Breaking the Chains

Review of A Chain of Voices by Andre Brink. Wm. Morrow & Co. 525 pages, $15.50.

Behold, I will make thee a new sharp threshing instrument having teeth: thou shalt thresh the mountains, and beat them small, and shalt make the hills as chaff.
Isaiah 41:15

Andre Brink's novel of a South African slave revolt in 1825 begins with epigraphs from Roland Barthes, Georg Buchner, and Friedrich Engels -- but the lines above, from Isaiah, would suit it just as well. A Chain of Voices is a Bible-haunted book, and in it the threshing floor takes on the same spirit of righteous violence that pervades the books of the prophets. As the farm where the book is set prepares for the harvest, other more sinister events are ripening as well, and the story becomes a kind of meditation on the dictum that as a man sows, so shall he reap.

One of the novel's many ironies is that although the white slaveholders quote from the Bible, it is the slaves whose lives show the true biblical spirit. When Galant, who will become the leader of the uprising, is strung up by his hands and whipped by Nicolaas, his white master and childhood friend, the scene resembles a crucifixion. Pamela, a slave woman, washes Nicolaas' feet, the act by which Jesus demonstrated his humility. And Piet, the white patriarch whose pronouncements have the cadence of the King James Bible but none of the compassion, is struck down by apoplexy in the fields as if by the hand of God.

A Chain of Voices begins with a legal document in which the revolt of Galant and his followers is set out in dry detail. Before any of the book's characters have been properly introduced to us, we know what will happen: who will live and who will die. Yet Brink is able to keep the reader's interest gripped throughout this long novel by breathing life into the dead letter of the Act of Accusation. His method -- along with some of his rhetorical flourishes -- is borrowed from Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. The characters take turns in delivering monologues. Everything that happens, all events and motivations and descriptions are filtered through a dozen or more different points of view. Sometimes the same small event -- as when one woman chops her hair short -- is interpreted in several different plausible but contradictory ways by several different characters. It is left to the reader to make the final judgments.

Despite the book's many voices, the conflict of Galant and Nicolaas early becomes the pivot. Raised almost as brothers -- it is possible they are half-brothers, both sons of Piet from the old man's randy youth -- their closeness evaporates as the two boys grow up and into their roles of master and slave. The strain this causes is only heightened by the fact that Nicolaas is a sensitive, enlightened man, whose pain at the rupture is great. His attempts to show humanity to Galant, to preserve some of their childhood intimacy, only succeed in breaking down the barrier between their two conditions and goading the slave to disobedience and eventual revolt. And because Nicolaas is no saint -- he has inherited his father's quick temper and desire for slave women -- the results are disastrous.

A Chain of Voices is likely to be a popular book for some of the wrong reasons. It is packed with the most lurid and familiar elements of some novels of the American South: madness, deformity, rape, bestiality, miscegenation, escapes and search parties, the smell of blood and gunpowder -- and beatings, lots of beatings. Men, women, children and even horses are beaten frequently and vigorously. But what gives the book its relentless integrity is the author's obvious care in making his characters live and move and have their being on the printed page. The stormy night in which Nicolaas and Galant take refuge in a mountain cave, Nicolaas pathetically trying to win back Galant's trust, is as feelingly drawn as any of the scenes of lust and bloodshed. Making allowances for the extreme case the novel describes, A Chain of Voices is a very convincing portrait of what life must have been like for both white and black in the days before slavery in South Africa took on new names and new forms.

Published in IDAF News Notes, August 1983.