This 1993 work is a strange novel. It took me a long time to get into it. It is narrated by Estienne Barbier, a Frenchman who has mysteriously fled to South Africa, arriving in 1734. We meet him imprisoned in a dark hole in a dungeon, unable to see light and fed sparingly. But who is he, and why is he there? He passes the time by writing letters to Rosette, a slave who once fascinated him, and whom he once helped escape but soon lost. And these letters to Rosette, this illiterate slave girl, is the novel we are reading. He is explaining to her, and to us, why he has ended up where he is.
He begins with his life story, how he escaped Holland and France with a girl named Jeanne, fleeing in part to escape family responsibility but primarily to escape obvious complications from the scorned husbands of the many women he had seduced. Slowly, we realize that Jeanne is Joan of Arc, and that she is not real but the voice of his conscience, guiding and defending his actions.
He also carries a book that he uses as a guide. It is about Don Quixote de la Mancha, and we realize that Estienne is also a dreamer, an idealist, who initially seeks a mythical city of gold far away in the beautiful African landscape. He learns of it while acting as a record-keeper on an army expedition. And when this idealist tries to write of the injustices he also encounters on that expedition, he is order not to do so. It is the first evidence of his refusal to accommodate to the reality around him, which will soon be exemplified by his pursuit of justice.
The reality that Estienne ignores is that the harsh local government steals from the colonists; and he becomes a leader of the colonialists’ cause. For much of the book he is fleeing from government forces who are after him, finding refuge with various farmers (and their wives). Eventually, however, his colonialist friends desert him, and while the government’s solution, which is to reward his friends, is completely unjust, he realizes his failure and surrenders—and ends up in the dungeon in which we find him at the start of the novel.
Brink obviously intended this novel to offer commentary on the origins of his country, how the modern prejudice against blacks was forecasted in this earlier era when the Dutch administrators controlled the life and the economics of the white settlers, the Afrikans, and the frustrated Afrikans sought wealth by expanding their settlements into the territory of the Hottentots, longtime livestock farmers who came from central Africa—and who became the scapegoats in this failing society.
But Brink has also stacked some of the odds against himself. For while he has created a hero whose position as a fugitive underdog is easy to relate to, and who works in the cause of justice for the settlers, he is also a man who also regards women as victims to satisfy his passions, and who is insecure, often debating with Jeanne to decide and then justify his actions. It is Jeanne, for example, who helps him rationalize leaving his original wife, Neeltje, and their children, and then abandoning the succeeding fiancée, Ghislaine—all so he can achieve his destined glory. For an author to create a complex hero is often desirable, but here the complexity for me is in black and white, rather then in shades of grey.
When Brink also tells us at the beginning what will be the fate of his hero, he forgoes much of the suspense that would be natural as his hero flees the government authorities during most of this book. Which means he wants the focus to be on the society he is depicting and the role of justice in that society. Not on Estienne himself. With the inevitability of Estienne’s failure only emphasizing the injustice he is intent on depicting. It is these hindrances, the absence of a hero I can identify with and the inevitability of his fate, that have thwarted me from becoming involved in this story and in this book.
To sum up, this work has been a disappointment. Not because of its historical setting. Not because of the injustice that is depicted at the heart of this novel. But because of the initial difficulty in understanding who Estienne is and where he has come from. And then because of the focus on his situation, the conclusion of which we know, rather than on the complexity within him as a person. (December, 2015)