Imaginings of Sand by Andre Brink

Some weeks ago, at a party, I met a well-travelled reader who urged me to try the books of Andre Brink, his favourite South African writer.  The first one I found was Imaginings of Sand, written in 2000. I was not disappointed. 

Set in the days just before the election expected to end apartheid, the novel explores both personal and political upheavals, made all the more volatile by their intersection. Kristien, a thirty-three-year-old white narrator who fled South Africa for England years before, returns to say goodbye to her centenarian grandmother (Ouma) who is critically injured when black youths set fire to her house.  Kristien also finds that the violence her sister fears outside her walls exists inside them as well.

What buoys the narrative are passionate acts of preservation. Kristien hides Jacob, a falsely accused black man, in her grandmother’s basement — and brings him a book of Afkricaans literature that he longs to finish reading. On a larger scale, Ouma recounts her enthralling and sometimes uncanny family history, passing it down to Kristien over many nights: “She articulates my writing hand. I have the feeling, both unsettling and reassuring, of recovering something . . . . images from a space inside ourselves which once surfaced in ghost stories and the tales and jokes and imaginings of travellers and trekkers and itinerant traders beside their wagons at night, when the fantastic was never more than a stone’s throw or an outburst of sparks away.”   Just as Ouma is bent on teaching Kristien that South Africa is where she belongs, Kristien fights, with others, for the rights and dignity of blacks around her.

Most compelling in the novel is the unearthing of the palpable energy and inventiveness of South African women; we learn that Ouma’s multi-racial female ancestors lived “behind and below history,” but like Ouma — and the flocks of wild birds that shadow her — they found ways to make their mark: one “unmanageable” woman, who was locked in the same cellar where Jacob is safeguarded, drew startling paintings on the walls and later ran away to sea. It is their courage, and Ouma’s luminous presence, which guide Kristien as she chooses her own signature in a country rewriting itself.

Two other books by Andre Brink I have since found in my local bookstore are Dry White Season (1995) and Fork in the Road: A Memoir (2009); others can be found on line. He’s a prolific writer! On the subject of post-apartheid South Africa, I would also recommend J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and Nadine Gordimer’s None to Accompany Me.

I’m now inspired to search out fiction by new black South African writers;  Singapore researcher Leong Yew offers excellent direction for that search.



Leave a Comment