Thursday, 20 September 2012

Philida by Andre Brink | Long Walk to Freedom

Andre Brink says that his latest Man Booker-nominated novel, Philida has been the hardest one to date. Perhaps because in writing it, Brink had to delve into the past, truthfully as well as fictionally. Philida is inspired by true events that happened on a 1800s farm in the Cape area. At this point in this, this farm belonged to relatives of Brink's ancestors.

Philida opens with the slave woman Philida walking all the way to Stellenboch to file a complaint against her master's son, a Francois Brink. Four kids have come from their union, but the main problem is that Francois promised Philida her freedom in exchange for her body. Now that Francois is being pushed into a favourable marriage by his parents, Philida's prospects are suddenly bleak. But come hell or high water, Philida refuses to see her dream of freedom shattered.

 Set around the same time as In the Heart of the Country by J M Coetzee, I can't help but make some connections between the two stories. Both novels focus on a female isolated character. But the racial, and in other words, social differences also makes their choices different. Ironically, whereas Magda in In the Heart of the Country wants to escape her isolation and desperation through words and fiction, Philida can settle for nothing less than freedom. She wants to have the freedom to say "this I will do, and this I will not do". She wants to exert herself to proclaim her own freedom. Magda sees herself trapped within a male hierarchy, but can only escape it through imagined patricide. Philida defies her "place" and confronts her suppressors head on.

There is a lot of walking in the book. I cannot help but draw lines to the metaphorical 'long walk to freedom. Philida walks to Stellenboch and back, to Cape Town, and finally, her last trek to the Gariep, which is a kind of promised land for slaves. In her journey of discovery, Philida comes to find herself, the muslim faith, and she realizes how she can be free. Philida is becoming a real pilgrim.

An added dimension in this story is that we do not only see Philida's viewpoint, but also Francois' and his father's. Even though our sympathies remain with Philida, we are reminded that each story has more than one side, and that slavery makes slaves of us all - including the 'baas'.

Philida is a beautifully written novel which I enjoyed immensely. Philida truly comes to life and is an intriguing and complex character. I haven't really read any books addressing slavery in SA before, so this was educational for me.  I'm not sure I think it deserves a Man Booker prize, but it definitely deserves a large readership.

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