Sunday, June 25, 2017

Flame in the Snow: The Love Letters of André Brink & Ingrid Jonker – a review

Flame in the Snow: The Love Letters of André Brink & Ingrid Jonker was on my must-read list the moment I heard about the book. But a bit of back-story. Ingrid Jonker was always a semi-mythic figure to me. I first heard about her when we studied her writing during high school. It was a short story of hers – "Die Bok" (The Goat) which haunted me even back then. Yet her poetry always struck me as vivid, somehow more vibrant than many of the other poets we studied. My mom and I always disagree about our love of Jonker's writing, but then again, my mom also takes a dim view of Jonker's affair with Brink, so it could be a personal issues that cloud her appreciation of her writing.

I later encountered Jonker's work again when I was studying a languages module through Unisa, which only made me realise even more what an important contribution Jonker made to South African literature. There is little doubt in my mind that she was a perceptive, highly sensitive individual with the talent of shaping words in such a way that she can encapsulate an entire scene in a few brush strokes. 

Brink himself is justifiably one of the great lights of South African literature who has contributed much over the years, and it is to my eternal regret that I never did get round to meeting him before his passing, so it was with great curiosity that I approached this collection of their letters.

Looking at how communication has changed, it's doubtful that we'll have such a legacy to fall back on in the future (unless someone is willing to trawl authors' social media posts and private emails to try reconstitute coherent communication). But even then, what we have collected offers us an almost voyeuristic glimpse into the private world of two highly creative, expressive individuals, who saw and felt their existences in exquisite, painful detail at times. 

Part of me became quite frustrated while I read. I wanted to yell at them that if their lives were so unbearable, why didn't they just take the plunge and move mountains to be with each other. But I guess hindsight is 20/20. I don't think either of them could have predicted the outcome, and I fear that when you have two passionate people as Jonker and Brink were, you're bound to get fire in its destructive aspect. Both were ... complicated ... and their relationship was wracked with intense highs and awful nadirs. 

It galled Brink that Jonker still maintained her previous relationship yet by equal measure, he was incapable of leaving his wife, despite his assurances to Jonker that he was no longer intimate with the mother of his child.

Yet what this collection of letters also does it it demystifies Jonker and Brink. We see them as humans, in their unguarded, often tender moments for each other, as they ponder their existence, as they share their hopes and dreams, and also their great fears. The last letter, from Brink, also pierces deeply – a cold, hard statement. I won't spoil it, but it dashed cold water in my face.

I can't help but imagine what Jonker's last hours were like, the moments that led up to her walk into the wintry Atlantic in Cape Town's Three Anchor Bay. It was a death foreshadowed in her poem "Ontvlugting":

My lyk lê uitgespoel in wier en gras
op al die plekke waar ons eenmaal was.

(My body is washed up in seaweed and grass
at all the places where we once were) – please excuse my rough, rough translation. 

To have read Jonker and Brink's intimacies has, to a degree, tumbled them off their pedestal for me. They were just people, with their faults. Their words in this book are a time capsule, that takes readers back to the past, to get a glimpse into what it was like for writers back then. I had to have a quiet smile to myself, because so much of the politics among South African writers that I've seen first hand was very much a thing back then too – some things don't change, apparently. This was a lovely read, and at some point I think I'd like to pick up the Afrikaans version of the book, as I wonder how much of the communication was lost in the translation. Either way, I still feel as if I've grown in my understanding of the two, which will most certainly inform my further reading of their work.

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