Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Philida, a tale of slaves, masters and other pieces of knitting

[Did a version of this for the Hindu Literary Review] 
The first voice we hear in Andre Brink’s new, Man Booker-longlisted novel is that of its protagonist, a young slave girl in a South African village. The year is 1832 and the legal emancipation of Cape slaves is on the horizon, but true autonomy is still far away. Philida’s narrative is wise, quietly resilient, full of sadness about the past – including unfulfilled promises by her master’s son Francois, with whom she has had four children – but also forward-looking. Her descriptions are based on personal reference points: distant mountains are “blue and pale blue and paler blue, like old bruises getting fainter on your body”; a peculiar-looking man is like “a piece of knitting gone wrong”. We will soon learn that Philida knows a good deal about knitting and also about bruising, external and internal.

At first it seems that the story will be told exclusively in her voice, but this is a book of many colours and perspectives - it also has first-person accounts by Francois (or Frans), by his father Cornelis Brink and by a former slave, Petronella, who now occupies something of an honoured place in the Brink household. And the effect is that Philida, though clearly the central character, also becomes a slate on which other stories are written: the stories of the Brinks, of Petronella and of other slaves including Labyn, who has – in defiance of Christian persecution – turned for succour to the “Slamse” religion with its belief in a God named Allah.

One obvious function of the multi-narrator device is to get the reader to see the points of view – or at least the personal imperatives – of people whose interests clash. Early on, one senses that the author is trying to portray the complexities of this social milieu by humanising the slave-owners: by depicting them as products of the beliefs of their age, and even making them vaguely likeable. Some of the passages involving the Brink family are self-consciously cute, with the corpulent lady of the house, Janna, being the subject of much broad comedy.
Cornelis’s voice is endearingly droll at times, and he becomes an object of mirth when his son describes him as a small man, “strutting about the yard like a little bantam cockerel”. And Frans comes across as a sensitive young man: introverted, effete, genuinely concerned about Philida’s plight.

But reading on, I felt Brink was doing something more subtle. He could have made a facile point about the horrors of slavery by presenting the white masters as distant, forbidding figures, but paradoxically it is by making them accessible and even a little buffoonish that this story becomes even more disturbing (and at this point one should mention that Philida is partly based on a true incident and that the real-life Cornelis Brink was an ancestor of the author – which suggests that the white man’s inheritance of guilt is a running subtext of this book).

The Brinks have inner lives and idiosyncrasies; we hear their private banter as they play out a Hindi-movie-style family drama (son trying to rebel against father, mother sighing heavily in the background) and some of it has the texture of slapstick. But we can never forget that they are also people with unbridled power over the lives of their human “property”. There is no missing Cornelis's smug bigotry and his obsession with the literal truth of the Bible, no escaping the fact that he is capable of ordering and overseeing the rape of Philida by two slave-boys. Describing the hanging of a rebellious slave, he reflects that the other slaves didn’t seem to be bothered at all, “which goes to prove that they don’t have feelings like us”. (It is more likely, of course, that the “us” are subtly afflicted by conscience and that the other slaves have their own survival to think of, in addition to being conditioned not to show emotion.) Notably, as the story continues, even Frans goes from being a likable figure to becoming increasingly fickle, the sort of young man who might easily be distracted from nobler callings by a glimpse of the pleasing ankles of the high-born lady his family wants him to marry.

Whether multiple voices were necessary to achieve these effects is another question. Their use makes Philida seem a more formally complex work than it actually is: the device does little that could not have been realised with an omniscient narrator who allows us time with each character in turn. When such a narrator does emerge halfway through the story, it seems a random, belated decision, but it gives the book the grounding it needs, and lets us feel the full disturbing force of passages such as one set at a slave auction where the lashes on a dead man’s back must be counted and deemed to be not more than 39 (or not much more than 39) if his owner is to be held not guilty under law.

Philida does not have – nor does it reach for – the consistent dramatic intensity of a work like Toni Morrison’s Beloved. It is chattier, more informal and perhaps a little too loosely structured (the narrative makes occasional, inconsistent shifts from present to past tense to no real purpose). But it picks its dramatic moments well, contrasting the lives of slaves whose feet's soles are sometimes peeled right off with the lives of their privileged masters who get to wear shoes (but who are also dealing with their own minor hardships in a changing social climate). Through its tapestry of intersecting fortunes, one never loses sight of the girl who badly wants for her name to be written down in a family book – to be on the official record, as having existed – but who fears that her life is “a piece of knitting that is knitted by somebody else”.


