This is what it is to be a slave: that everything is decided for you from out there. You just got to listen and do as they tell you. You don’t say no. You don’t ask questions. You just do what they tell you. But far at the back of your head you think: Soon there must come a day when I can say for myself: This and that I shall do, this and that I shall not.
In Philida, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, André Brink—“one of South Africa's greatest novelists” (The Telegraph)—gives us his most powerful novel yet; the truly unforgettable story of a female slave, and her fierce determination to survive and to be free.
It is 1832 in South Africa, the year before slavery is abolished and the slaves are emancipated. Philida is the mother of four children by Francois Brink, the son of her master. When Francois’s father orders him to marry a woman from a prominent Cape Town family, Francois reneges on his promise to give Philida her freedom, threatening instead to sell her to new owners in the harsh country up north.
Here is the remarkable story—based on individuals connected to the author’s family—of a fiercely independent woman who will settle for nothing and for no one. Unwilling to accept the future that lies ahead of her, Philida continues to test the limits and lodges a complaint against the Brink family. Then she sets off on a journey—from the southernmost reaches of the Cape, across a great wilderness, to the far north of the country—in order to reclaim her soul.
About the Author
André Brink is the author of numerous novels, including A Dry White Season, Imaginings of Sand, The Rights of Desire and The Other Side of Silence. He has won South Africa's most important literary prize, the CNA Award, three times and has twice been shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
Read an Excerpt
Excerpted from Chapter One
On Saturday 17 November 1832, after following the Elephant Trail that runs between the Village of Franschhoek, past the Farm Zandvliet to the small Town of Stellenbosch near Cape Town, the young Slave Woman Philida arrives at the Drostdy with its tall white Pillars, where she is directed to the Office of the Slave Protector, Mijnheer Lindenberg, to lodge a Complaint against her Owner Cornelis Brink and his Son Francois Gerhard Jacob Brink
Here come shit. Just one look, and I can see it coming. Here I walk all this way and God know that is bad enough, what with the child in the abbadoek on my back, and now there’s no turning back, it’s just straight on to hell and gone. This is the man I got to talk to if I want to lay a charge, they tell me, this Grootbaas who is so tall and white and thin and bony, with deep furrows in his forehead, like a badly ploughed wheat field, and a nose like a sweet potato that has grown past itself.
It’s a long story. First he want to find out everything about me, and it’s one question after another. Who am I? Where do I come from? What is the name of my Baas? What is the name of the farm? For how long I been working there? Did I get a pass for coming here? When did I leave and how long did I walk? Where did I sleep last night? What do I think is going to happen to me when I get home again? And every time I say something, he first write it down in his big book with those knobbly hands and his long white fingers. These people got a thing about writing everything down. Just look at the back pages of the black Bible that belong to Oubaas Cornelis Brink, that’s Francois Gerhard Jacob’s father.
While the Grootbaas is writing I keep watching him closely. There’s something second-hand about the man, like a piece of knitting gone wrong that had to be done over, but badly, not very smoothly. I can say that because I know about knitting. On his nose sit a pair of thick glasses like a bat with open wings, but he look at me over them, not through them. His long hands keep busy all the time. Writing, and dipping the long feather in the ink, and sprinkling fine sand on the thick paper, and shifting his papers this way and that on top of the table that is really too low for him because he is so tall. He is sitting, I keep standing, that is how it’s got to be.
In the beginning I feel scared, my throat is tight. But after the second or third question I start feeling better. All I can think of is: If it was me that was knitting you, you’d look a bit better, but now whoever it was that knitted you, did not cast you off right. Still, I don’t say anything. In this place it’s only him and me and I don’t want to get on his wrong side. I got to tell him everything, and that is exactly what I mean to do today, without keeping anything back.
He ask me: When did Francois Brink first... I mean, when was it that the two of you began to... you know what I’m talking about?
Eight years ago.
You sure about that? How can you be so sure?
Ja, it is eight years, I tell you, my Grootbaas. I remember it very clearly because that was the winter when Oubaas Cornelis take the lot of us in to the Caab to see the man they hanged, that slave Abraham, on the Castle gallows. And it was after we come home from there, to the farm Zandvliet, that it begin between Frans and me.
