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 …