Richard Davenporthines

Philida, by André Brink

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André Brink

Harvill Secker, pp. 310, £

The location of Philida is a Cape farm which used to be named Zandvliet and is now the celebrated vineyard Solms Delta, owned jointly by Richard Astor and the eminent neuropsychologist Mark Solms. It was Solms who brought to André Brink the story on which the veteran South African novelist bases his 21st work of fiction, which has been longlisted for the Man Booker prize.

The novel’s eponymous heroine is based on a real-life slave who in 1824-32 worked as a knitting-girl at Zandvliet, which then belonged to collateral ancestors of the author. Brink has delved in Solms Delta’s private museum, conned slave registration rolls and mortgage bonds, and perused tomes about child bondage, prison discipline and water resources, to create his story of miscegenation and sexual oppression.  

François Brink, the sensitive, browbeaten son of the owner of Zandvliet and its slaves, loves Philida, by whom he has fathered four children, but is ordered by his brutish father to marry a white woman from Cape Town whose money may bolster the Brinks’ failing fortunes. After Philida lodges a legal complaint against François, who has promised to set her free, his father sells her to owners in a more violent district.

The Brinks nevertheless go bankrupt, while on the farm of her new owners Philida befriends a Muslim slave called Labyn, who has been castrated by the white gang-rapists responsible for his wife’s death. The novel closes with the promise of liberating self-knowledge for Philida as she and Labyn endure a portentously symbolic trek to freedom.

The foremost narrator of these events is Philida, although the voices of the Brinks and others recount some chapters. Prose renditions of a woman slave’s patois monologues, often spoken in the present tense but with the verbs wrong (‘Here come shit’), and using words like ‘poephol’ (the orifice from which shit emerges), can seem artful and ultimately prove grating. There are, however, some arresting figures of speech, as when she describes François’s orgasm: ‘I can feel him pushing into me, into the deepest deepness of myself, and then he begin to shake like a sheep that got its throat cut’.  

Other narrators provide lyrical descriptions of the vineyard’s annual routines, or of market days:

All the wools and cloths and doeks and muslin you can dream of, and the fur of beavers, and yellow cotton, and all kinds of foodstuff in huge bottles and cans … preserved and dry ginger, citrons and oranges, dates, litchis and tamarinds … and agar-agar and smooth windowpanes and whale blubber.  

There is a fine climactic scene when the Brinks’ creditors force an auction of the contents of Zandvliet (biltong, paraffin, quinces, candle-holders and a chicken coop) and its slaves (Cupido, Adonis, Moses, November).

But the dominant images are of ‘vomit and shit and piss and sweat, day and night’ on slave ships; of a slave named Abraham on the gallows (‘I remember how the man keep dancing at the end of the rope round his neck, and how his thing get all big and stiff and start to spit’); ‘chicken-shit or rotten figs’ encrusted between the slaves’ bare toes; rapes perpetrated as a means of slave discipline; vultures eating the corpse of a man broken on the wheel; slicing off the foot soles of runaway slaves ‘as easy as a peach’; flogging. The cruel extremes of African life are such that even the cicadas shrill with ‘such piercing loudness that it penetrates flesh and bone and marrow’.

Although the pervading brutality seldom seems gratuitous, it makes repugnant reading. Philida is a morally earnest novel that it is easier to respect than to enjoy.