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Monday, 31 December 2012

A Chain of Voices, by André Brink, Reviewed.

What a tremendous work this is. Ostensibly a story explaining the actions of a group of slaves in South Africa in the early 19th century, this tale of oppression, blindness, hypocrisy, injustice, love and prejudice is a startling and moving key to the lives of all those involved in the drama.

Each character has his or her own voice, expressing emotion and action in terms that bring that person to life on the page. The book is divided into 4 parts without chapters but with each section presented through the words of one of the many individuals who make up the cast. Everyone from the lowliest slave to the most self-congratulatory owner is allowed their say. There is no bias here. The actions of each character are described through the eyes of many as well as through the words of the individual involved in those actions. This technique, whilst making for a lengthy work, ensures that a fully rounded picture of the reality is received by the reader.

I’ve never read a work of fiction in which the people are so real, so varied, so open to examination. We’re exposed to honourable men, devious people, complicated women, thieves, scoundrels, heroes, wicked hypocrites, murderers, bullies, mothers, wantons; in fact, the entire panoply of human life. We experience evil, intense goodness, anger, love, hate, lust, usage, deep and unacknowledged hypocrisy, prejudice, ignorance, sacrifice, and every other emotion that can be imagined.

The 516 pages of the edition I read are packed with incident, emotion, information; all presented in styles to suit the specific narrators, without ever making the reader feel that even the lowliest, uneducated speaker does other than express the truth as he or she is convinced is the reality. Nothing so simple as the ‘unreliable narrator’ here. Everyone has a secret, some flaws, a view that’s not always in line with actual events. But this concentration on reality has the effect of making all but the most despicable of the characters more accessible, easier to empathise with, rather than alienating the reader.

Much is made of the position of the Bible and Christian values as promoted by the Boer farmers to their pagan slaves. Regular readers will know that I’m a passionate agnostic (if that doesn’t seem too close to an oxymoron for you) and I’m aware that this must colour my reading of this aspect of the story. But it’s difficult to see how the author could have had anything in mind other than the debunking of the utter hypocrisy of these supposedly devout people. He has them spouting texts that encourage fellow-feeling whilst they beat their unfortunate slaves almost to death. The masters take the women as and when they wish and then express disgust and surprise at the relationships developing between slaves.

Scars of a whipped slave (April 2, 1863, Baton...
Scars of a whipped slave (April 2, 1863, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA. Original caption: "Overseer Artayou Carrier whipped me. I was two months in bed sore from the whipping. My master come after I was whipped; he discharged the overseer. The very words of poor Peter, taken as he sat for his picture." (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The position of women in this society is wound through the story as a comment on inequality, paralleling that of the slaves. But the situation of the masters, farmers, traders, is described in terms that make it easier to understand how and why they should be capable of blindness and inhumanity in a savage land badly governed by distant authority. There are echoes here of the early days of the USA, when pioneers used the Bible, very selectively of course, to justify their cruelty and self-imposed superiority over their women and slaves. That such attitudes persist in such quantity today simply illustrates the self-perpetuating nature of the type of brain-washing that closed communities impose on their offspring. The South African situation of this book is such an accurate reflection of that persisting in the USA that the astute reader is forced to conclude that it was deliberate on the part of the author.

I’d like to see this piece of powerful, truthful and instructive fiction made widely available in all lands where prejudice, ignorance and religious extremism hold sway over the population. Any reading of this story must demand a re-examination of the views held by bigots, evangelical missionaries and those who continue to believe that colour is a rightful basis for prejudice.

I could go on at length but I’d much rather you read the book and came to your own conclusions. I found myself absorbed and involved in the story throughout, never feeling apart from events but always an integral part of what the author conveys with some of the finest writing I’ve come across. I think it’s redundant to say I recommend this. But, sometimes, a statement of the bleeding obvious is a necessary emphasis.

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