How did it begin? What happened?
It was a bad day for me, Grootbaas. Everything that happen in the Caab, in front of the Castle. The man they hang. Two times, because the first time the rope break, and I remember how the man keep dancing at the end of the rope round his neck, and how his thing get all big and stiff and start to spit.
What do you mean, his thing?
His man-thing, Grootbaas, what else? I hear the people talking about how it sometimes happen when a man is hanged, but it is the first time I see it for myself, and I never want to see it again.
And you said that when you came back on the farm...?
Yes, that was when. We first come past the old sow in the sty, the old fat-arse pig they call Hamboud. The Oubaas say many times before that he want to slaughter her because she is so blarry useless, but the Ounooi keep on saying she must stay here so her big arse can grow even bigger and fatter. And afterwards, when we get home, we come past the four horses in the stable, and the two good-for-nothing donkeys, and then the stupid trassie hen that Ounooi Janna call Zelda after her aunt that skinder so much, the hen that don’t know if she is a cock or a hen and that can never manage to lay an egg herself but always go cackling like a mad thing whenever some other hen on the farm lay one. And then in the late afternoon when we are all back on the farm where we belong I first go to Ouma Nella, her full name is Petronella, but to me she is always just Ouma Nella.
And what happened then? ask the tall bony man, beginning to sound impatient.
So I tell him: Then Frans take me with him, away from the longhouse, through the vineyard where the old cemetery is. Down to where the bamboo copse make its deep, dark shade in the elbow of the river, that’s the Dwars River that run across the farm, and there I begin to cry for the first time and that is when Frans –
You mean Baas Frans, the tall bony man remind me.
Yes, Baas Frans he take me to where the bamboo copse close up all around you, and when he see me crying, he get so hot that his thing also jump up, just like the dead man on the gallows, and that is when he get onto me to ride me.
Behind the dusty thick glasses the man’s deep eyes seem to be looking right into me as he ask: Yes, and what did he do then?
I can feel myself going blunt inside, but I know I can’t stop now, so I bite on my teeth and tell him: He do what a man do with a woman.
And what would that be?
I’m sure the Grootbaas will know about that.
He say: I want to know exactly what he did.
He take me.
How did he take you? I have to know all the particulars.
The law demands that I must find out everything that happened. So that it can all be written down very precisely in this book.
I tell him: He naai me.
The tall thin man with the bald head give a cough, as if his spit is now dried up. After a while he ask: Did you resist?
Grootbaas, in the beginning I try to, but that is when Frans begin to talk to me very nicely and tell me I mustn’t be scared, he won’t hurt me, he just want to make me happy. If I will let him push into me, then he will make sure to buy me my freedom when the time is right, that is what he promise me before the LordGod of the Bible, he say he himself will buy freedom for me. But I remember thinking, how can it be that a thing like freedom can hurt one so bad? Because it was my first time and he didn’t act very gentle with me, he was too hasty, I think it was his first time too.
And then what happened?
When he finish, he get up again and tie the riem of his breeches.
It is just as well the man don’t give me much time to think, because the questions start coming again and they getting more and more difficult.
Philida, I want to know what happened afterwards? ask the man with the ploughed field on his forehead. Did you... I mean, were there any consequences to the intercourse you had in the bamboo copse?
I don’t know about that intercourse thing and the consequences, Grootbaas.
This thing you did in the bamboo place. Did it lead to anything? He getting very red in the face. What you did together in that bamboo place...? Did anything happen inside you – to your body?
Not right away, Grootbaas. Only after he lie with me a few times, I start to swell.
How many times?
Many times, Grootbaas.
Two times? Three times? Ten? Twenty?
I fold my hands around my shoulders. And once again I say: Many times, Grootbaas.
Unexpectedly he ask: Was he the first man that was with you?
I just shake my head because I don’t feel like answering. I already told him mos it was my first time.
He change the question a little bit: Have you had a lot of men?
I tell him, It’s only Baas Frans I come to complain about.
