A Dry White Season
When I first picked up this book, I didn't know what to expect. Having never read Andre Brink, nor any novel about South Africa, I wondered what the tone would be, whether it would be profound or just preachy. I was also ignorant as to the full extent of the atrocities occurring in the country at the time the book was written. By book's end, however, I found that not only is Brink a brilliant writer, but that the issue of Apartheid is about far more than just a racist system of government. Like a malignant tumor in the body of the country, its injustice, its paranoia, its oppres- sion have grown to encompass and infect every individual person in it, black and white.
The story concerns Ben Du Toit, a mild-mannered Afrikaner living the placid life of a middle-class school teacher. Gordon Ngubene, the black janitor at the school, seeks Ben's help in his search for his son Jonathan, last seen during a demonstration during which many blacks were killed or taken away by police. Ben does what he can but feels confident that the whole matter is just some kind of mix up and that soon father and son will be reunited.
Ben's confidence is shaken, however, when Gordon himself is taken away by the Special Branch, South Africa's secret police. Gordon is soon found dead in his cell of an apparent suicide. Ben can now no longer deny what is happening, that the Special Branch is torturing and killing prisoners, and gathers enough evidence to bring the case of Gordon's death to trial.
The final awakening for Ben comes when the Judge rules for the Special Branch and his last shred of belief in the system is destroyed. From this point on he vows to help those blacks being persecuted by the system and is himself eventually persecuted and murdered.
Brink does a wonderful job of characterization in that his characters are very human, very real and believable, while at the same time they each carry a certain symbolic weight. Ben is the essence of awakening conscience in the midst of crushing in-
justice. He is the vehicle of Brink's frustration and indignation with a system of which he is at once a part, yet by which he feels totally alienated. Gordon, Emily, and Jonathan Ngubene represent an amalgam of the black, oppressed family, typical of South Africa, who are basically innocent, yet persecuted for their essentially human sensibilities. Ben's wife Susan, his daughters Suzette and Janet, his father-in-law, his brother-in-law, the principal Cloete, all reflect, in one way or another, the accept-ance of the system. Particularly interesting is the dichotomy between his two daughters: one, Janet, accepts passively, while the other, Suzette, accepts aggressively. In these two we see the two-fold triumph of Apartheid indoctrination.
This leaves us with Stanley, the taxi-driver, and Stolz, the agent of the Special Branch. In these men we see the two sides of the Apartheid coin. Each is cunning, each has a certain amount of power in his own sphere, and each has an interest in Ben's activities. In a way they are fighting each other, or at least what each stands for, through Ben, and although Ben is finally destroy-ed, in the end Brink leaves these two characters dangling. This suggests to me that they are both symbolic of the lack of resolu-tion of the situation in South Africa.
At first glance, the conflict of the story relies on the classic individual-versus-the-system scenario. But, underlying this, we find a range of more subtle, less immediately foreseeable problems. For example, I hadn't expected Ben's entire family, with the ex- ception of his son, to turn so completely against him. (This development was, I believe, meant to show how inimical Apartheid can be to even the most intimate relationships.) Another unexpected conflict occurs when Ben drives to the black township to try to find Stanley. Although the subsequent attack on his person by the black youths is a minor event in the course of the story, it represents yet another problem, namely that a man in Ben's posi- tion, rather than being treated kindly, would most likely be attacked by the very people he had been trying to help. It shows us how far South Africa has yet to go.
Ben's own inner conflict at the beginning of the book resolves about halfway, only to lead, in his newfound convictions, to a greater conflict with his surroundings. In fact, the whole book is tied in knots upon knots of problems and conflict, mounting con- tinually, one upon the other. The only time we see Ben finding any solace whatsoever is in the arms of the journalist Melanie Bruwer, and even this is photographed and used to blackmail him later.
While A Dry White Season deals primarily with the subjects of racism and political terrorism, it's thematic underpinning is that of personal duty versus moral duty. For Ben this translates into a basic choice which he is eventually forced to make: Does he give up his personal duty to his family to pursue his moral duty to the oppressed blacks? Which is more important, the embarrassment and discomfort of his family or the pain and suffering of a nation of people? While the answer seems obvious when stated in this way, the fact still remains that the "right thing" continues to be left undone by the majority of Afrikaners. It seems to me that this is what Brink is trying to change with his writing: the placid accept-ance of Apartheid by his countrymen.
The one aspect of the book which makes it so compelling is Brink's narrative style. He is a master of the writer's motto, "Show, don't tell". Never is he preachy, he doesn't chide or harangue, he simply lets the story unfold, even choosing a cynical, uninterested character, an old writer acquaintance of Ben's, to tell it. This technique gives Brink distance from the story, allowing it to essentially tell itself.
A Dry White Season is truly a great work, both in style and in substance. Since finishing it I have been recommending it to everyone I know. I cannot help but think that anyone who reads it will come away somewhat more enlightened. At any rate this is the only way true social change will ever come about: one person at a time.
©1996 Patrick Galloway
Pat's Lit Page