Into the Fire

Part four (fire): Self-destruction
And it was in the nature of fire not only to burn but to change utterly in the process: wood into ashes (p. 462).

In this chapter, I will look more closely at what I see as the metphorical climax of the novel: the meeting between Galant and Hester. I shall try to show that this final scene expresses some of the most central ideas of the novel, and that it provides us with the only hope for the future. As the story slowly moves towards the end, we again meet the wise, old, and ever present Ma-Rose. She lives on, representing the steadfast progress of history, neither of them changing much. But she has come to see that being an observer entails responsibility:

In the beginning I thought it was not enough to know: one needed also to understand. Now I’m not so sure. Is it enough to understand unless you also try to change it? (p. 431).

She has also come to see that even though we all feel alone, isolated, our lives are nevertheless intertwined with other people’s lives. But we are always vulnerable to the unexpected that may at any time hit us from outside. We can never entirely shut out the rest of the world. Further, Ma-Rose gives expression to what seems to be the purpose of the novel, making explicit that the novel is meant to have a relevance for the reader of today:

Now, out of the shadow of death we’re all looking back over the past. And perhaps someone will hear us calling out, all these voices in the great silence, all of us together, each one forever alone. We go on talking and talking, an endless chain of voices, all together yet all apart, all different yet all the same; and the separate links might lie but the chain is the truth (p. 431).

The last sentence of this quotation contradicts Wilson Follett’s claim that ‘everything in the story is true except the whole of it’[1] (about Defoe’s narra­tive). Ma-Rose has to do this if Brink is to reach the author’s goal: to ‘invent’ truth.

Though the metaphorical climax mentioned above is most central, what prepares the ground for it is the actual rebellion. The first attack is on Elandsfontein, the farm of Barend and Hester. Their marital relationship has already reached a stage which is impossible to endure for either of them, especially for Hester: ‘my revolt had become un­avoidable lest in my continued subjection I became as corrupt as he [Barend] in the exercise of his male power’ (p. 443). This is a variant of Galant’s reflections on the killing of Nicolaas:

I loved him […] so I had to kill him. […] He became not Nicolaas but a man I didn’t know. A man strange to himself. I had to free him from that man. I had to break into his whiteness to make him my friend again. That Nicolaas (p. 438).

These thoughts originate in an idea about a society that forces people into being something they themselves cannot but despise. Life at the farm is based upon the repression of human emotions and principles that are basic and common for all, and which, when repressed, are bound to corrupt and result in a mutilated identity. Someone has to stop this, both for their own sake and for that of the others; something Nicolaas, in fact, also hopes for.

The rebels break into the farm. Barend gets away into the mountains, after having pleaded with Klaas for help. Klaas makes the same observation as the Lion-man and Galant have done before him: ‘I hadn’t expected to see a thing like that. This man, ruling over us all so cruelly for so long, now whimpering and grovelling like a scared dog’ (p. 445). The power balance is not God-given, it seems. The masters are also vulnerable and afraid; the roles might just as well have been the opposite, but they are not. With Barend gone, the slaves smash up the house and decide to return to Houd-den-Bek. Galant wants someone to escort Hester beck to Piet’s farm. Klaas volunteers, but Galant orders Goliath to do it, saving them both from their own weaknesses. Klaas would have abused Hester and run away, and Goliath does not have the courage to play a significant part in the rebellion, with his fear of physical pain.

Back at Houd-den-Bek it is clear that Galant’s process of personal development is in constant progress, parallel to the development of the action. The rebels have some time to discuss things before they decide what further to do, and Ontong warns Galant against going into something knowing it is hopeless. Galant answers: ‘That got nothing to do with it. […] I don’t care about losing or winning any more’ (pp. 457–458). He has reached a point where he has come to view the hope for change as involving

more than the destruction of what exists, more than the replacement of one system by another: it is a process directed inward as much as outward, to the self as much as to the other.[2]

He continues with explaining that the rebellion is not for himself, but for his son, something which at this point obviously is a metaphor for the coming generations. The others agree (most of them) that the rebellion is not about too heavy working conditions or bad treatment, but about gaining freedom for its own sake. Here, again, we hear the echo of Sartre: ‘if a baas tries to keep me under the yoke—fine, that’s his job, that’s what he’s baas for. But if I let him put that yoke on me, that’s unforgivable’ (p. 458). It is a choice for which one has to take responsibility, a responsibility which in this case, with undeniable logic, has to result in rebellion.