Look, if you have a complaint, you’ve got to tell us everything now. Otherwise you’re wasting our time.
Once again I say: It’s just about Baas Frans that I am here.
Did he hurt you?
No, Grootbaas. It was a bit difficult but I can’t say it hurt me too bad. I had badder things happen to me.
Then what are you complaining about?
Because he take me and he promise me things and now he is going away from me.
What did he promise you?
He say he will give me my freedom.
What did he mean when he said he would give you your freedom? He say he will buy me freedom from the Landdrost. From the Govment. But now instead of buying my freedom he want going away from me.
How is he going away from you?
They say he want to marry a white woman. Not a slave or a Khoe but one of his own kind. So now he want to sell me upcountry.
How do you know that?
I hear him talking to the Ounooi about it. They want to put me up on auction.
Why would they want to do that?
Because they want to take my children away from the farm before the white woman come to live here.
What can you tell me about your children?
That’s mos why I am here, Grootbaas.
How many children do you have?
There is two left, but there was four altogether.
What happened to the other two?
I think by myself: Now it is coming. But after a while I just say: They die when they are small. The first one didn’t have a name yet and the second one was Mamie, but she only lived three months, then she also went.
Who is their father?
Frans and I made them.
He keep on asking: And the two who are still alive? Where are they?
One is at Zandvliet where we made them. She’s Lena. My Ouma Nella look after her. The last one is this one I bring on my back with me.
For some time he say nothing more. Then he get in a hurry and he ask: When did the other two die?
I don’t look at him. All I can say is: When they was small. One was only three months old.
And the other one?
I have nothing to say about the first one.
He die too soon.
He look hard at me, then he sigh. All right, he say. What can you tell me about this one you brought with you?
I don’t say anything. I just turn sideways so that he can see the child in the doek on my back.
I tell the man: He is my youngest. He was born only three months ago. His name is Willempie.
And you say it is your Baas Francois’s child?
Yes, that is the truth, before the LordGod.
Can you prove it?
I ask him: How can I prove a thing like that?
If you cannot prove it I cannot write it in my book.
The Grootbaas must believe me.
To believe something, he says, does not make it true.
Grootbaas, I say, there are things about you that I also cannot see, but I believe they are there and that make them true.
He laugh and I can hear it is not a good laugh. He ask: What you talking about?
It is getting more difficult to breathe, but I know I have no choice and so I ask: Will the Grootbaas give me permission to say it?
He say: Look, we’re getting nowhere like this. So all right then, I give you permission.
I nod and look straight at him and I say: Thank you, my Grootbaas. Then I shall take that permission and say to the Grootbaas that I am speaking of the thing on which the Grootbaas is sitting.
Are you talking about my chair?
I am talking about the Grootbaas’s poephol. That is, his arsehole.
I see him turning red first and then a deep, almost black purple. He pant like a man that climb up a steep hill.
Bladdy meid! he say. Are you looking for trouble?
I am not looking for trouble, Grootbaas, and I hope I won’t find any.
For God’s sake, then say it and have done with it.
Then I shall say it with the permission the Grootbaas give me.
Well, what is it?
I just want to say, that thing the Grootbaas is sitting on: I never seen it and with the help of the LordGod I hope I never will. But I know it is there and I believe it, and so it is true. And it is the same with my children. I know Frans made them.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Philida by André Brink.
1. The author André Brink begins each chapter of Philida with a synopsis of what’s going to happen. How does this affect your reading experience—does it spoil what is coming, or does it pique your interest?
2. What does Philida’s experience talking with the government official “Grootbaas Lindenberg” reveal about the way blacks and whites were treated in South Africa in the 1830s?
3. Although Philida is the title character, she is not the only narrator in the novel. Why do you think Brink includes other voices? How does it shape the story?
4. How does this representation of slavery in South Africa compare to what you know about slavery in the United States? And how does the novel compare to books you might have read about the experiences of American slaves?
5. Philida spends much of the novel traveling, usually on foot. How does her physical journey mirror her personal journey toward freedom?
