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Andre Brink still wakes at night in a cold sweat at the thought of it. The former anti-apartheid crusader is not recalling the years spent under the constant surveillance of South African security police, but rather a launch party for one of his novels. Spying an absurdly dressed woman in a corner, Brink asked his publisher, "Who on earth is that wretched-looking woman over there?"
That woman was the publisher's wife.
"I wanted to sink into the ground," Brink says. "It was indescribable."
But with 16 critically acclaimed novels to his credit, Brink can afford the occasional faux pas. Twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, he received the ultimate recognition of having his work repeatedly banned under South Africa's apartheid regime. Yet with the release of Before I Forget, the writer - whose works Nelson Mandela himself regularly peddled to his fellow prisoners - would rather talk about sex than politics. Years of combat haven't crushed the sentimentalist in Brink, who calls Don Quixote a muse, and speaks, as he writes, in rapt, lyrical tones about sex.
"Nowhere except in the context of sexual love can one get so close to somebody else and yet experience so agonizingly the gulf that continues to yawn between self and other," he says.
Powered by erotic energies, Before I Forget takes the form of the sexual recollections of its narrator, Chris Minaar, a 78-year-old internationally celebrated novelist and anti-apartheid activist whose creative powers have dried up. Through cataloging the various trysts of his sexual career, the lifelong womanizer attempts to give shape to a rudderless existence.
The parallels between the bed-hopping narrator and his architect are stark, but Brink insists he did not strip-mine his life for the novel. As he puts it (perhaps a little too emphatically), "It is perhaps the least autobiographical of my novels."
Yet Brink, who will soon turn 70, admits that this renewed preoccupation with sexuality was born by the reality of aging: "An experience like sex is intimately and immediately connected to time - to the fact that one is finite, that love can't go on. The fact of death lends not only urgency but also meaning to one's experience of love."
That his wife remains uncomfortable with his fervent anatomizations of the female form is no deterrent for Brink. Brink attributes the resistance of his wife, 30 years his junior, to her relative youth. And he insists it's the campaigning verve of his fist-shaking years that keeps breaking through. "I have to fight this battle inside myself for myself," he says.
Penned when he was only 12, Brink's first novel was rejected by one publisher on the grounds that it was too erotic. That fact now amuses him, as he "didn't know the least thing about sex at that stage."
Brink has always found it necessary to fall in love with his female creations. Writing was both the product and balm of his loneliness, with Brink fashioning through fiction "the ideal women with whom I could fall in love." This amatory undercurrent to his writing did, he confesses, "make it difficult to handle actual relationships by the time I broke through the shell of shyness."
Brink's 1974 novel Looking on Darkness, an interracial love story, became the first Afrikaner novel ever to be banned rather than censored. Deprived of a readership in his homeland, Brink started composing his books concurrently in Afrikaans and English to ensure that his work would at least survive internationally. The demise of apartheid South Africa didn't change the practice. "It has become so much part and parcel of my way of writing that I cannot do without it," he says.
Sometimes he will deploy different languages for the dialogue and the descriptive passages; for other books, he alternates between chapters. "It lends a necessary distance to what one writes," he says. "Since for me the actual act of writing happens quite fast, the extra slogging imposes a necessary slowness to make me think doubly about every little thing I write."
An Instant in the Wind (1978) and A Dry White Season (1985) also were proscribed, but by then Brink had found a way to subvert the censor's red pen. A cohort of Brink's friends created a subscription service through which his novels could be circulated semi-clandestinely before they could be banned.
"Fortunately, South Africa never experienced pre-publication censorship," he says.
Writing in The Guardian in Britain shortly after the meltdown of apartheid, Brink described the sense of doom hanging over the South African literary set "in the curious conviction that there's nothing left to write about any more."
That despair has lifted, Brink now insists, and South African literature has grown richer than ever before. Now that the narrow political impetus is gone, "there's much more scope for the larger spectrum of human experience." He says, "All the stories that one kept on the back burner because there were more urgent things to write about can now be taken up."
Yet the feeling of impotence among the white political minority, no longer on the receiving end of the race card, remains pervasive.
"There is a sense that, having lost the grip of power, they are just wandering in a new kind of wilderness," he says. "Many of them just want to give up and leave." When pressed for his response to former compatriot J. M. Coetzee's recent move to Adelaide, Australia, Brink says, "John Coetzee is an immensely private person, so I think it would be presumptuous of me or anybody to say I'm a friend of his. But I understand that for the kind of person he is, he will carry the source of his inspiration with him, and does not need the interaction with his immediate surroundings that I do."
Years of battling the racist traditions of apartheid South Africa haven't eroded Brink's passion for rugby, the ultimate emblem of Afrikanerdom.
"It's close to the ways Hemingway described the bullfight," he says. "When it's bad, there are few experiences as atrocious as it. But when it is good, there's a kind of ferocious beauty and poetry about it which just grips me in the guts."
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