It is a measure of Brink's genius that this compulsively readable novel seems so straightforward, at least at first, when one is deeply engrossed in the twists and turns of the main characters' changing relationship. Primarily a love story, it chronicles the complex, sometimes masochistic, interaction between Ruben Olivier, a lonely former librarian in his sixties, and Tessa Butler, an attractive free spirit, almost thirty, whom he has taken into his home and who claims to have deep feelings for him. But while Tessa enlivens his days with her attentions and conversations, she also toys with him, flaunting her numerous relationships with other men at night. As Tessa settles in, Ruben finds his once-orderly and peaceful world shattered, the memories with which he has consoled himself after his wife's death destroyed, and his view of himself and the world permanently changed.
The book is deceptively many-layered, for while Brink is exploring rights and desires in the relationship of Ruben and Tessa, he is also simultaneously exploring rights and desires in a political sense. In the newly independent South Africa, the formerly oppressed black majority is now in power and asserting itself. In the confusion of the power transfer, many young men, apparently feeling that "might makes right," have formed marauding gangs, attacking, raping, killing, and essentially doing whatever they desire, their only motivation being revenge for past injustices. No one is safe, and Ruben and Tessa, who had hitherto ignored the danger even when it struck close to home, find that they are not immune as they face a defining moment of terror.
The atmosphere of the novel is dark, the mood of violence is palpable, and a sense of foreboding lies heavily over all. The relationship of Ruben and Tessa is unsettling, strange, perhaps even clinically sick, but it is powerfully seductive in a Nabokovian way. The ghost of a slave, Antje of Bengal, 300-years-old, walks the house, haunts the inhabitants, and keeps them and the reader constantly on edge. Throughout the action, Brink's language is so fluid, his first-person narrative so smooth, and his sense of timing so keen that his style achieves an elegance few others could achieve, given the sometimes bizarre subject matter. This is a thematically complex tale of many interconnected relationships, and it's fascinating. Mary Whipple
on 26 February 2002
Set in contemporary Capetown,this a sensitive portayal of an ageing widower trying to make sense of his life while being consumed by a passionate obsession,increasingly sexual, for his young free spirited lodger.The narrative is punctuated by ghastly descriptions of gratuitous acts of violence, which eventually engulf all those he feels close to. The brutalisation of Post Apartheid society, echoes that of a bygone slave owning society. The protagonists are haunted by the ghost of a young slave woman,executed brutally in ambiguous circumstances by the colonial authorities. The author skillfully weaves the themes of obsessive desire,guilt,nostalgic loss and redemption through love. However the recent tragic history of his land casts a heavy shadow as the characters drift aimlessly through a world in transition.
Though not as grim, the novel invites comparison with another literary product from SA, namely Cootzee's Disgrace,which treats very similar themes.
on 7 September 2012
André Brink, The Rights of Desire
André Brink is Professor of English at the University of Cape Town as well as being a prolific novelist and winner of many awards, being twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize. This is my first acquaintance with him and, although not over fond of the supernatural in otherwise realistic novels, I found The Rights of Desire an engaging read. Set in post-Mandela South Africa, it is suffused with a sense of displacement and impending violence.
Ruben Olivier, a librarian forced into retirement, has lost his wife, his best friend and is about to lose his second son to Canada, the first having already settled in Australia. But, stubbornly and against his family's best advice, Ruben insists on remaining loyal to the spirit of his country in chaos, where gangs and mobs proliferate in both rural and urban areas, the police are hamstrung by fear of reprisals, bribery is a way of life for the middle class and crime the only hope for the ever-increasing numbers of the poor. When his sons finally manage to persuade their father, who has already suffered a heart attack, to at least take in a lodger for comfort and security, he tells them. `I'm not living on my own. I have my ghost to look after me when Magrieta's not here.' Magrieta is his old nursemaid who flits from the old Victorian house Ruben has lived in all his life to visit friends and family and report back to him the latest scandals and atrocities in the town. The ghost is Antje of Bengal who was brought to the Cape as an infant slave in 1696, and became the much abused mistress of Willem Mostert, who had her from a friend who bought her at a slave auction. Oddly enough Antje of Bengal, who was murdered and decapitated, appears not only to Magrieta and Ruben, but to his new tenant, Tessa Butler, a beautiful young publisher's reader with whom Ruben predictably falls head over heels in love.
If the reader finds the appearances of the ghost somewhat bizarre and even unbelievable, he or she will find the love affair between ageing Ruben and feisty young Tessa quite outrageous. For Tessa brings scores of lovers into Ruben's house, has wild drug-fuelled parties and what's more tells him all he wants to know - and more - about her sexual activities. Ruben, however, while being granted every physical liberty except sexual union, remains her protector and lover. Any sensible landlord or lover would have sent her packing ages before, but not Ruben. Their love must remain Platonic, or as near to that as possible. It's not that Ruben is impotent or lacking sexual drive, but that he accepts Tessa's terms that consummation would ruin their relationship. There's no doubt about it, Ruben is an incredibly saint-like man, occasionally compared to St Anthony, but surpassing him in devotion to the goddess Aphrodite, or rather, Diana.
But if you accept Antje's ghost, you must be prepared to accept Tessa's flagrant dismissal of conventional domesticity, for both are counterparts; free spirits, each perhaps taking revenge after centuries of male domination - mutatis mutandis the same now as it was then. All in all, once you acclimatise yourself to Antje the familiar as a real presence, then you are quite prepared for Tessa, a sympathetic though tough as old boots heroine, and her defiance of the romantic love imperative. Although I occasionally became impatient with our narrator Ruben's passivity and with his constant recourse to musical analogy, in the trade citations from literature and high-flown simile (After one of Tessa's flings he finds himself `like the sole survivor of some apocalyptic catastrophe,' and `medieval darkness wrapped around me like a hermit's shroud.') this is a thoughtful and well-planned novel, steeped in the native soil of South Africa.