The Victorians liked to think of Charles Dickens as their “special correspondent to posterity.” For the outside world and for posterity, South Africa’s novelists currently serve the same function. Our durable impressions of the Republic are formed less by what “news” state censorship allows to escape, than by the fictions of Dan Jacobson, J. M. Coetzee, Alan Paton, Nadine Gordimer, Tom Sharpe and Andre Brink.
The list could be extended. And given the fact that its total white population is four million (rather less than the weekend readership of the Los Angeles Times), it is evident that in its last days as we know it, South Africa is enjoying a literary renaissance. Imminent destruction, it would seem, usefully concentrates the novelist’s mind as much as anybody else’s.
Arguably, Andre Brink is the most South African of South African novelists. For one thing, he has remained in the country, where he now teaches Afrikaans and modern literature at Rhodes University. Others have fled, or have been harassed into exile, or have made a literary base abroad. Brink himself was tempted in 1968 to move to Paris, a place which is congenial to him and which figures centrally in “The Ambassador.” But he decided to be a South African novelist in South Africa, on the courageous grounds that a writer must take full responsibility for what he writes; even if that means censorship and imprisonment.
Not only has Brink physically stayed put, he has increasingly drawn his literary energies from deep within his country’s peculiarly divided traditions. Brink writes primarily in Afrikaans and has the distinction of being the first novelist in that language to suffer censorship for dealing with miscegenation, or as South African law oddly calls it, “morality.” But Brink also translates his novels into English, in which they have their mass readership. I can’t think of any other writer (with the possible exception of Isaac Bashevis Singer) who so heroically straddles the diversities of literary cultures. A cost is paid in the quality of Brink’s English prose which often has the rather sapless feel of translation. But the price is small in proportion to the gulf which his novels bridge between the Boer and the Anglo Saxon mind.
Although Summit Books presents “The Ambassador” as a new work, it was in fact written and published in Afrikaans in South Africa and in English in Britain 20 years ago. The story is set among the diplomatic corps of Paris. The plot is simple to the point of banality. A third secretary at the South African Embassy has an affair with a feather-brained Parisian stripper. She jilts him for the ambassador. In revenge, the underling informs Pretoria of his superior’s sexual delinquency and for good measure seduces his wife. The ambassador, meanwhile, is in the grip of passions he thought long buried. His marriage and career fall apart, but he cannot end the affair which is destroying him and all he stands for. Meanwhile, on the diplomatic front, delicate negotiations are under way with France for the sale of arms (which will be used for racial repression), and Johannesburg is in the grip of a black workers’ strike.
The novel is narrated from the principals’ abruptly shifting viewpoints, making up what Brink calls a “mosaic.” The image is important. Mosaics are compositions formed of separate fragments. Embassies are sovereign fragments of foreign states implanted abroad. And, in the largest sense, “The Ambassador” deals with the inevitable South African theme of apartheid. That is to say, separateness.
What Brink’s novel asserts is the human impossibility of separate development, the ideology on which South Africa has pinned its hopes of salvation. The ambassador and the third secretary, even with the iron disciplines of diplomatic protocol and Dutch Calvinism, are sucked into Paris, and transformed by it. In spite of themselves, and with tragic consequences, they become decadents, lovers, Parisians. To the official South African eye they are traitors and immoralists. In reality they have been brought to a recognition of their common humanity. “The Ambassador” takes its portentous epigraph from Lawrence Durrell, “love is a form of metaphysical inquiry.” But for Brink love is also a form of revolution. And destructive though the experience of love may be, it is preferable to the revolutionary blood bath which every day seems nearer in South Africa.
Brink’s fiction challenges what is called the “laager mentality”; the idea that South Africa and its (white) people can hunker down, and cut themselves off entirely from the rest of the human race in pure sectarian self-righteousness. Brink’s is a noble and in the national circumstances an almost heroic affirmation. And “The Ambassador,” makes this affirmation more effectively for not being directly about black-white relationships, as the author’s later fiction was to be. It is a fine novel, on a subject of enormous seriousness for the Western world. Please read it.