A South African novelist distracted by reality

The Wall of the Plague, by Andr'e Brink. New York: Summit Books. 447 pp. $17.95. Some people write because -- and only because -- the spectacle of gross injustice spurs them to speak out. Sometimes what they write will have enduring value; more often it will fade away in time, having served its temporary purpose as honest outcry or calculated agitprop.

In the case of writers like Nadine Gordimer and Andr'e Brink, who would probably have become writers wherever they had been born, the decision to speak out against the injustices of South Africa's institutionalized racism has been a decision fraught with aesthetic as well as political consequences.

In Andr'e Brink's latest novel, it is Paul Joubert, a middle-aged white South African expatriate living in the land of his Huguenot ancestors, who is torn between his aspirations as a novelist and his anger at the system of apartheid in the land where he was born. Unable to write a novel about the idea that obsesses him, the great plagues that devastated Europe in the 14th and 18th centuries, Joubert is contemplating making a film about that topic.

The theme of the plague, as Joubert knows, has haunted the imagination of writers like Albert Camus and Antonine Artaud as a metaphor for fascism and other man-made evils. Brink quotes Camus: ``All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it's up to us, as far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.''

How, wonders Joubert, can he concentrate on refining his perceptions when he knows that friends of his are being tortured in prison cells for their beliefs? And what kind of man would he be if he were able to build a ``wall'' against the plague -- to dismiss unpleasant realities as distractions from his work? Political oppression thus menaces the artist not only directly with the threat of censorship but also indirectly -- unintentionally undermining the enterprise of art by making it seem frivolous.

The bulk of this novel, however, is not about Paul Joubert, but about Andrea Malgas, a South African Colored (mixed race) woman who has also fled her country to live in France. Paul has sent Andrea on a trip scouting film locations in Provence. She is taking this time on her own to decide whether or not she is willing to marry him. The story is told primarily from her viewpoint, as she travels through France trying to get her bearings.

Her solitude is unexpectedly curtailed when she is joined by Mandla Mqayisa, a black African freedom fighter. Andrea considers Mandla an arrogant male chauvinist. Mandla thinks Andrea is running away from her African roots, seeking vain refuge in a white man's world. Gradually but inevitably, Andrea begins to confront her past: the pain and humiliation she suffered in her native land as a member of a victimized race. She comes, not only to understand, but finally to share, Mandla's conviction that one finds one's true identity only by fighting for it.

The conclusion Mandla has reached from the atrocities perpetrated upon him and his people in South Africa is that nonviolent methods are futile in a society governed by violent ones. ``They have no place for you,'' he says, ``because they themselves know only violence.''

Yet woven through Andrea's story is the thin thread of another voice -- Paul's voice -- heard in sudden, parenthetical intrusions: ``Could these have been your thoughts? I have no choice but to presume. . . . Forgive me in advance. `For God's sake, don't turn me into a story,' you said.''

But Joubert (or is it Brink?) has turned her into a story. It is the only way he feels he can do justice to her while remaining true to his identity as a writer, an apostle of the word, a priest of the imagination.

In the brief, final section of the book we hear him speaking in his own voice: ``A book does not weigh much against the violence of the world. . . . Yet what would have become of the world without the word?

``One can appeal . . . to the violence latent inside, the urge . . . to destroy . . . to the imagination, to the human being's ability to create.''

Paul's attempt to imagine what it is like to be Andrea, to tell her story, is a noble and worthy enterprise, but only partly successful. The trouble, I think, lies in the deadening of sensibility that comes when we are forced to see the world in black and white. Gross injustice engenders blunt responses, reducing the level of discourse to what is painfully obvious, just as racism reduces the miracle of human diversity to the crude categories of race.

Brink's concern with profound questions of personal and political morality lifts his work and this novel far above the flow of idle fiction published each year, but the distractions of reality prevent him from achieving the degree of detachment necessary to produce the kind of art to which he aspires.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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