I started reading Philida with great enthusiasm, compared as the author was with Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the PR note. Sure, there was some trepidation, because Marquez, although magical, is a tiresome author to read. But it had been a while since I read '100 Years of Solitude' and I was ready to take on another work that promised to be 'Marquez-esque'. Alas, I was reminded a few pages into the book that PR notes are only to be half-believed. That is not to say that André Brink is not a good writer or Philida not a good book; but it is not half as fantastical as the award-winning Spanish writer.
Coming to Philida, the story is set in the Cape in the year 1832 and is about a slave woman, Philida. On the eve of slave emancipation, the feisty Philida's voice of dissent kicks up some serious dust on her master's farm. Tired of unfulfilled promises of freedom by her lover and father of her children, Frans Brink, who is also her master's son, Philida approaches a slave protection agency and files a complaint against the Brinks. Predictably enough, Philida is banished from the Brink farm with her children, but she takes with herself her desire for freedom onward to life on another farm.Eventually, her dream is realised but not without some trials by fire.
While the plot is straightforward and even unimpressive, André Brink's strength lies is in his use of language. Although the novel is in English, the flavour of Afrikaans comes through very strongly. It is easier to empathise with the slave woman Philida, who speaks in the way English movies have made us believe Blacks do. Brink's talent as an Afrikaans writer has been recognised with him winning South Africa's most important literary prize, the CNA Award, three times. He has also twice been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Another aspect that makes 'Philida' interesting is the author's ancestral connection with the protagonist. Had I not glanced at the acknowledgements page (as I usually do), I would have missed out on this important tidbit. The story is not entirely fiction, for Philida really features in the Brinks' family tree. It has made the author write like one would about his own.
Brink also throws in a good measure of philosophy in his narrative, and that is perhaps why some see the resemblance between his work and Marquez'. Sometimes, there are whole chapters on philosophic 'discourse' veiled in African myth. So, prepare to sometimes trudge through lessons from a chameleon's point of view or look at life through a bamboo copse.
Philida took me a long time to finish, dragging me through the long, hot days of the Caab (Cape), breaking my back with the injustice of the life of a slave, making me witness the atrocities of the Baas (Boss) and finally letting me breathe the intoxicating air of freedom. Take up Brink only if you can take all of it.