It is obvious that something more happened at Elandsfontein than the breaking of furniture. Barend says about Hester that ‘that night I finally lost her’ (p. 460). We know, of course, that he never really had her, but he nevertheless senses that after the rebellion she has changed. They ride back, ‘beside each other, but strangers’ (p. 460). Hester’s mind is far away, and she is ‘more beautiful than before […] wearing her torn nightdress as if it were a wedding gown’ (p. 460). This is the well known feeling of wanting something even more when you know you cannot have it, the desire that has been driving Barend until now, and that now becomes even stronger. Hester, it seems, has attained a kind of self-reliant independence: ‘she no longer needed anything from outside to sustain her, no person on whom to lean’ (p. 460). Barend, on the other hand, though having experienced ‘the unimaginable, the entirely inconceivable that had suddenly come true’, has not changed. He did not rise to the occasion like Hester did. When getting the chance, he fled, thus adding another episode to his ever growing list of humiliations. The only trace of in­sight he might have gained is reflected in his wish that ‘they hadn’t been slaves and I Baas Barend’ (pp. 461–462). But this wish is not rooted in any deep reflection, it is only a wish to escape humiliation. He is still convinced that ‘God’s own established order, God Himself, was now threatened’ (p. 462). From now on, Barend will never be safe, always ‘listening intently for the turbulence to start again’ (p. 464).

When the rebels start on Houd-den-Bek, they enter the house as Nicolaas and Jansen go to inspect the threshing-floor Galant was supposed to repair. Jansen’s slave Hendrik re­marks that they ‘took off their hats before they went inside’ (p. 466), indicating a sort of respect behind the hatred, or, at least, the extent to which their roles have become part of their personality. To Cecilia it is her nightmare come true: ‘The black hands grabbing me. The sweat-streaked faces. The whites of their eyes. The grunts coming from their throats as they struggled and panted. Animals’ (p. 467). She is relieved to find that she has ‘only’ been shot in the crotch, not raped as in the dream. Later, however, she reacts like the slave sharing Galant’s cell in Tulbagh explained, feeling that rejection was really the most degrading thing that could happen. To Cecilia, the rebellion is only explainable in religious terms: ‘How could they so bite the hand that fed them? […] Then this. Our adversary, the devil, as a roaring lion, walking about, seeking whom he may devour’ (pp. 468–469). To Cecilia this is yet another sign encouraging her to seek strength to carry on, not to yield. The rebellion has had the effect of giving her view of the world an even more solid basis, it has made her ever more determined that the only right thing to do is to carry on as before.

All the time during the rebellion, Galant and several of the others know that they will not succeed. They choose different ways of dealing with this knowledge. Campher, one of the men most eager to encourage the rebellion, chooses to pull out taking Dollie with him and thus seriously reducing the chances of success for those left. Old Plaatjie Pas hides away in Ma-Rose’s hut. Abel, on the other hand, thinks to himself, ‘once in a lifetime one got to have the guts to put everything at stake and break out. Once, even if it’s only once, you got to do something just because you know its time has come and fuck the rest’ (p. 470). This is very much Galant’s line of thought, even though Abel for a long time hoped to ‘see all the white masters running […] like a herd of baboons scared by a leopard’ (p. 471). He also shows a more shallow attitude to the historical significance of the rebellion, something of which Galant has a far greater sense. Abel too, however, believes he had no choice. Achilles and Ontong listens to Cecilia’s promises about being taken well care of if they help her—which they do, but are nevertheless sentenced to be ‘tied to a stake and severely scourged with rods on their bare backs, to be then branded, and thereupon confined to labour in irons on the public works at the Drostdy of Worcester […] for the term of fifteen years’ (p. 512). Achilles, with the completely opposite attitude from Galant, is relieved now that hope has gone: ‘Because the hardest thing to live with is hope’ (p. 484). On the more tragic side, there are the boys Thys and Rooy. They show how children may be used, and how easily they may be led into violence and murder because they cannot see the totality of consequences involved. It becomes a sort of game where life as such has no specific value. Then there are people like Moses, who ‘had to stay on the winning side’ (p. 486).

