A Rude Awakening for a Life Lived in Contented Solitude

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The house where Ruben Olivier lives in Cape Town, South Africa, is an English Victorian built on Dutch colonial foundations. It is haunted by the ghost of Antje of Bengal, an 18th century slave girl who was executed for the murder of the mistress of the household--a crime for which the master, Antje's lover, was mainly responsible. Toward the end of Andre Brink's latest novel, Ruben finds Antje's bones in the basement. The house, in short, is a symbol for South Africa and its layered history of injustice.

When the story opens, the house is already in decay. The roof leaks; the garden wall is cracked. Ruben, a 65-year-old widower, hardly notices, shielding himself from the world with books and Mozart and cats, taking notes for scholarly articles he no longer even pretends he's going to write. A librarian, he was forced into early retirement to make room for a black colleague after "that famous moment when we were supposed to become a democracy and our lives changed utterly for at least three months."

Ruben believes himself to be content in his solitude, just as he remembers his marriage as a happy one. He has a genius for rationalizing away bad news, even though newly crime-ridden Cape Town is full of it. His best friend has been murdered. His longtime housekeeper, Magrieta, is harassed by gangs and burned out of her house in a Colored township. One of his sons, a doctor, has immigrated to Australia rather than deal with a collapsing public health system; the other is moving to Canada and can't understand why Ruben prefers to stay.

Doom--or deliverance--bursts in on Ruben in the person of Tessa Butler, an attractive woman less than half his age who rents a room in his house. Tessa is a liar and a drug user. She beds lovers of all descriptions under Ruben's nose but denies him similar favors--and he rationalizes this too: The old may have a right to desire the young, but they have no right to expect fulfillment.

Every time Ruben loses his patience and thinks of evicting Tessa, they have a stimulating conversation, or she grants him a brief caress, or she sustains his faith that South Africans shouldn't run away from their country's problems. Before long, he has to face it: He's hopelessly in love, and this makes him realize that his marriage, after a promising start, wasn't happy at all, but rather a long descent into resentment and aridity.

Brink ("Devil's Valley," "Imaginings of Sand," "A Dry White Season") runs some risks telling the story in the voice of a bookworm such as Ruben. Necessarily, the most exciting scenes--from a film-crew orgy to a lynching--take place off stage. Ruben can only comment on them. His mind, as Brink concedes in an afterword (there's also a glossary of South African slang phrases), is "a crow's nest of quotations and secondhand references."

But Ruben is also an acute observer of his life's progress--South African whites' progress in general--from a brutal boyhood on a farm at the edge of the Kalahari desert to a hard-won culture and liberalism. It's a progress that he has betrayed by turning inward, avoiding conflict. When the apartheid regime bulldozed Magrieta's first home years ago, he wrote letters of protest; now, to provide her a final refuge, he must go outside and deal face to face with the corrupt bureaucrats who have replaced the police state.

Brink isn't a sentimentalist. The young rarely desire the old; Tessa proves to be no exception. When a gang-rape attempt on her breaches the last of Ruben's defenses and makes him realize that all his life, by "turning a deaf ear" to cries for help, he has helped "create the very space in which the world can sink into the morass," the novel ends before he can act on this insight. South Africa can build on its past only by facing that past fearlessly--Brink is clear about this, but he leaves us uncertain whether in fact his country will.

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