Philida – Andre Brink – Booker Prize 2012

I’ve just finished novel number two from the twelve on the long list and I must admit I haven’t read the 1976 shortlisted “An Instant in the Wind” or the 1978 shortlisted “Rumours of Rain” by the same author. So this was a new experience with a writer I hadn’t come across before.
This is the fictionalised tale of a the very real Philida, a slave in South Africa in the 1830’s who we find travelling to the local town to lodge a formal complaint against the son of her boss, who had promised freedom in exchange for sexual favours. She has borne his children, been subjected to cruel punishments as a result and has finally decided that “no” is and answer she can pursue.
The early chapters are told in many narrative voices, although all are centred on the plight of Philida. The later part of the book becomes more her own narration with limited input from the other narrative voices. The early explanations of her plight are the ones that ring most true:
What Frans say. That thing he say that really make me know for the first time what he is and what I am. I am a slave. He is not. And that’s all. Nothing else matter, not ever. A slave. That is not because of the beatings or the work, it is not being hungry or cold when the snow lie white on the earth, or to feel myself dying in the heat of the summer sun when I cannot lie down in the shadow of the Baas’s longhouse, it isn’t the pain or the tiredness or having to lie down when Frans – Baas Frans – want to naai me. It isn’t any of this that make me a slave. No. Being a slave, like I was today in that white office in the Drostdy, with all the papers and the buzzing flies around me, mean always going back to the place they tell me to go back to. I am never the one to decide where to go and when to go. It’s always they, it’s always somebody else. Never I.
There is one thing that I occasionally come across on the Booker Prize list and I really struggle with it, that’s is when we have a female writer attempting to be convincing as a male narrator and completely missing the mark. This novel is an opposite case in point, I believe Andre Brink has really struggled to accurately portray how a lead female character would think, behave and act. This could be considered a minor criticism, however at times I was distracted by the lack of authenticity.
It feel like those last times when Frans and I were together: when I move the way he move, not against him, but along with him. As if we find ourselves inside a big, slow steady wind, a wind that come and go like the sea. In and out. This way and that way. I am I and Frans is Frans, but together we’re no longer two, only one, like the sea, like the wind. Then I know once more what I am and who I am, even though he now throw me away like a mealie cob that he wipe his arse with. Into the Binneland. Into the deepest inside of everything. Into myself. Where I can only be what I am. A duck cannot lay chicken eggs. It is what it is, it lay what it must lay. And it is good like that. I no longer want anything to be except what it is.
The early sections of the novel where we see the tale through many character’s eyes, understand their motivations and fears and can get a holistic view are the parts that I enjoyed the most and had so much promise. However, then we suddenly go into a strange abyss. There is a chapter almost singularly dedicated to listing all the material goods on the farm that are being auctioned off, item by item listed for page after page. In the acknowledge section at the end of the novel, Andre Brink explains that the actual auction papers for the items on the farm where Philida worked he found quite interesting – he may have, I found it tedious. Other sections that had me completely dumbfounded was the sudden comparisons between Christian faith and Islam, large quotes from the bible and occasional quotes from the Koran. Why the religious fervour all of a sudden? It left me with a feeling of disorganised mess, with a whole lot of concepts that were going to be pursued but none to any satisfaction.
Personally I was very disappointed with what looked to be a promising novel, and am not that keen to pick up Brink’s previously shortlisted works (although I will). Unless the remainder of the long list is quite weak I can’t see this one making the final six.

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4 thoughts on “Philida – Andre Brink – Booker Prize 2012

  1. Hi, visiting via Complete Booker. I have enjoyed reading back through your reviews. I do agree about male writers sometimes struggling to be convincing as female protagonists. One of my most favourite books however is The Woman who walked into doors by Roddy Doyle and it is, as far as I'm concerned, highest praise to say that I forgot totally that it was written by a man I was so take by his portrayal of the narrator.
    thanks for sharing
    martine

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  2. I also wanted to comment on writer's writing the opposite gender character convincingly. It's a challenge, as well as writing about other cultures. Some people question whether this form of 'borrowing' is legitimate. Doesn't matter I guess as long as it's done well.

    I came via twitter via saltpublishing.

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  3. Thanks for the comments (one and all) they are always welcome here. I did think twice before writing that about “Philida” but the innumerable references and details of the sexual encounters left me no option. This is not a poor book, just one that could have been so much better.

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