Thursday, 25 October 2012
Enslaved Fiction: André Brink's Philida
André Brink's latest novel, Philida (Harvill Secker), deals with the life of a slave woman immediately before the announcement of the emancipation of slaves, which took place at the Cape in 1834. Only in 1838 were they finally free to leave their masters.
The first chapters of the novel record that she suffered gross sexual exploitation, a commonplace of slavery. There was a shortage of women; slaves were in almost every sense the property of their masters and the law was administered by white men who had a strong interest in evading provisions designed to protect slaves.
Perhaps the most inhuman feature of the concubinage of slave women was that their children by their masters were included in the slave group, and often sold by their biological fathers.
The paradox at the root of slavery is that slaves are as much at the disposal of their owners as a chair or a bowl, yet both parties to this horrible relationship know them to be as human as their owners. This produced a climate of secrecy; everyone knew but owners refused to acknowledge that all kinds of abuse, from rape to murder, were taking place. Historical sources - the diaries of Lady Anne Barnard are probably the best example - make this clear, but they leave the novelist with a problem. If no one was allowed to speak of these horrors, in what voices can an author tell the story of slavery? Brink's answer in 1983, when he published A Chain of Voices, was the casting of his narrative into a series of internal monologues, as he has done here, where the story is told in the thoughts of the interacting slaves, owners and officials. Here the thoughts of Philida, her master, his son and the official to whom she testifies are used to tell the story. As in A Chain of Voices, the agonies can seem overemphasised, and the reaction of this reader was often, in the first section, "I've got that point now".
The major subject of the novel, however, is not the agonies of slavery, but the climate produced by the approach of emancipation, in which, Brink believes, the bravest and most discerning of slaves began to know that their subjection was not inevitable or necessarily permanent. They did possess rights, though up country it was difficult for them to exercise them. And the prospect of emancipation caused a waning of owners' confidence that their power over slaves would last for ever.
Before this happens in the |novel, however, Brink gives us, through the thoughts of Philida's owner, Cornelis Brink (a collateral ancestor of the author), a portrait of the appalling results of dominance over slaves, and indeed over legitimate offspring, maintained by unlimited violence - patriarchy at its most absolute. For most of the period of slavery the enslaved outnumbered the free, and especially in the remoter areas of the colony, the utmost brutality was deemed necessary to maintain the dominance of the masters. Brink shows us the gradual fading in the masters of the confidence to oppress.
In the background of Philida are memories of the Galant slave rebellion of 1825, the subject of A Chain of Voices: a master takes his slaves to see Galant's impaled head, which he believes will symbolise to them the futility of revolt. It does not; it confirms for Philida that even extremes of violence cannot destroy the human spirit.
Brink scrupulously acknowledges his sources: Echoes of Slavery, by Jackie Loos; Nigel Worden and Clifton Crais's Breaking the Chains; Wayne Dooling's Slavery, Emancipation and Colonial Rule; and Robert C-H Shell's Children of Bondage. This last, with its insistence that both sides of the master-slave relationship are degraded by it, is particularly relevant to the action of the novel. It is Dooling's remarkable work, however, that points to what has gone wrong in this novel, in which, towards the end, Philida and a fellow slave explore the meaning of freedom for them. The determination of the master class to close the options of the freed slaves so as to oblige them to continue, on minimum wages, to work on farms is brilliantly explained by Dooling. Brink's suggestions that the ex-slaves explore and reject a concept of freedom that would involve leaving the Cape are vague and their working out evades the truth of what happened and sentimentalises the fate of the |ex-slaves.
Philida is a fiction: doesn't Brink have a right to end his novel (however drawn out and abstract that ending may be) in any way he likes? The answer to this is complex. In the pages after the end of the fiction, he acknowledges his debt to history; Philida was a real person, as were Cornelis Brink and his son. The case that Philida attempted to bring against her owners is recorded; the circumstances of slaves' lives on farms are derived from historical works. So the message is: it might have been like this. And the truth is that after abolition it absolutely wasn't. The efforts of the freed slaves to achieve land ownership, to negotiate a living wage with employers, or to establish themselves as independent artisans were frustrated by the determination of the ruling class to retain, if not slaves, a docile - no, a passive and permanently subjected - proletariat.
Am I asking for a different novel, one which would investigate the struggle to realise freedom after emancipation?
Well, yes, such a work would be of great interest, and the fact that this novel leaves freedom what I think Saul Bellow called a concept without content renders it profoundly unsatisfactory. - published October 14, 2012.