Robert Taubman

  • A Chain of Voices by André Brink
    Faber, 525 pp, £7.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 571 11874 7
  • How German is it by Walter Abish
    Carcanet, 252 pp, £6.75, March 1982, ISBN 0 85635 396 5
  • Before she met me by Julian Barnes
    Cape, 183 pp, £6.50, April 1982, ISBN 0 224 01985 6
  • Providence by Anita Brookner
    Cape, 183 pp, £6.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 224 01976 7
  • Getting it right by Elizabeth Jane Howard
    Hamish Hamilton, 264 pp, £7.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 241 10805 5

The voices in A Chain of Voices are those of 30 characters, Boer farmers and their hired labourers and slaves, in the Cape in the early 19th century. The voices are ‘all different yet all the same’: they have a situation in common, and its main features are oppression and revolt. The novel is a series of interior monologues, which record the events of a local slave rising in the Bokkeveld in 1825, the individual histories of those concerned, and the folk memories that help to explain the situation:

We of the Khoin, we never thought of these mountains and plains, these long grasslands and marshes as a wild place to be tamed. It was the Whites who called it wild and saw it filled with wild animals and wild people. To us it has always been friendly and tame. It has given us food and drink and shelter, even in the worst of droughts. It was only when the Whites moved in and started digging and breaking and shooting, and driving off the animals, that it really became wild.

The Khoin, whom the Dutch called Hottentots, barely survived in the Bokkeveld by this time. The Boers were cultivating the fertile valleys. The economy was dependent on slaves imported from other parts of Africa and from Batavia. The British had a remote presence in Cape Town, seven days away by wagon. The large, complex, changing scene is vividly realised – more so than the individual psychology of the characters: although the monologues take place inside their heads, it is the outside scene in all its detail that gives the novel its substance. What it has to say about the psychology of revolt may seem thin beside – and in any case is dependent on – the assurance with which it treats of Boer family life, Khoin legend, crops and cattle, stonework and mud walls, smithy and threshing-floor.

The slave Galant grows up on the farm at Lagenvlei with his foster-brothers Nicholaas and Barent van der Merwe and the white girl Hester. The natural equality among them in childhood soon disappears: Hester becomes the reluctant wife of Barent, Galant is allocated to Nicholaas as his slave and the overseer of his farm. ‘We were no longer heedless boys but master and slave: could either really blame that on the other? It was something neither could avoid or even wish undone: the very condition of our mutual survival.’ These are Nicholaas’s thoughts; he is a tyrannical but weak master, who looks to God or predestination for excuses. Self-righteously, or with God as his excuse, he flogs Galant and the other slaves for every offence. In a fit of rage he beats Galant’s child to death. The resistance he encounters in Galant is an animal one, like the resistance of horses to their breaking-in.

A similar instinct prompts Hester’s rejection of her husband: ‘My revolt had become unavoidable lest in my continued subjection I became as corrupt as he in the exercise of his male power.’ Galant’s revolt, too, becomes unavoidable. He kills Nicholaas, but the planned uprising of the oppressed – not all of whom are slaves – is bungled and they are rounded up for execution.

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