The Wall of the Plague: A Novel
In the eighteenth century, in a region of southern France which lies to the northeast of Avignon, a wall of stone was built to keep out the plague. The pestilence came up from the coast and leaped across the wall before it was finished. Now there are only a few stretches of the ruined rampart, and many mass graves.
Around this image the South African novelist André Brink has assembled a complex, closely planned, passionately written tale. It is worth paying close attention to a scene early in the novel, which lays out the structure of what is to come. Paul, a white South African writer living in Paris, has just met Andrea, a young and beautiful Cape Coloured woman who has not only left her country but resolved never to return, to become a new person free of all the agonies and racial categories and politics of that land. He tells her of his idea for a film script, set in Provence during the years of the great pandemic of the late fourteenth century, the Black Death, which laid waste to all of Europe.
Paul imagines a group of men and women in Avignon who resolve to escape the pestilence. They retreat to the mountains near the Durance river and there, after hot debate, build themselves a fortress “in which to hide from the world.” At first they live ascetically, passing the time with pious exercises and religious speculation. Then they pass into a phase of wild physical excess, affirming life while the plague washes around the walls of their refuge, “copulating on black discoloured bodies.” Finally—and here Paul is uncertain—some resolution is reached. It may be a sort of triumph of death, or it may be their emergence into the world as whole people once the plague has passed, “the possibility of being reintegrated with humanity, only sadder and wiser, of course.” Paul himself has lived through something like this many years before, isolated in an Austrian castle in the bitter winter of 1956 with refugees from the Hungarian revolution. But it is not difficult to see what allegory Brink is constructing here.
The plague is the pain of the world in general, but in particular the suffering of the peoples of South Africa. Europe is a place where those who flee the plague collect, some resolved to merge into the mass and find new roots, some hanging together in groups committed to renewal or revolution in their country, dreaming of trade boycotts or of “multi-racial societies,” a few going intently about the business of subversive action. The castle, the wall, is of course the illusion that high-minded people can successfully barricade themselves against the world’s disease, muffle themselves against the bacillus in shawls of intellectualism or sensuality. Other “walls” appear in this novel: between black and white, rich and poor, man and woman. But Brink’s real warning is that, for South Africans of any color, there is no refuge. An identity built on renunciation of one’s country, which means denial of any connection to its struggles and miseries, will either collapse or make a morally amputated personality. This is a relentless judgment. Anyone who knows, for example, the children of the great Jewish settlement on the Witwatersrand who have abandoned South Africa and settled in Europe or America would hardly accuse them of being spiritually mutilated. But André Brink is a Cape Afrikaner, and his own roots in the land go back to the seventeenth century; he lives and works there still.
Andrea, as a Coloured, is of the Cape, child of the new race bred by Dutch and Huguenot farmers out of the Hottentot (Khoi-Khoin) peoples they found there, and she is by far the best-realized figure in the novel. Born in Cape Town’s old District Six just before it is demolished in the pursuit of racial segregation, she enters a forbidden sexual relationship with a young English academic. They are caught in bed by the police; her family is destroyed, and her brother, found with revolutionary papers when the house is searched, is dragged off to prison convinced that only Andrea’s recklessness brought him to the attention of the Special Branch. With her lover Brian, she leaves for London, for a nomadic bed-sitter life among neurotic white South African exiles whose concerns she violently rejects. With Brian, too, she visits for the first time the hills of upper Provence, the ancient land that lies between Saint-Rémy, the Lubéron hills, and Mont Ventoux. It is a jagged, difficult relationship kept going by a compulsive sexual hunger for each other, but Andrea eventually leaves and settles in Paris where she encounters Paul. This is a richer love with an older man. They in their turn go to Provence and tour, exhaustively, Roman ruins, mountain villages, and medieval abbeys.