In his last section of the novel, from beyond the grave, as it were, Nicolaas states what we as readers have felt all along, i.e. that ‘The others never really mattered; they were bystanders. From the beginning it has been between Galant and me’ (p. 473). During the shooting, Cecilia insists that they sit down and pray with the children. Nicolaas agrees, but he soon realizes the futility of this, that God has nothing to do with this, will not interfere on anything. Nicolaas must face Galant himself. In the door they meet, ‘my shadow and I’ (p. 475), an image of himself that had the courage to do what his conscience told him to, no matter the consequences:

I wait for him to speak first. In a minute, in a few seconds, I realize, I shall be dead. Surely, in this extremity, there should at least be something we can say to one another. But I am drained of thought and feeling, unable to think of anything to say.
This I find the worst of all, this silence preceding death, this act of denudation, this experience of total strangeness in the face of the man who has been my only friend. This inability to touch one another in any way at all. This expanse through which we can do nothing but stare at one another. A savage silence. Life against life (p. 475).

Even in this situation, Nicolaas wants Galant to take the initiative. It seems almost as if Nicolaas agrees that the best thing for himself is to be shot; in a way he trusts Galant’s reasoning and sees in him the part of himself that he would like to have been. Nicolaas has a ridiculous hope that words may still solve the problem, but deep inside he knows they cannot. In Galant he sees the lion with its ‘incomprehensible freedom in the deep sound of its breathing’ (p. 475), the lion that ‘brought life to the darkness with its roar’ (p. 475). And with a sense of relief he concludes that ‘today I finally fall victim to the lion’ (p. 475). The lion has, in addition to a long list of other things, frequently been used as a symbol of Christ.[3] Consequently, Nicolaas might be said to see Galant as a kind of redeemer, saving him from his failures and shortcomings. In the silence that follows, Nicolaas thinks back and goes through the memories that have been touched upon at intervals throughout the novel, both by him and Galant. Each character share specific memories with each of the others, memories that in the course of the novel gain a kind of significance. Between Nicolaas and Galant there are memories of playing at the dam, of digging a tunnel that caved in upon them, of Ma-Rose. But at this moment these memories are no longer adequate, they do not belong to reality. They all contain, or originate in, the elements ‘Earth. Water. Wind. Fire’ (p. 476). But, as with the elements, they have mixed in ways that makes it impossible to separate them again, impossible to see them for what they are, or were, in isolation. In a moment of almost unbelievable self-insight, Nicolaas reflects, ‘It was the moment, the irreparable moment, when I changed from your mate into your master that I finally destroyed my own freedom’ (p. 476). This is his excuse for letting things develop as they did: he has been a ‘a victim of [his] world’ (p. 476). This has, in fact, been his excuse all along. Right from the start Nicolaas has avoided confrontation with his own crumbling world-view. His final conclusion also reveals his limited view compared with Galant’s, his belief that it has been ‘a final defeat—for both of us’ (p. 476). He still believes that they could have come to terms, that they ‘should have learned to live with it’ (p. 476), thus showing clearly that he has learnt nothing, that he is more than willing to continue a ‘frictionless’ existence in the sense that he could have continued living without answering Galant’s challenge, which is really nothing more than the embodiment of notions he carries within himself that he ignores or represses. Galant in this way becomes an image of the metaphysical rebellion whose necessity Nicolaas denies, but that he still somehow admires Galant for having the courage to carry out. Thus, we have here, in a modern novel, a character that is followed closely from childhood to early middle-age, who neither changes nor develops. Nicolaas is a completely static character, paralyzed by his environment and his own weaknesses.

