He Shone Brightly As A Sestiger
It was August 1968, Paris was quiet, and only the slightly faded slogans on the walls indicated that just a month or two previously the city had been engulfed by a near-revolution. Indeed, it was so somnolent that when Stephanie Kemp and I were slowly searching in our car with British markings for the ‘good little cafe’ where Andre had agreed to meet us, the French drivers didn’t even bother to hoot the moment the lights turned green. Eventually we found Andre, and he too seemed to be unusually quiet. I am not sure what I had been expecting. I think I had met him a few years earlier at the home of Jan Rabie and Marjorie Wallace in Green Point, Cape Town. As I recall, Marjorie, who spoke a lot and wonderfully, had had a specially tender regard for Andre, as someone who worked very hard, thought a lot, wrote prodigiously but spoke very little. I knew that Breyten Breytenbach and Andre Brink had been the two Afrikaans writers who when journeying to immerse themselves into European cultural life, had gone not to London, not to Amsterdam, but to Paris.
I mention the Paris encounter as a prelude to reflecting on the fact that almost all the recent tributes to Andre state that he and Breyten had been the founders of the rebellious Afrikaans literature movement known as Die Sestigers. Maybe they were the ones who coined the term, but they were certainly not the founders of the movement. The predecessor was Uys Krige who had spent time in France and travelled to Spain at the time of the Civil War. Uys inspired a whole generation, myself included. In fact, it had been lectures that he had given on Lorca and Neruda, linking the intimacy of poetry with the great events of public life that had propelled me into joining the Defiance Campaign later in the year. Instead of subjecting himself to the pained inward-looking forms of writing favoured by most Afrikaans-language writers of the time, Uys had gloried in the capacity of the language to express an ebullient, forward looking and cosmopolitan vitality. At a later stage, Jan Rabie had followed in his footsteps to Paris where he had developed an interest in science fiction (I called him the Uys of Space) and an ability to look at Afrikanerdom with an outside/inside eye that was critical/ loving. His best known book Ons die Afgod (Us the Idol) had had a huge impact. To this day I remember my amazement at the opening paragraphs where a young Afrikaans man describes how uncomfortable he feels walking in the ‘English’ streets of Oranjezicht – it had never occurred to me how marginalised a white Afrikaner could feel in parts of what was officially white South Africa. As far as I remember, Jan Rabie was the key figure in the movement that came to be known as Die Sestigers. I remember an Etienne (Leroux) and a Braam (de Vries) whom I met at the Green Point house while Marjorie was painting my portrait. Ingrid Jonker would pop in from time to time and be received with particular affection. Repression from the Nationalist government was becoming particularly severe. 1960, the Sharpeville Massacre, the march on Cape Town, the State of Emergency. Ingrid wrote her famous poem about a child shot dead when leaving Nyanga location. Richard Rive came occasionally, and Marius Schoon also showed his face. Paradoxically, the one place in Cape Town where I had felt safe and protected had been at the home in Green Point where Marjorie spoke Afrikaans with a Scottish accent and Jan spoke English with an Afrikaans one.
Years later, but still in the Sixties, and I’m in Paris, about to meet someone ‘from Home’ but far away from home. I am not sure what I expected. I think I was looking forward to hearing stories of passionate engagement at the barricades, of how Andre himself had been swept up in the violent confrontations. Instead, he gave us a quiet, reflective and just slightly sardonic overview of a process that had seemed so profound and enduring at the time and yet had evaporated even more rapidly than it had started. The French August Holiday, after all, had to be taken seriously. It was elegiac rather than triumphalist. I recall the gentle and courtly way in which Andre expressed himself, disdaining all temptations to take advantage of the Birg effect (basking in reflected glory). Having been in Paris at the time of the Uprising, he could have majestically inserted himself into historic events that in their imaginative impact exceeded anything that fiction could have produced. Instead he modestly saved himself for the role of writing fiction himself in the future. Even the meal turned out to be less dramatic than I had expected. I suppose I had been anticipating some memorably spectacular Parisian concoction, and instead just had found myself enjoying a lovely little meal in a lovely little place.
Andre went on to produce a great body of fiction. As far as I know, whatever the moment, he never lost his courteous manner. He looked you in the eye as he spoke. An iconoclast with the pen, he didn’t seek himself to become an icon. It was never a case of Ek Die Afgod. I feel a great sadness at his death, and yet a sense of joy that right to the end he never lost his belief in the power of the word and the importance of eternal questing.