Though not consistently dramatic, this Man Booker-longlisted book does have a voice of its own, says Jai Arjun Singh.
The first voice we hear in Andre Brink’s new novel — longlisted for the Man Booker Prize earlier this year — is that of its protagonist, a young slave girl in a South African village. The year is 1832 and the legal emancipation of Cape slaves is on the horizon, but true autonomy is still far away. Philida’s narrative is wise, quietly resilient, full of sadness about the past — including unfulfilled promises by her master’s son Francois, with whom she has had four children — but also forward-looking in its way. Her descriptions are based on personal reference points: distant mountains are “blue and pale blue and paler blue, like old bruises getting fainter on your body”; a peculiar-looking man is like “a piece of knitting gone wrong”. We will soon learn that Philida knows a good deal about knitting and also about bruising, external and internal.
At first it seems that the story will be told exclusively in her voice, but other colours and perspectives are to come: there are also first-person accounts — unevenly distributed over the first half of the book — by Francois (or Frans), by his father Cornelis Brink and by a former slave, Petronella, who now occupies something of an honoured place in the Brink household. The effect is that Philida, though clearly the central character, also becomes a slate on which other people’s stories are written: the stories of the Brinks, of Petronella and of other slaves including an enigmatic man named Labyn, who has — in defiance of Christian persecution — turned for succour to the “Slamse” religion with its belief in a God named Allah.
One obvious function of the multi-narrator device is to show the reader the points of view — or at least the personal motivations — of people whose interests clash. Early on, one senses that the author is trying to portray the complexities of this social milieu by humanising the slave-owners: by depicting them as products of the beliefs of their age, and even making them vaguely likeable. Some of the passages involving the Brink family are self-consciously cute, with the corpulent lady of the house, Janna, being the subject of much broad comedy. Cornelis’s voice is endearingly droll at times and he becomes an object of mirth when his son describes him as a small man, “strutting about the yard like a little bantam cockerel”. And Frans comes across as a sensitive young man: introverted, effete, genuinely concerned about Philida’s plight.
Reading on, however, I felt Brink was aiming for something more subtle. He could have made a facile point about the horrors of slavery by presenting the white masters as distant, forbidding figures, but paradoxically it is by making them accessible and even a little buffoonish that this story becomes even more disturbing (and at this point one should probably mention that Philida is partly based on a true incident and that the real-life Cornelis Brink was an ancestor of the author — which suggests that the white man’s inheritance of guilt is a running subtext of this book).
The Brinks have inner lives and idiosyncrasies; we hear their private banter as they play out a Hindi-movie-style family drama (son trying to rebel against father, mother sighing heavily in the background), and some of it has the texture of slapstick. But we can never forget that they are also people with unbridled power over the lives of their human “property”. There is no missing Cornelis’s smug bigotry and his obsession with the literal truth of the Bible, no escaping the fact that he is capable of ordering and overseeing the public rape of Philida by two slave-boys. Describing the hanging of a rebellious slave, he reflects that the other slaves didn’t seem to be bothered at all, “which goes to prove that they don’t have feelings like us”. (It is more likely, of course, that the “us” are subtly afflicted by conscience and that the other slaves have their own survival to think about, in addition to being conditioned not to show emotion.) Notably, as the story continues, even Frans goes from being a likable figure to becoming increasingly fickle, the sort of young man who might easily be distracted from nobler callings by a glimpse of the pleasing ankles of the high-born lady his family wants him to marry.
Whether multiple voices were necessary to achieve these effects is another question. Their use makes Philida seem like a more formally complex work than it is: the device does little that could not have been realised with an omniscient narrator who allows us some time with each character in turn. When such a narrator does in fact emerge halfway through the story, it seems a random, belated decision — but it gives the book the grounding it needs, and lets us feel the full disturbing force of passages such as one set at a slave auction, where the lashes on a dead man’s back must be counted and deemed to be not more than 39 (or not “too much more” than 39) if his owner is to be held not guilty under law.
Philida — does not have — nor does it reach for — the consistent dramatic intensity of a work like Toni Morrison’s Beloved. It is chattier, more informal and perhaps a little too loosely structured (the narrative makes occasional, inconsistent shifts from present to past tense to no real purpose). But it picks its dramatic moments well as it contrasts the lives of slaves whose feet’s soles are sometimes peeled right off with the lives of their privileged masters who get to wear shoes (but who are also dealing with their own minor hardships in a changing social climate). Through its tapestry of intersecting fortunes, one never loses sight of the girl who badly wants for her name to be written down in a family book — to be on the official record, as having existed — but who fears that her life is “a piece of knitting that is knitted by somebody else”.