Imaginings of Sand by Andre Brink is a powerful, sad and thoughtful book. It’s set in South Africa’s Little Karoo, a harsh and forbidding landscape, at the time of the country’s first democratic elections.
A liberal young Afrikaner woman, Kristien Muller, returns home from Britain to see her dying grandmother (Ouma), whose house was burnt down in a politically motivated attack.
The old woman, aged over 100, hangs by a thread waiting for her favorite granddaughter to arrive so she can pass on the family legends. These stories are told against the backdrop of national transition and the strain between Kristien’s sister Anna and her boorish husband Casper.
Brink is an Afrikaner who writes in English and lectures in English at the University of Cape Town.
I’ve read one of his other novels, The Devil’s Valley, and expected this to be similar in tone.
The Devil’s Valley is also set in the Little Karoo, where a group of Boers lose themselves from society in a hidden mountain range during the Great Trek. They avoid civilisation for decades, building their own introspective world influenced by 18th century values and their unspoken colored ancestors.
The main similarity in Imaginings of Sand is that Ouma’s story begins with a colored woman, taken by one of the frontier settlers. It follows her maternal line to Kristien herself. Fact intermingles with fiction to perpetuate a family myth.
Brink may be deliberately provocative in linking black African oral tradition with the Afrikaners. Or he may be challenging his own people to acknowledge the tar in their brush, so to speak. Or he may be saying that the Afrikaners are an African people with mutual traditions that they previously haven’t acknowledged.
Perhaps he is saying all of these things and more, depending on the reader’s perspective.
Brink writes with a convert’s zeal. English isn’t his first language, but he has complete mastery of it. His vocabulary stimulated me and made for a slower pace of reading than the other books I’ve experienced recently. In fact I finished two others while working progressively through this one.
Brink seems to concede that his use of language could be more economical.
Kristien, who probably reflects the author’s personality, says by way of introduction that she has a flair for English, but it can never be her native tongue.
She says: “I have delusions of grandiloquence. I tend to say ‘impetuous’ when ‘wilful’ would do, or ‘proceed’ rather than a simple ‘go’.”
That’s also true of the author; however I appreciated his storytelling ability.
The background political comments never distracted, but it was sometimes confusing to switch between legend and current reality, especially as Ouma’s stories weren’t chronological.
When dealing with the modern political situation Brink shows his own bias and prejudice. The whites who fear change are negatively portrayed. The character of Casper is an absolute ogre and could unreasonably represent a stereotype of the white farmer for outside readers.
I’ve travelled to Southern Africa and my wife is an Afrikaner (Juliet was living in Oudtshoorn when I met her, where this book is set). I found most of the white men I met there, especially on the land, sympathetic to their workers and black culture generally. It was more the women, sheltered in privilege, who struck me as racist (Juliet excluded).
Brink also dwells on incest among the trekkers and, even if this happened, it surely doesn’t deserve the emphasis given in this book and The Devil’s Valley.
Some of Ouma’s tales were genuinely amusing and I found one extremely funny. A forefather, Samuel Grobler, made a covenant with God after believing he was saved. The covenant was that a Samuel Grobler would honor the Lord’s name every generation until Judgement Day.
Samuel named his first son Samuel, but he unfortunately passed away, aged three. The next boy was named Samuel, but he also died. Then came three girls until, thankfully, another Samuel was born. He lived until the age of 16 before going to meet his maker. Mrs Grobler was too old for any more children, so the covenant passed to the next boy Bart to uphold.
Bart wasn’t taking any risks and named all of his 18 children Samuel, male and female. Bart’s wife delivered a set of quads and they were all named Samuel. Bart was at the birth holding a lantern for the midwife, who snarled at him: “Take away that bloody lantern. I think they’re drawn by the light.”
Imaginings of Sand is depressing in the sense that its ending exaggerates the dark emotion of despair. Casper fears for his future under a new government. Anna fears Casper. The mass murder scene provided an exit that I was unprepared for and consider unnecessary. The book was thought provoking and enjoyable without needing, in my opinion, to end on such a note.
Brink contrasts Anna’s despair with hope for the country in general. The elections went more smoothly than most people expected and whites readily embraced the new order. Kristien came to think of herself again as South African.
As the holder of her family’s maternal legends she decides to live once more in the country of her birth.
This juxtaposition of past, present and future is the positive message that Brink could have told without needing a violent conclusion to his otherwise excellent novel.