Paul, a successful novelist, is a brilliant but uneasy figure, his intelligence turning in circles as he begins to lose his creative impetus. Although he never quite nerves himself to take part in action or conspiracy, even at the safe distance of another continent, he has revolutionary friends and the day comes when a black activist named Mandla arrives in Paris to see him. Andrea at first finds Mandla aggressive and difficult. He is uncouth and continually angry; his bitterness and his obsession with the wrongs of his people irritate her. She despises Paul for hanging admiringly on the words of a man who only insults him. But when Andrea departs for Provence to scout locations for the film, Paul sends Mandla after her; BOSS agents are on his trail, and he needs to be moved out of Paris.
For a third time, André Brink sends his characters around the back country of Provence (breaking up what could be a rigid pattern by interleaving these journeys in time). Now the sullen Mandla unleashes all his anger against Andrea. They drive slowly about the landscape and quarrel ferociously as he proceeds to smash down, stone by stone, the “wall” that Andrea has put around herself. He will make her admit that she is black, he will batter the civil European affectations out of her. He will force her to face and confess her membership in South Africa’s community of misery, jeering at her insecurities and loading her down with the terrible story of his own humiliations and tortures. The climax, not difficult to foresee early in the book, is paradisal sex on a Provençal hillside, Mandla’s murder by Pretorian agents, who have been following them, and Andrea’s return to South Africa, her blackness found at last.
André Brink can be a superb writer, but this is not one of his best novels. Rather like Paul’s scenario, the book seems overplotted and laborious; the original good idea is worked over again and again until it becomes obvious, and the human figures stiffen into puppets acting out a literary hypothesis. Andrea is the exception. All that Brink writes about her background in the Cape, her strong, lusting father, who was a fisherman, the exuberant life of the Coloured community, the development of her own feelings within the family or in her relations with the white master-race, has great power.
Paul is less convincing than his dilemmas. Brian, the Englishman, is one-dimensional, perhaps much as a besotted lover would have seen him, more probably because he is not imagined by Brink with much confidence. But the greatest failure, though an interesting one, is Mandla.
Mandla is a Xhosa, a young revolutionary educated at the black university of Fort Hare. His experience is carefully reconstructed. He has been a trade-union organizer and a victim—with his family—of the worst that the apartheid system and the security police can hand out. He has known prison and torture, and the murder or humiliation of those he loved. A black African, he seems to belong more to the armed-action tradition of the African National Congress than to the “black consciousness” movement of Steve Biko and his successors. From time to time, he disappears on missions into Eastern Europe. He is eloquent. But somehow he is misconceived. This is not a live African, but a blacked-up figure out of white liberal guilt-dreams. Mandla has none of the vitality, the impiousness and hang-ups of an educated Xhosa, a man from the quickest-witted nation in southern Africa. All he does in this novel is fulminate, fuck, and die, leaving the white reader feeling terrible. In this he has some resemblance to other reproachful black heroes created by European writers: Umslopogaas in Rider Haggard—even Othello.
The old white settlement at the Cape developed between two limits: the ocean, leading to Europe, and the Great Fish River, beyond which lived the Xhosa nations. Brink’s remarkable imagination seems to work at full power only within those boundaries, for it should be added that his Europe and his Provence are almost as flat as Mandla. (Baedekerish stuff about France and details of hotels and meals constantly get in the way of the narrative.) The test of this is Brink’s A Chain of Voices (1982), which is concerned with whites and Hottentots and half-castes caught up in a slave revolt in the early nineteenth century. This is one of the more impressive novels written by a South African, grand in its scale, acute in its historical understanding, and populated by men and women of great vigor. The differences between the characters of Mandla and of Galant, the young slave on a Boer farm who is raised with the Afrikaner master’s children but grows up to become the driving spirit of the rebellion, underscore the difference between the two novels. Galant becomes a complex person, Mandla is merely walked through the pages and given lines. Galant, indeed, is alive in the way that Andrea—who might be his remote descendant—is alive. They are children, then and now, of the Cape, the land that their creator finds so hard to leave in body or in imagination.