  1. any similarities in writing style with Coetzee or Naipaul?

  2. Anon: nothing that particularly struck me, no.

  3. He could have made a facile point about the horrors of slavery by presenting the white masters as distant, forbidding figures, but paradoxically it is by making them accessible and even a little buffoonish that this story becomes even more disturbing (.....that the white man’s inheritance of guilt is a running subtext of this book

    It's interesting that despite the demise of slavery over 150 years ago, the white man's "guilt" still bothers him so much!

    What needs to be emphasized is that slavery is not an institution invented by the guilt ridden "white" man.

    Slavery existed in Africa long before the white man ever set his foot on the place. Arabs were enslaving Africans. Africans were enslaving fellow Africans. Slavery throughout the ages was a universal institution which spared no colour.

    But the decision to eradicate slavery, the decision to punish slavers was very much the idea of the white man! This is something that cannot be disputed. The earliest organized intellectual opposition to slavery did not arise in Africa or in Asia but in the suburbs of London among the missionary middle class of the 1820s/30s.

    What's often forgotten that slavery was banned in the British empire way back in 1833 long before it was even banned in America!

    So the progressive "white" men of today have absolutely nothing to feel guilty about, really.

  4. By the way, what interests me is that the white man's guilt was so strong back then during the first half of the 19th century that two new countries were carved up in West Africa that were newly populated by newly emancipated slaves from British Empire and USA respectively. Those countries were Sierra Leone and Liberia.

    Nearly 200 years after their foundation on the principle of liberty, we find that these two countries rank among the poorest in the world!

    African Americans in contrast who lacked some basic civil rights right upto the 1960s are perhaps among the most prosperous community of African descent anywhere in the world! Their relatives who fled US to return to "free" Liberia some 200 years ago are much poorer.

    None of this is a defence of slavery which is an abominable and despicable institution. But the point to note is that "slavery" isn't the only vice which stunts human beings in this world. Human prosperity depends on a number of factors - personal freedom being only one of them. What's perhaps more important is proximity to new ideas/culture/technology which is what the free, but isolated cultures of Africa lacked in contrast to their "less free" cousins in US or Caribbean.

  5. Talking of slavery bans, I discover slavery is far from being a relic of the past. It is very much alive and kicking. Guess in which continent. Africa.
    Here's a link
    which elaborates on the same.

    Some of the things that are talked about in this link make Trans-atlantic slave trade of the white man seem like child's play.

    But ofcourse the rest of the world is unlikely to take a serious note of this. These are "free", "soverign" countries which have emerged from the clutches of the European colonial. Many of them have had their honourable "independence" movements too. And yes, these modern slavers are not "white-skinned" which probably makes their crimes more tolerable.

  6. It is more likely, of course, that the “us” are subtly afflicted by conscience and that the other slaves have their own survival to think of, in addition to being conditioned not to show emotion

    Fair enough.
    But not all slavers throughout human history have exhibited "conscience" and attempted an intellectual rationalization of their deplorable conduct!

    It was only in Western Europe that these "rationalization attempts" were made - obviously spurred by a guilty conscience. When these attempts failed to convince their inner selves, the movements of the missionary moralists who campaigned against slavery gained more support which eventually led to its banning!

    Now you may ask - why were these "rationalization attempts" made by Western Europeans. And not by the Arab / North African slavers who preceded them. To me that's an accident of history. It's got a lot to do with the history of Western Europe. Its internal struggles for religious liberty (Protestant reformation), its struggles against monarchy (Magna Carta in England). The development of a "collective conscience" is not something that has happened in all societies. Western Europe yes. India yes (thanks to the legacy of Buddhism).

    But not all parts of the world have been lucky in this regard. Hence the cruel legacy of European colonization and Atlantic slave trade was a necessary evil that helped usher in the modern world in Africa.

  7. Shrikanth: you win! Stop! Stop!

  8. Jai: I've no issues with your fine book review. So my comments are not exactly criticisms of your points of view.

    The reason for my slightly off-topic comments on this page is to ensure more people get a more nuanced, fuller understanding of slavery's history than just going by popular perceptions.

    This is a very very emotional topic for large parts of humanity that still is a cause for much inter-racial rancour. And needlessly so. And it is important there's a reasoned debate to calm emotions. Only History can do that.

    I hope you don't mind.

    Here's an absolutely brilliant video essay on Slavery by a leading African-American Economist Thomas Sowell.