Explaining Black-White Violence

SOUTH African novelist Andre Brink spent almost four years writing and rewriting "An Act of Terror" in Afrikaans as well as English. "Translating from one language to another," he says, "drives me to rewrite the original. It can be a very lengthy process."

Several of his previous eight novels were banned in South Africa for political reasons, but censorship no longer exists there. "I don't think of myself as a political writer," tall, soft-spoken Mr. Brink says, "politics are there because it is part of the life I lead every day."

Staff writer David Holmstrom interviewed Brink in Boston.

In 'An Act of Terror,' were you trying to make the case for the appropriateness of violence?

Even more than the rest of the world, South Africa is a very violent society, which means I've been surrounded by many forms of violence ... so, [the book] was a way of trying to explain it to myself and to my white compatriots. When the character of Lisa appeared [in the book], she forced me every page of the way to rethink all my attitudes because she absolutely refuses violence.

In the end she essentially persuaded me. But I think the engagement of a reader with a novel has something violent about it; the reader invades the space of the novel, confronts it with a different reality and the novel does the same to the reader. In this sense I think language is violent. Through language we conquer the world.

During the years your books were banned, did you consider violence as an option for yourself?

No, I was very, very furious at times.... I would regard [violence] as too much of a failure of imagination. Because I knew terrorists and members of the African National Congress (ANC), I could understand that some people in some circumstances could do violence, but I couldn't.

Some critics have not been kind to your book. Do you view criticism as instructive or are you indifferent to it?

I would like to say I am indifferent to it, but I'm not. Sometimes one is hurt very deeply, but after the initial hurt or anger, I tend to return to it when I've calmed down and try to find something instructive. On the whole, there usually is a germ of truth in most negative critiques.

What will be the nature of the transition period in South Africa as the nation abandons apartheid?

What divides whites and blacks are forces and experiences which I think can also be turned to a positive account. Both whites and blacks have a sort of collective consciousness, as it were, of a tribal, nomadic, pastoral past where survival meant that you had to listen to the continent, to the rhythms of the continent, to live with the seasons.... Both blacks and whites have the memory of belonging to Africa, and this shared memory contains the ingredients which may lead to understanding. If this sounds like pie-in-the-sky, look at Namibia. A black majority took over there, and whites discovered that it wasn't so bad. Afrikaners have always been very practical deep down. But the problems here will be enormous.

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