Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Philida, by André Brink

Harvill Secker, 2012
310 pp

[also available in paperback:

"This whole land is built on our sweat and our blood."  

This novel was longlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize, and I finally found it again after having lost it for months.  Don't ask...the lack of shelf space for my books is reaching critical mass so books tend to get buried around here. Anyway, I'm happy to have read it, and even happier to have discovered André Brink  as an author.  Philida is a work of historical fiction, based on a real person in his family's history who worked as a knitting girl on the Brink family farm Zandvliet from 1824 to 1832.  In the acknowledgments section of his novel, Brink notes that
"The discovery that her master Cornelis Brink was a brother of one of my own direct ancestors, and that he sold her at auction after his son Francois Gerhard Jacob Brink had made four children with her..."
was the catalyst for his story. This re-imagined Philida is no ordinary slave; as the novel opens she's on her way to lodge a complaint against Francois who, after fathering four children with her,  had promised to buy her freedom.  He, of course, has no power to free her, since Philida is the property of his father.  She makes the trek to see the Slave Protector to air her grievances, a journey that will ultimately have consequences not only for Philida, but for others in her life as well.  

Told via alternating perspectives with chapter headings that read like something from Dickens,  the story begins in1832; by now the rumors are rampant that the British will soon be freeing the South African slaves. Philida is well aware of this fact, as are the other slaves and their masters. Philida also has a very keen sense of what it is to be a slave, noting "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," and realizes that she is a "piece of knitting that is knitted by somebody else." Throughout this story, she is looking to find out who she when the word "slave" is set aside, as well as where she really belongs.  The author returns repeatedly to this knitting motif, in terms of planning and patterning, unraveling and starting over again, important  in Philida's quest to "get to the right place," where you "pick up the wrong stitches and you knit them right," for a "beautiful piece of knitting that is perfect." It takes her some time, but ultimately she will come to understand that she first has to learn where she doesn't belong before finding the place where she does. How she comes to this realization makes up most of this novel.

The book makes for compelling reading, and while the horrors of slavery are certainly included in the narrative, they are there without the sensationalism that is usually present. And while this may sound a little weird, while I had absolutely zero sympathy for the key players in the Brink family (Cornelis, Francois and especially Mrs. Brink), the use of changing points of view helps to provide perspective from their side -- not just in terms of a lack of humanity but also in the bigger economic and cultural picture of an uncertain future.  The story also focuses on the power of stories, as well as connections to the land.  Sometimes I'll admit that Philida's philosophizing got tiring, and I also found that in some spots the way she spoke was more eloquent and refined than it probably should have been.  For me, the knitting analogy was just a wee bit overdone and a bit obvious, although I get that from Philida's point of view, it was a way for her to express herself.  However, I liked this book.  From a casual reader's perspective, it's an easy read, although for some readers there are certain scenes and depictions that may be tough going in an emotional sense. This is not your usual novel about slavery, by any means, and  I'd definitely urge you to give it a try. 

fiction from South Africa

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