6. Cornelis Brink, Frans’s father says, “We Brinks are a boat that has always hugged the coast, no matter what storms have come, but Philida has now cut a hole into it and we may sink if we don’t watch out” (p.75). What does he mean by this and what influence has Philida had on each member of the family?
7. When they are children, Frans and Philida play a game in which he pretends to sell her, until she decides “that’s now enough. Now it’s your turn to be the slave and I’ll be the Baas” (p.103). How does this foreshadow later events?
8. Cornelis says of his slaves that he “looked after them and cared for them like children” (p.127). He also claims that “if I hadn’t saved [the children Janna brought with her from her first marriage] they would all have gone straight to hell” (p. 213). Do these two statements support each other? Does Cornelis really treat his slaves and his children in ways that are at all similar?
9. Throughout the novel, Philida is regularly seen knitting. What is the significance of this?
10. “If I can write his name, I can send him to hell. Otherwise he’ll keep on haunting me” (p. 189), Philida says about Frans. What is the importance of her being able to write? How does this relate to the power dynamic between masters and slaves?
11. How do Labyn’s efforts to convert, and perhaps woo, Philida differ from Frans’s? Is her decision to be with him really her own?
12. Frans tells his father that what he “wanted from Philida was what I want from a woman who is my wife” (p. 200). Do you believe him? What specific actions suggest that he is either lying or that he is telling the truth?
13. The promise of emancipation looms throughout the novel. Philida tells Cornelis that after leaving his family that “they say that next year in December I’ll be free. But here inside me I’m already free” (p.229). What does being “free” mean to Philida? What does it mean to you?
14. Philida is a book with one woman at its heart, but what do you make of the other female characters? How are Janna, Mrs. de la Bat, Ouma Nella, Maria Berrangé, and the others, presented? How are they like or unlike Philida herself?
15. When she is a child, Philida asks Ouma Nella, “Where am I not?” (p. 116). What does she mean by this, and how does this relate to her decision to travel to the Gariep at the end of the book?
16. The novel concludes with the word “I” (p. 304). What do you think Brink is indicating by ending on this note? What do you think it means that the author chose to end the book with no period after the word?
17. The Brinks in this novel were relatives of the author’s. In his acknowledgements, André Brink writes that “the discovery that [Philida’s] master Cornelis Brink was a brother of one of my own direct ancestors, and that he sold her at auction after his son Francois Gerhard Jacob Brink had made four children with her, triggered this novel” (p. 305). Were you shocked by this revelation? How does the fact that Brink has personal ties to Philida’s owners affect the way you think about the novel?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This story takes place during 1832 in Cape Town and the surrounding area, as there is talk of freeing the slaves. Philida is one of these slaves, and the young mother of four children (two still alive). The father of the babies is Francois, the master's son. When Philida charges Francois with fathering her children upon promises (and lies) that they will be together, her life is lost in upheaval. This was one of those tough stories. I generally love stories about slavery and the struggle for survival and freedom, but the clipped and rambling speech pattern in this book did not endear me to the story. Likewise the characters did not endear me to the story. One thing that I found interesting was the fact that the slaves are always barefoot in the book. They are not permitted to wear shoes. Something as mundane as shoes becomes this wondrous thing that they dream of having, as they represent freedom and being able to travel where you wish. I have to point out that I hate when books use foreign words, and don’t translate them. Oubaas, Baas, Ounooi, riem, kierie, meid, Nooi-- all words commonly used in the book without ever explaining what they mean. I have a general idea, but I like to know the literal translation-- not the simple “feeling” of the word. This book is often brutal and vulgar in its depictions of rape and abuse, human degradation, and man’s lascivious bent. My final word: Reading this story was like talking with someone who has a bad case of ADD. It was rambling and a little all over the place, and I had a hard time following it. Most of the characters were not likable. The master Cornelius was despicable, Francois was a spineless and selfish twit, Philida left me somewhat ambivalent. The story is filled with great brutality, and very explicit in some violent descriptions. This book is definitely not for everyone. I just had a hard time really liking it, and that was a real bummer, because I really wanted to love this one.