Thursday, March 17, 2011
Love, Faith, and Betrayal
An Instant in the Wind by André Brink
Published in 1976 by South African writer André Brink, An Instant in the Wind was instantly controversial because of its portrayal of a love between a white woman and a black man. A surge of fame and infamy resulted in a nomination for the Booker Prize, and banning by the apartheid government. So does the book withstand the test of time, now that it is not so controversial?
I would argue that it does. Apartheid may have ended but mixed race relations are still culturally delicate in many places and, on a more universal note, it is the story of any love affair between two culturally disparate people.
The epigraph sets the tone for the novel: "We live in a disoriented, disarranged social structure, and we have transcended its barriers in our own ways and have stepped psychologically outside its madness and repressions. It is lonely out here. We recognize each other. And, having recognized each other, is it any wonder that our souls cling together even while our minds equivocate, hesitate, vacillate, and tremble?" – Eldridge Cleaver
The year is 1749. Escaped slave Adam (Aob) Mantoor discovers Elisabeth Larsson who is the lone survivor of her husband's poorly planned botanical and mapping expedition into the South African interior. The book tells the story of their two-year journey back to the Cape, with a stay in a tropical paradise (a veritable Garden of Eden, with all the biblical imagery but a lot more explicit sex than the biblical version), forest, mountains, deserts, and featuring encounters with wild animals, Hottentot tribes, remote settlers, and a lot more sex. The landscapes are lushly described and heavily imbued with symbolic significance.
Brink uses a technique of writing the characters' thoughts as if they were spoken out loud. The contrast between what is thought and what is said becomes very clear, with all the implicit presumptions and misunderstandings. Brink's use of contemporary language and logic takes the book out of its time period. As such, what it loses in realism, it gains in universality.
It also means that as a reader it is necessary to suspend one's disbelief. This novel is really a Socratic dialogue, with its emphasis on internal debate and debate between the characters, as well as the symbolic landscapes.
Readers who prefer a more strictly realistic style of storytelling might have objections to:
-The lack of physical hardships during Adam and Elisabeth's sojourn in paradise: No nasty insects, no scratches or cuts from the trees as they romp naked through the forest, no serious infections.
-Throughout their long journey they experience surprisingly few gastrointestinal problems, despite the lack of clean water sources.
-Both Elisabeth and Adam are remarkably articulate and well-spoken.
-Even toward the end, despite being under extreme physical duress, they continue to wax philosophical on the nature of love.
-How a woman who is described as having reached a state of emaciation manages to conceive is pretty dubious.
These details, however, are beside the point, if one is willing to accept that the characters are being used a vehicles for philosophical positions, rather than literal beings.
This is a book about love. The soul that recognizes affinity in another is the universal love story. It is a testament to the human ability to transcend discrimination and racism, and see the humanity in another person, and the cruel reality that the ability to sustain this connection is very fragile. It is also the story of faith: faith in love's ability to overcome adversity, and the most basic faith that keeps us alive: a belief, even if unfounded, that tomorrow will be better, or at least not any worse. I don't want to spoil the ending, but whether that faith is justified or not is seriously questionable.
An Instant in the Wind is a testament to the human experience as lived: for everyone who has ever felt that heady, intense, passionate, caring and longing for another, while at the same time doubting whether their love would survive the pressures of society. Elisabeth and Adam are aware that their connection to each other is real and immediate, and that it could easily be stripped from them and erased forever by outside forces or their own weaknesses. "This no one can take away from us, not even ourselves."
-And huddle together in the night, pretending, when daylight returns, that it hasn't happened? For how long can one live a lie? A body contains its own truth and will not be denied.
-Love is the beginning of violence and betrayal.
-To hold someone, not for a moment but forever, in a world where everything is fleeting and painful and treacherous. And for the sake of that small possibility you must be willing to risk everything, to break through, to walk into the night naked.
-Who are you? I have never known anyone better, yet you are altogether strange to me.
-Have you thought something else was possible? –to touch someone and not let go again? But you forget one thing: we are still human. And so we remain scared, and petty, and treacherous. Look, you have abandoned me.
-Will I always be enough for you? One can only believe. Or hope.
-They're not trying to deceive one another any more by pretending it's permanent…They live in touch with past and future, no longer trying to deny it.
-For all the others I've been no more than a woman, a game, a toy. You're the first person to whom I am a person. That is why I dare be a woman with you.
-This space lay before them, all its possibilities enclosed in the future, on the border of reality. All they had to do was to say: I will. For it was will that opened it, will that made it happen.
-I believe you even if I know you're lying.
-But perhaps I was younger then. I needed the sudden violence to shock me into awareness. Now I demand much less, my needs are humbler.
-Surely one must have the dignity, sooner or later, to say: Now I refuse.
-How can you survive if you're not prepared to be an animal?
-One does it because one believes in it, because it seems right. Even if it means going against the rest of the world…What happens if one opens one's eyes to find one is still alone?
-One has to learn to live with betrayal.