As it follows his tragic heroine from her early life in Bremen to the deserts of colonial Africa, suffering untold horrors along the way, André Brink’s novel passes through a number of fictional hinterlands. As an indentured skivvy, farmed out by the orphanage where she grew up, Hanna is forced to wait on a series of abusive patriarchs, late-night indignities hidden from their wives; and one thinks of The Handmaid’s Tale, published some years earlier, particularly when a chess board is brought out, the equality of the game shaming the imbalance of power. Later, having been rescued and nurtured by tribespeople, themselves brutalised by German rule, she enters a pre-modern world of myth and oral tradition that reaches back to sagas and song lines, the culture of animism and memory that was murdered by print. Then her fightback begins and I found myself being reminded of that old Hollywood chestnut, the ragtag band of victims and losers which somehow revenges itself on enemies too stupid to exploit their superior numbers and strength. Only Bruce Willis is missing. And throughout these episodes the violence, remorseless and bloody, conjures the Shakespeare of Lear or Coriolanus. Here is our stage, both authors announce: let’s see how much blood we can show being spilled.
The scope and anger of Brink’s vision is epic in tone, perhaps self-consciously so. Implacable, as well, the horrors inflicted on subject peoples being twinned with the oppression of women by men. These are the original sins of empire and gender, the foulness to which so many present-day ills can be traced. Yet in order to bring home the extent of this savagery he describes the humiliation piled upon Hanna with a degree of detail that verges on prurience. Is this an example of looking evil in the face, or does his narrator belong to the long list of males from whom the poor woman should have been protected? And about that voice. Our guide to these events is someone researching the case long afterwards. The sketchiness of the records (even Hanna’s family name is unknown) excuses, or mandates, some uncertainty about what happens. This is a not uncommon device which in other hands has allowed a dialogue to be established between the story and the act of storytelling itself. Yet here, the writer’s intercessions are rare enough to feel token in nature, while long passages of action and description – of both actual and interior landscapes – go far beyond what historical reconstruction could hope to achieve. The God-like narrator – another avatar of patriarchy – is fair game nowadays but the alternative requires more attention than it receives in Brink’s cake-and-eat-it approach.
These quibbles give me no pleasure because for an Afrikaner to assault one of the creation myths of his tribe took courage, even after the end of apartheid. Has anything quite so excoriating been written about Britain’s imperial past, ignorance of which lies at the heart of current misconceptions regarding our country? The idea of truth has taken a battering recently, swapping its definite article for inverted commas. Yet fiction is one sphere in which that goal is deemed attainable, however crafty the means. In giving voice to the silenced victims of injustice Brink has affirmed the moral purpose of the novel, as he did throughout his life, while falling short of its highest standards.