Not too long ago South Africa unwillingly held the media spotlight, harangued for its archaic policies and embargoed as a result. Little Steven and Tracey Chapman sang in protest of the country's long-existing Apartheid administration, and high school students --- like myself --- wrote vehement term papers lambasting one of Africa's most prosperous countries for having race specific shantytowns. Then, the old regime resigned and Nelson Mandela was released from prison to lead the country. The controversy seemingly ceased, and the newsreel ended.
But South Africa's upheaval and unraveling still perpetuate, and it is this volatile and desperate state that is so expertly captured by novelist Andre Brink in his newest book, THE RIGHTS OF DESIRE. A three time recipient of South Africa's prestigious CNA award and finalist for the internationally recognized Booker Prize, Brink nimbly employs Cape Town's restless state --- fueled by confusion, rage, and ignorance --- as a backdrop to DESIRE.
Essentially, the story is that of widower Ruben Olivier, a writer long-suffering from loneliness and stifling guilt. Surprisingly, Ruben's loneliness does not stem from the loss of his wife, but from a visceral, more complicated pain cultivated by a loveless childhood in the stark, near-arctic countryside. Ruben is awakened by the arrival of Tessa, a young woman he take's in as a boarder. He almost immediately becomes infatuated with Tessa's youth and beauty, and his feelings for her sadly and sickeningly fluctuate from fatherly to incestuously sexual.
Ruben's loyal maid Magrieta is the harbinger of all of Cape Town's chaos, retelling stories of murder, rape, and persecution, which never seem to penetrate Meneer's (as she likes to call Ruben) secured life of wealth and isolation, a life devoted to Tessa's every move. Magrieta has a unique link to the specter of a slave girl called Antje of Bengal, who haunts the house. Antje had an obsessive and passionate relationship with the house's original owner. She's officious and trapped in some sort of purgatory, stirring trouble as a spying watchdog. Antje's discontent permeates THE RIGHTS OF DESIRE, and her lingering ghost, a reminder of a jaded love affair, is just one of many parallels saturating this novel. Ruben's desire for Tessa mimics Antje's or that of her master (we never find out who actually was pursuing whom in the subplot), and his pain is no less hurtful than the cruelties Cape Town residents inflict on each other as the pigment of the hand of power changes.
Brink's newest is an engrossing lesson in life's fragile dynamics and an interior view of an exotic culture rank with metamorphosis.
Reviewed by Laura Donnelly on April 20, 2001
The Rights of Desire