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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Review: Philida by Andre Brink

Philida is sometimes a difficult novel to reconcile. The novel is a recreated (or imagined) slave narrative of a woman who really lived. The difficulty arises in the fact that it is a white man, a descendant of her master, writing the novel. Andre Brink decided to write Philida after discovering that one of his ancestors owned a slave named Philida in an effort to understand what her life had been. It is an admirable way in which to wrestle with a guilt that is not your own, and the novel ultimately succeeds in its pride of Philida.

The novel begins with Philida's petition to the courts. Francois, the son of her master, has promised to make her a free woman after she bares his children. With the proof of their union in her arms, Philida insists that his promise be fulfilled. I doubt that it reveals any secrets of the novel (or of history) to tell you that this does not happen. She is first denied her promised freedom by Francois and his father then by the courts in which she is wholly disbelieved when someone with a white face testifies against her. The novel then follows the consequences of these actions as Philida has incurred the wrath of Cornelius Brink, master of the house.

Philida is a novel that is permeated with secrets, and Brink's own questions about the past lie heavy upon it. But is it too presumptuous for a white South African man living in the 21st century to write in the voice of, or attempt to tell the story of, a slave woman from the 19th? This is a question that comes up each time a writer co-opts a voice that is not their own, especially in the form of the descendants of the oppressors representing the voices of those they had oppressed. My own answer to this question begs the goal of the story. While reading Philida, it felt as though Brink were trying to understand a personal history mired in darkness. The stories that are not told are the ones we may most need to know. Brink told the story of Philda's life because he felt he needed to understand it. One cannot make sense of the tragedy that was slavery, but to give the characters life, to make them whole instead of keeping them secret, is a story worth telling.

Freedom abounds in the end of the novel. Away from the Brink family, Philida finds a sense of identity and with it peace. The idea that true freedom begins in our minds may at first sound unsavory in a slave narrative, but it comes about in such about in such an organic way that I find the possibility of it real for Philida, which is what the author must have hoped for her. Andre Brink does not know what happened to the real, the historical, Philida, but in his novel he did not give her character her freedom – he allowed her to find it for herself.

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