was one of the most sickening experiences of my life," yet it changed his career. Forbidden his usual audience, "from then on everything I wrote was both in Afrikaans and English--to find at least a reader somewhere." Spurred by notoreity, the English version was an international sensation, and detractors accused him of unpatriotic profiting from the lurid export of home-grown racism. But he has paid with the aggravations of self-translation: "English can't bear overstatement, whereas Afrikaans, like French, can take on much more emotion--it's more concrete, and fumbles when it goes into anything abstract." Thus some passages appear in one language, but not in another. (A masturbation sequence in English proved impossible in Afrikaans, where "a language for sexual experience has not yet evolved.") "Chains" was written in both languages at once and then cross-refined into the final versions.
Celebrity has had other costs. Abroad, some blacks charged him with paternalism in writing about black experience. "It's very problematical," he says: "I never hope to pose as a spokesman for blacks, to tell them what they're suffering . . . yet to write only about the experience of whites means I subscribe to apartheid." He compromises by "not overstepping the line of what I have seen and experienced vicariously through my black friends."
At home, some activists berate him for living in a world of words when there is so much pragmatic progress to be made. Brink despairs of ever measuring his effect on his countrymen. "Harriet Beecher Stowe, I suppose, could do that," he sighs. "So could Dickens." He contents himself with the belief that literature "slowly contributes to their interior evolution, to their discovery of each other as human beings." That evolution, he says, will be long coming, although one of the "few hopeful signs at the moment" is the fact that "some elements in the church are voicing doubts that apartheid can be based on Christian doctrine--even saying that it is the opposite of truly Christian."
Meanwhile, both politics and art are needed: "If the world were left to writers, you'd have not just healthy anarchy, but total chaos."