Dog Bite Degustation: Brink's "A Dry White Season"

on Sunday, May 30, 2010
We all know the saying. The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for the good man to do nothing. Attributed to Edmund Burke (though good luck finding the quote in any of his speeches or writing), it is the practical pinnacle of the good samaritan doctrine. There is a certain cosiness to the sentiment, the thought that tyranny can be toppled by goodness. If you enjoy the warm complacency of Burke's rhetorical fluffy pillow, you had best avoid Andre Brink's devastating masterpiece, A Dry White Season. With the lead weight of despair, Brink unmasks any tangible endpoint of altruistic action as little more than a pipe dream.

I've never understood why Brink has been relegated to the role of the bridesmaid of South African literature. In many ways he towers above both J. M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer. He is equally comfortable with the kind of brutal realism necessary to expose the inequity of the Apartheid state as he is with the magical realist folklore of the rich black culture that he often celebrates. As a colonial-cum-post-colonial writer, he probably has more to say about his country and its transition than any of his compatriots. He is also the most consistent. Where Coetzee has choked since moving to Australia, Brink still flourishes in his homeland, continuing to write excellent, important novels.

A Dry White Season is one of the few books that I can truly say shook my faith in humanity. I realise its message could have come out of any Eastern Block country in the 50's, or a fair few colonial outposts, but for some reason this story resonated with me more than any other tyranny lit. Perhaps it is the simplicity of the tale, the way in which a completely ordinary guy, unremarkable in any way, can find himself in the vice of bureaucratic inhumanity, that spoke so loudly to me. Ben Du Toit is a brilliant everyman. Brink does not make him an angel - he is a bad husband, a merely adequate father and, dare I say at times, a fool. When the janitor at his school, Gordon Ngubene, comes to him for help with his son Jonathan, Du Toit sees the potential in the boy and sponsors his education. When Jonathan is killed in suspicious circumstances, Gordon goes on a quest to find out what really happened, only to be crushed by the same fascist machine that killed the boy. It is obvious from the outset that Du Toit would be embarking on a suicide mission if he tries to see justice done for the cleaner and his son. We also know from the first chapter that Du Toit dies. But it is the horrible machinations of the system, the Police Special Branch's virtually unfettered reign of terror and the wilfully blind complicity of the wider South African society that truly shocks.

Midway through the novel, Du Toit meets with a priest who tries to dissuade him from his mission. Du Toit, however, is unflappable. "What I think," he says, "is that once in one's life, just once, one should have enough faith in something to risk everything for it." Noble sentiments indeed, but whether it is worth it is left to the reader. Du Toit dies without a name, without having made any headway in his investigation and having possibly caused the death of everyone he tried to help.

I still love this book, perhaps more than when I first read it, and am glad to have revisited it for the Dog Bite Degustation challenge. It takes the existential terror of some of the more obscure novels I like and slams them into the real world. The fact that a society to which I bore witness, even from afar, could have been more horrific than anything Kafka imagined gave me serious cause for introspection. Brink is an important compass for those whose sense of compassion and morality might be a little askew, but be prepared not to like where he points.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Noble schmoble. Might as well read The Power of One. Or Lethal Weapon 2.

Bram the Bookworm said...

This is the antidote to Bryce Courtenay or Mel Gibson. Though I can hardly diss Danny Glover.

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