The last three chapters deserve special attention. These chapters are constructed as a kind of dialogue between what may now seem like two emerging central characters of the novel, at least regarding hopes for the future: Galant and Hester; Galant first, then Hester, and then Galant again. This is done in a beautiful way, where one of them starts where the other stops, complementing and commenting the same episode. This episode is central to the theme of the novel, and symbolizes both the concrete and the metaphysical rebellion that is presently carried out to the very limits.

As the rebellion takes place, Galant becomes more and more aware of the fact that it will change nothing: ‘The masters are dead, but we are not yet free’ (p. 488). He has come to realize that things do not change overnight, and that the most obvious way of changing things may not necessarily be the most desirable. At this stage there are several aspects that supports the linking of Galant with the figure of Christ. Galant comments that when he finally surrendered without resistance, Thys was disappointed: ‘He must have expected something different from me’ (p. 488), in the same way as the Jews were disappointed with Christ when they realized that He was not the warrior to set them free from the Romans. Being caught or executed has ‘nothing to do with freedom any more’ (p. 488); this is Galant’s final knowledge. The fight is not for himself, but for all, now and in the future. He thought that Nicolaas symbolized ‘all the white men, all the masters’, but he realizes that the person he killed was ‘only one man, you, Nicolaas’ (p. 491), and that real change in this country depends upon a great number of instances such as the one he has played a part in, and maybe there are other ways of changing the situation. Hiding in the mountains, Galant has doubts, like Christ in Gethsemane, but all in all he is satisfied with having tried ‘to break the chain called Houd-den-Bek’ (p. 491). Though Galant feels already ‘on my way [away from this world]’, he lets it go only very hesitantly.

Galant describes the scene which is the last one in the novel, and one that has been in the air, in fact, from the very beginning of it. Hester and Galant meet in what seems like the eye of the storm, a brief moment of total withdrawal, ‘an instant in the wind’. As mentioned, the structure of this episode is very neatly constructed. Galant describes how they suddenly stand face to face ‘Everything: naked’ (p. 492). Both seem to know what is about to happen, and in a wonderful shift of point of view they share the same sentence: ‘[…] and said, I think it was I:/“Come,” I think it was I […]’ (pp. 493–494). Here Galant is interrupted by Hester, but when she has finished, with the words: ‘he said, I think it was he:’, he takes over again, with the words: ‘“Come,” I think it was she’ (p. 497). For once in the novel communication works. Together they go up to the loft. They are, in a way, the sum of their existence. They make love. This is the last stage of Galant’s road to a final insight. He realizes that his own quest for identity, his own possibilities for a worthy existence depends upon accepting the white people as part of his own culture and society. The solution is not to exclude them, but to include them, to coopt. This knowledge comes to both of them in the very basic act of sexual activity:

All we could do, all we had to offer one another, that is the horror and miracle of it, was that brief brutal sharing of bodies, avenging and celebrating everything we’d lost, everything we’d never had, everything forever beyond our grasp, a desperate groping towards the only thing not yet denied to us because it did not yet exist, the future (p. 495).

This has very little to do with a white woman exployting the sexual abilities of a black man. These are two oppressed individuals communicating, trying to establish—or for once pretend that there is—a basis that will allow them to be treated equally, regardless of sex or colour. Galant thinks:

In that loft I was free: a man; and she a woman. And for this moment, so fleeting and simple, it was perhaps worth while to be born, to live, to suffer, to be in the dark, and then to die (p. 497).

At the same time as they in this way find freedom in each other, Galant is also aware of the effect this would have on society: ‘This is the one freedom that truly threatens them’ (p. 497), that two people can choose each other because of love and nothing else. Now he trusts the seasons; that Hester will give birth to his child and that the process will be carried on without him. Their possible child thus becomes a symbol of what should be the common black/white goal; to judge each other on a human basis, not on a social basis. Because ‘the fire remains’ (p. 499).

[1] Quoted in Wellek and Warren, p. 213.
[2] Brink, ‘Mahatma Gandhi Today’ (1970), in Writing in a State of Siege, p. 70.
[3] Steven Olderr, Symbolism: A Comprehensive Dictionary (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1986), p. 81.

Lindgren © 2021