Reading Andre Brink’s new novel feels like attending an elaborate party that doesn’t quite come off. The well-meaning host has been laboring in the kitchen for days; the food is tasty, but the guest of honor is something of a bore. Just before the festivities end, however, a couple of interesting latecomers make you feel this long evening wasn’t entirely a waste, after all.
The meal that Brink cooks up is an intricate, fast-moving story that succeeds in keeping us at the table for more than 600 pages of this 834-page behemoth of a book. “An Act of Terror” takes place in the South Africa of 1988, a country in the midst of a particularly harsh wave of police repression, just before the dawn of the current era of negotiations and reform. A cell of half a dozen black and white revolutionaries plants a bomb that is supposed to kill the president. The bomb misses its target; a nationwide police net closes in. The book focuses on one guerrilla, Thomas Landman, as he flees across the country, revisits people and places from his past, hides, is cornered, and finally fights a climactic battle at the border.
Brink’s skill as a storyteller collapses, however, in the final 200 pages--Landman’s interminable chronicle, in 13 chapters, of 13 generations of his Afrikaner ancestors, from 17th-Century Holland to the present. How many committed revolutionaries would be so obsessed with genealogy? The words that Brink puts in Landman’s mouth to bridge this yawning probability gap are mere speech-making: “How many lives have been destroyed through what we--I and my tribe--have done? . . . Have we become at last the cause of our own destruction? . . . those attitudes and actions of the English that provoked the deepest resentment among Boers are identical to the attitudes and actions of ‘my own’ people, today’s Afrikaners, which have prompted the revolt of my black compatriots, and which have turned me into an activist.”
Alas, despite the suspenseful plot, too much of the remainder of the novel also consists of such oratory:
“Making a gesture with his head towards the distant city, without looking at her, he said, ‘We could have been down there like all the others today, doing our shopping or lying on a beach. So what makes us different from them? How did we get here? Do you think we’ve gone crazy?’
“ ‘Suppose it’s the world that’s crazy, not us,’ she said, ‘then everything becomes its own opposite, not so? Then being ordinary, being normal, means being mad.’ ”
Do people about to plant a bomb talk like this? Only in the movies, I’m afraid. The problem is even worse when it comes to the novel’s black characters, who are mostly too good to be true: brilliant, non-racist, security-conscious, confessing nothing under torture, sacrificing all for the struggle, given to saying things such as: “The whole country is a jail . . . all of us are caught in that prison. Prisoners and warders, wherever you look. And whether you turn out to be the one rather than the other is a mere accident of history.” The novel’s one Jew has also been sent over from Central Casting, with a father who was in Auschwitz and a fleeting temptation to drop out and flee to Israel, to be “among my own people.”
I wish I liked this book better, for Brink has been on the right side in his divided country since long before it was fashionable. At various times, the authorities have banned his books, confiscated his notes, opened his mail, searched his house. Much of this police harassment is because Brink is himself an Afrikaner. He has lived mostly in a conservative, rural part of South Africa, where it is far harder to be a progressive Afrikaner or a progressive anything than it is in Cape Town or Johannesburg.
But honorable intentions alone do not a good novel make, and this is especially true in dealing with the subject, so easy to romanticize, of a white hero who throws in his lot with the African National Congress. Like “An Act of Terror,” Nadine Gordimer’s “Burger’s Daughter” is also about an Afrikaner drawn into the resistance movement. Yet Gordimer’s men and women are anything but stick-figure paragons of revolutionary virtue. A black character in “Burger’s Daughter” has too much to drink at a party in London and angrily, harshly, convincingly tells the novel’s heroine, Rosa Burger, that white people have no place in the struggle. But that conversation is a mysterious turning point; after it, without quite knowing why, Burger decides to return to South Africa and to do what she can, eventually landing in prison. It is that sense of the contradictions and unknowableness of life that is largely missing from “An Act of Terror.”
It is not entirely missing, however. Some unpredictable party guests do show up before the end. It is in getting into the minds of certain of his fellow Afrikaners that Brink is at his best: a police brigadier, a judge who searches his soul in the language of a legal brief, a group of “young, smooth, streamlined, rich, detribalized” professionals with car phones, second homes and liberal ideas, whose milieu is swiftly captured in a few stunning pages.
If there is a smaller, more confused novel struggling to escape the earnest, enveloping folds of “An Act of Terror,” it is largely about some of these minor characters. The best pages in the book are about an Afrikaner who gives a ride to Thomas Landman and his woman companion: an enormous, bawdy, boisterous man named Vleis Wagenaar with a beard, “coffin-sized feet” and “a voice like an underground rock-fall” in the mines.
Wagenaar is a voracious eater, drinker and talker hungry for companionship. He is traveling around the country with his long-suffering black driver-servant-court jester in a huge truck filled with frozen lobster. He stops here and there to go hunting with farmer friends; he gives them lobster, and his freezers gradually fill up with game. He insistently drags Landman and his friend along for the ride, and they go--knowing that on the road with this improbable mountain of a man is the last place the police will be looking for them.
Only after they leave him does he discover they are escaping terrorists, but instead of condemning them, as we might expect, he thinks, “But never mind, hell, I could have taken them to the border. Damn sure I would have. Never said no to a bit of sport. And there’s hunting galore in Botswana. . . .” And about Landman’s bomb: “Look, I’m not in favor of that kind of thing. . . . But I mean, hell, he had guts. For my part he could have blown up the whole government. Corrupt lot, taking us to death.”
Here is a character who has definitely not come out of Central Casting, and as a result he moves, breathes, and walks off the page. I hope to meet his kin in Brink’s next novel.