What kind of novel is this book by the late South African writer André Brink?
Is it a historical novel?
Is it a psychological novel?
Is it a thriller?
Is it a political statement?
Is it ….?
This beautiful novel can be read in many ways. You can peel off layer after layer. You may enjoy one layer and being confronted by another layer.
Let me first wrote a few things about the historical part of this novel. The framework of this novel was given by historical facts and Brink did his research and he shares this with the reader in this 6.5 pages of this book. There are two main characters in this novel.
One is Adam Mantoor, his name was registered in the year 1719 in the Slave Register of the Cape. Adam was from mixed parentage. His mother Krissie was a Hottentot, his father Ontong. It seems that this slave Otong was born from a Madagascar father and a mother from the Dutch East Indies. Adam Mantoo got introuble with his master (Baas), he was sentence and banished to Robben Island. He escaped in 1744 and wandered and came back to the Cape in 1751.
The other main character is Elisabeth Maria Louw, born in 1727, from a family of settlers since 1674, with Dutch and Huguenot (French) roots. In 1749 she married the Swedish traveller Erik Alexis Larsson, who had arrived at the Cape the year before. The newly married couple set out for a journey into the interior. Larsson kept notes for his research. The journey of discovery proved to be a difficult one, almost ending in a cul-de-sac. Larsson dies, Van Zyl, a fellow traveller dies. In the end Elizabeth is left all on her own and then she meets the man who had escaped from Robben Island. These two, together with what is left of the belongings set out for a journey and Elizabeth kept some notes.
Is it a psychological novel? Brink fills in the many gaps in the journey. There were some phrases in the notes that were kept and rediscovered. Imagine: a widowed woman in the interrior far north of the Cape. An escaped slave from Robben Island. They set out on their journey. Adam, the escaped slave does not want to be a slave. He has lived in freedom since his escape from the Island. Elizabeth is used to slave doing her work and attending to her. They are from different races, from different social classes, from different backgrounds. During the journey to survive and in the end to find a way to the Cape the relationship between Adam and Elizabeth changes back and forth. They talk with the other at different levels. They confront the other at different levels. They get closer and keep their distance. They find trust and distrust. At times they are like Adam and Eve finding a new balance in existence in hardship. A balance of love, a balance of trust, of togetherness. Of knowing one another at the deepest level. “This no one can take away from us, not even ourselves.”
Is it a thriller? Often in a thriller a dead body is left on the floor, in a bush or a river. The question to be solved is: who did it? Who will be caught in the end? In this novel the question seems to be: who will be free in the end? Will there be freedom for Elisabeth and Adam? To be honest the answer is written in the historical introduction, but while reading this novel this introduction faded away for I was captivated by the way these two people moved through the landscape north of the Cape and the landscape of their minds and bodies. Hope lingers, even in the cryptical end.
Is it a political statement? A white woman and a black man, in the mid 18th century. Brink published his book in 1976, when the laws in South Africa were strict, very strict, regulating life in colour schemes. But in the days when Adam and Elisabeth walked the earth life was different. It was not uncommon, although frowned upon, to see a couple that had crossed colour lines, probably living at the fringes of the Cape society or a few days ride with oxen away from the Cape. We meet them on the road travelled by Adam and E. We also meet people, nearing the Cape, who welcome Elisabeth, and refer Adam to the company of the slaves.
Is it …?
All of these and more due to the fruitful mix? What is clear to me that this is a wonderful novel, with many levels and many moments to let your thoughts wander. To see the mountains, the thirsty Karoo, the wild coast, these two people struggling for survival together. To hear their conversations in the dense forest. To witness their test of trust. To feel the wetness of swimming in the ocean. To be a silent traveller with them.
André Brink – An instant in the wind – 1976