Nelson Mandela's 1990 release from three decades of imprisonment spelled, as no other event could, the end of an era reviled by the world. From the instant Mandela was free, the odious system of apartheid was, to all intents and purposes, dead; a new age was at hand. "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive / But to be young was very heaven"!
But new ages have come and gone, and things have seldom worked out quite as hoped. South Africa is no exception, as André Brink makes clear in his new novel The Rights of Desire. The title is a quotation from Brink's eminent contemporary and compatriot J. M. Coetzee ("I make my case on the rights of desire…. On the god who makes even the small birds quiver"), and on one level the novel is all about the "rights" of desire, the desire that not only makes us quiver in its clutches but can enslave us at any age.
Sixty-five-year-old Cape Town widower and former university librarian Ruben Olivier, the narrator, falls madly in love with his 29-year-old lodger, Tessa Butler, who leads him on a not-so-merry dance, while asserting the rights of her own desire with half the eligible men in Cape Town. So far, so predictable, in the manner, say, of an early Kingsley Amis farce. But deeper currents are aflow. This is South Africa, after all, a nation not so much at a crossroads as stalled on a level crossing in the path of an express train. Settling old scores is the unspoken name of the game, as in France after the Occupation: Ruben owes his status of former librarian to the new post-apartheid dispensation, in which "dead wood had to make way for the previously disadvantaged—the new catchphrase." Near anarchy reigns and crime is rampant.
A freelance psychopath brutally murders Ruben's best friend and neighbor. Gangs drive his housekeeper from her house. Ruben's two sons—one lives in Australia, the other has his sights set on Canada—constantly urge him to emigrate with them, but Ruben is a stubborn old mule. He yields to their filial concern only to the extent of taking in a lodger for company—and the lodger, of course, turns out to be the femme-almost-fatale Tessa Butler. "[L]ovely stranger in my house," rhapsodizes Ruben, a romantic of the old school (he listens to Puccini in his study), "who'd come from the night, like some dark moon, to invade my occluded life, to expose my vulnerability, to grant me no mercy."
And she does expose his vulnerability, to desire as well as to its concomitant emotions of jealousy and hatred; but she also forces him to examine his conscience and call upon his strengths. Ruben never was Don Juan, but from the depths of his desire he dredges up the sad dignity of Don Quixote, his childhood hero: "I rode out with that lean hidalgo across the plains of La Mancha as spare and fierce and open to the wrath and abundance of God as the Kalahari."
Like his hero, Ruben may appear absurd from certain angles, but he's tougher than the windmills he tilts at. If beautiful, dangerous, modern Tessa is an embodiment of beautiful, dangerous, modern South Africa, Ruben symbolizes the resilience of the Afrikaners who helped mold the country. He's been through hard times: his hardscrabble childhood on the veld would make David Copperfield's seem cosseted by comparison. He's been forced to draw on his inner resources all his life. Like his Boer forebears, he's learned to live alone. And then comes Tessa to awaken his old man's desire, which feels the same as a young man's. Ruben hates his aging body, now that he's mocked by Tessa's youth:
It's just this slow decline as you turn more and more into the kind of thing you've always hated, you've always feared. And all you can do is reach back more and more hopelessly, more and more terribly, to the past, to the thing you've lost, to the one thing that has made life worthwhile, to love. Every day a little more slips through your fingers. But you hold on, oh God, you hold on, because you know—so fiercely, so desperately—that once you were happy, oh yes you were, once you loved, and that must last you for however long you go on dragging yourself through the emptiness. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.
Then, one day, no more tomorrows. But before that happens, Ruben has an urgent reckoning with his, and in a sense his nation's, yesterdays. His house, as it happens, is haunted by the ghost is of a seventeenth-century slave girl named Antje of Bengal, who was executed for murdering the wife of her owner/lover. Ruben accepts the gentle spook's presence with equanimity (as does the reader, so seamlessly is her story intertwined with Ruben's), and she returns the favor by keeping a respectful distance, except when she disapproves of certain visitors (Tessa's lovers, say) and manifests herself headless, head tucked under her arm. As Ruben distracts himself with research into Antje's life, the justice of her execution comes into doubt—and here Brink neatly draws a vivid parallel between the Cape Province's horrid early days and the horrid modern days of Ruben's Cape Town. The rights of Antje the slave girl four hundred years ago appear as tenuous as the rights of this or that group—or, for that matter, of Ruben'sdesire—today; but then the southern tip of Africa has always been barren soil for human happiness, as Ruben well knows: "This is no easy country. It is merciless, it is hard, hard…. Whoever elects to stay here cannot expect to remain unscathed."
And whoever reads this lyrical, deeply moral novel cannot expect to remain unmoved. •
Roger Boylan is author of Killoyle: An Irish Farce. His short fiction has appeared in Scrivener, the Recorder, and the Literary Review.