Imaginings of Sand by André Brink is, simply put, a masterpiece. Not only does it bring convincing characters to life, flesh out the history of a people, portray the fortunes of a family coping with imposed and unwanted change, it also addresses one of the main political events of the late twentieth century. And André Brink´s novel does all this without the slightest recourse to polemic or posturing. Its themes and statements emerge from the shared lives of its characters. This is subtle authorship at its most accomplished. How many novels might aspire even to one of these achievements?
We are, as in many works by André Brink, not only in South Africa, but also within the Afrikaner community. We see things through the eyes of Kristien, who is clearly named after her grandmother, the dying Ouma, who is called Kistina. The difference between the names is both slight and significant. They may be separated by time and by political difference, but by the time history has had a chance to view them both, they may be much more similar than first sight might suggest. They are undoubtedly cast in different landscapes, not only in time, but also in terms of the landmarks that might endow their individual sense of permanence. Not only do their values seem different, surely they conflict, given their different politics and ages. Mid-thirties Kristien, of course, has been politically active, while her grandmother has lived on an Afrikaner farm all her life.
Imaginings of Sand begins with Kristien being summoned back to South Africa, because her grandmother is dying. In London, Kristien has had ties with the African National Congress and has campaigned against Apartheid. Her family, with roots stretching back to the original Voortrekkers are, on the face of things, conventional Afrikaner farmers, complete with black servants and employees alongside attitudes that accept without question the supremacy of the Dutch Reform Church, allied to supreme white skin and thus Apartheid.
The message to Kristien in London arrives as South Africa faces change, just before its first multi-radial elections. Apartheid is already a thing of the past, but not yet officially. Political transition is feared by the Afrikaners and there has been much talk of feared violence, even of bloodbath. Kristien´s family house has been attacked and set on fire. Ouma was very old and perhaps frailer than she liked to admit, but now trauma has taken her close to death. Her doctors expect it to be just a few days hence. Her granddaughter insists she should die at home. She has the place cleaned up and made habitable enough for herself and her grandmother, plus, of course, the servant family.
Once home, Ouma Kristina begins to tell her granddaughter the family history and her own life story. How much of it is truth neither Kristien nor we will ever know. Whatever racial or cultural purity the family in theory might claim, Ouma´s history of their ancestry identifies the inevitable complexity. But a thread that runs throughout is the central vulnerability of women. Sweet children, then playthings and finally enforced child-bearers seems to be the repeated and indeed only pattern. Any deviation assumes a break from both culture and identity, but it is a break that anyone from an Afrikaner community finds almost impossible to accomplish. Publicly condemned for any expression of independence, women are equally damned for any sign of disloyalty to community or family or husband, no matter how inconsiderate, lascivious or even violent he may be. For the first time, Kristien comes to terms with the life her own mother led before she died all too young.
History seems to have repeated itself a number of times. Anna, Kristien´s sister, seems to be respectably but unhappily married to Casper, who is both Boer and boor. When he is not chasing a woman´s tail, he is busy organising what can only be described as a vigilante force to anticipate problems of majority rule. They seem determined to get their retaliation in first.
And so the tale of family and national history unfolds. The politics of state, community, family and sex develop and intertwine. Race, gender and class play their roles as well. But yet this novel never descends into polemic. It is never less than credible, never less than real. Its style, indeed, in often an African variety of magical realism that both amplifies and enlivens the already fantastical stories of Ouma Kristina. The plot always surprises, even to the very end, but none of these events, however, bizarre, is anything less than credible, From the start, it is a masterpiece.