Imaginings Of Sand by André Brink was a second novel I recently encountered where an old woman, close to death, related a life story. The book's central character is Ouma Kristina, an unconventional Afrikaner lady, bed-ridden and severely burned after her house was torched by raiders. André Brink has her relate a family history to her near-namesake granddaughter, a modern, independently-minded thirty-something, and in her own time and way also unconventional. She seems to have broken free from her past, perhaps even rejected it, has lived in London and has even joined the African National Congress. Through her grandmother's stories, the younger Kristien rediscovers her heritage, her family history and via that her people's history. It's a long story and is delivered, eventually, directly from the coffin. While Sebastian Barry's heroine in Secret Scriptures relates a purely personal tale from her deathbed, André Brink's Ouma Kristina tells not only her own story, but also that of the family ancestors, and always via a matriarchal lineage. It's the women that make the history, and that history reflects the story of an entire people, spanning two centuries. In both books, the scenarios lack credibility, but equally, once suspension of belief has been achieved, both work beautifully as literary mechanisms. In Brink's novel, however, Ouma Kristina's project is much bigger than telling her own story and eventually it even begins to illustrate how myth can create history and vice versa. Not bad for an old lady burnt to a cinder!
Imaginings Of Sand is also for me a third recent novel examining the fears, hopes and realities surrounding South Africa's transition to legitimate statehood in the 1990s. Nadine Gordimer's July's People dealt mainly with imagined fears alongside valued relationships, whereas J M Coetzee's Disgrace encountered messy reality. André Brink's project in his novel is both more ambitious and more mundane, and it is also more successful. It concentrates on one family and its history, but it's a history that mirrors that of the Afrikaner people. Young Kristien, newly returned from London where she lived a life that was perfectly inconceivable for her grandmother, her parents and even her own sister, learns much and understands more from her grandmother's stories. We sense the widening perspective that she sees. We feel the character grow.
Of course, the contemporary family also has its current issues. Caspar, husband of Kristien's elder sister is a rampant Boer, a boer and a boor. He figures significantly in the book's denouement, acted out as the old woman predictably and eventually expires, South Africa elects a new government and Kristien, herself, makes a decision she would not have thought possible just weeks before. The subtlety of Imaginings Of Sand lie in how André Brink uses the family dispute as a metaphor for what is feared in the wider society. Suffice it to say that after a period of oppression and exploitation, it is possible that the repressed, guilt-ridden middle ground is the most likely source of over-reaction.
The family's history related by the dying grandmother might occasionally stray into too much detail, and sometimes the fantasy, the myth that André Brink seeks to introduce through their embroidery, might seem a tad false or confused. But then that's myth, isn't it? But Imaginings Of Sand is as close to a masterpiece of fiction as anything I have read in many years. Its successes are on many levels, across a multitude of parallel themes. It's a historical novel. It's a political novel. It enacts a subtly-constructed psychological drama. It also, ambitiously, sees everything from a female standpoint, thus binding both the reality and the myth of regeneration and reproduction into the fabric of the story. The book is thus a novel that demands to be read by anyone with an interest in Africa, South Africa in particular, history, politics, psychology, women or merely people. And it you don't fall into any of these categories, read it anyway! It's a masterpiece.