Tag Archives: Karina Brink

Stories with strawberry jam and clotted cream

In the night of 9 February 2016, on the twelfth anniversary of my first arrival in Cape Town, I dreamt that I was in a hospital. In my dream, André died there. A few days later I came to pick up his belongings, but no one was willing to assist me. They shoved me around the place, ignoring my distress. I felt desperate, lost. I wanted to take care of his possessions but nobody was keen to help me. And then out of the blue someone offered support. I woke up, relieved.

I signed the contract for my memoir about the relationship I had with André, The Fifth Mrs Brink, that morning. Afterwards, I returned home to find that our grandfather clock had stopped working without any apparent reason. I got it going again, but both the dream and the silent clock disturbed me.

In the late afternoon, on my way to a book launch, I had a terrible car accident in which I killed our beloved Brink Mobil, the ancient green Mercedes André and I used to drive. My friends told me later that I did not kill the Old Lady, that she died protecting me. I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that having the accident on the same day I signed the contract was a sign, signalling some kind of closure or an impending massacre. I hoped for the former, but had no way of knowing which it would be.

Three weeks later, I walked across the city to pick up a rental car provided by my insurance company. Passing the accident spot on an overhead bridge, I could still see the rust-red stains where the Brink Mobil had bled to death.

I walked past the funeral parlour where they took André after his death – he did not die in a hospital but on board of an aeroplane flying over Brazzaville.

I also passed a big red building in Woodstock which caught my eye because it looked quite new and impressive. I considered getting a coffee from a place on its ground floor.

Woodstock is where long ago I once appeared on a friend’s doorstep in one of her dreams. She told me the next day that I’d looked lost and just stood there, clutching a book to my chest. The same friend works in the big red building now.

I finished the first draft of The Fifth Mrs Brink in July. In September, I asked for the rights to my book back. I had to leave; I had no way of staying. If I wanted to truly take care of my and André’s stories, I had to find a home for them elsewhere. I submitted my memoir to another publishing house. They made me an offer. My new publisher gave me a book she thought might interest me: Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich, an account of how people survive, and make sense of, tyranny and massacres – by weaving tapestries of stories to keep us safe at night. The words of Second-Hand Time live in my bones.

In the evening of the 1st of November, someone asked me online which great writer I would like to have tea with. There is only one: The One. He liked his tea white with two sugars. And when he wanted to spoil me, he baked scones for us for breakfast.

scone

jonathan-ball-publishersI don’t know what I dreamt in the night of the 1st of November, but I know I slept through it. That in itself is a gift, a good omen. Uninterrupted sleep had become rare in the past few months, although I am mastering it again. In the morning of the 2nd, I had a scone at my favourite coffee shop. I drove to Woodstock in the little car that a friend lent me after my accident. I parked underneath the big red building, found my way upstairs to the 4th floor where kind people were waiting.

It is perhaps fitting that the publication of The Fifth Mrs Brink will be delayed by a few months next year to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the first time I became a refugee when my family escaped the tyranny of Communist Poland and sought asylum in Austria.

szczurek-arriving-in-safe-haven

Arriving on the doorstep of Jonathan Ball Publishers, I felt like a refugee who had sailed through treacherous waters in a derelict dinghy and found her way to the shores of a safe haven. With only my ancient fountain pen in the bag I carried, I was seeking asylum again.

Massacres and tyranny can be intimate, private, go nearly unnoticed.

I am not the only one who survives by telling stories.

My stories are safe now.

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Old writer, young wife: The life and times of the fifth and final Mrs Brink

karina-in-austria

Afrikaner novelist André Brink married Karina Szczurek when he was 71 and she was 29. They were together for 10 years before he died on a plane, beside her, high above Africa. She has just finished writing her memoir, in which she recounts her life with South Africa’s most celebrated and controversial novelist. Andy Martin went to Cape Town to talk to her about life after André…

Continue reading: INDEPENDENT

One day at The Star Soweto Literary Festival

Pam and BontleCamaraderie. That is the word which comes to mind when I think back to the one day I spent at the fabulous Soweto Theatre, attending the inaugural The Star Soweto Literary Festival. It was quite a whirlwind affair. A day of talks, improvisation, laughter and tears. I invited myself. The moment I heard that the festival was happening – and it was organised in a shockingly short amount of time – I volunteered to speak, chair sessions, whatever, just to be there. I felt it in my bones that it would be special, and I wanted to be part of it.

I was not disappointed.

Darryl Earl David, the founder of the three-day festival which took place last weekend, first announced his intentions at the end of June: “To create a truly non-racial literary festival in a black township, something that has never ever been done before. A start has been made in Khayelitsha. But that was more a book fair, not a literary festival. I have always maintained Soweto looms large in the literary imagination of South Africa … Soweto is the cradle of black literature. It was home to the canon of black literature in South Africa – Mongane Wally Serote, Sipho Sephamla Njabulo Ndebele, Miriam Tlali, Ellen Kuzwayo and Benedict Vilakazi.”

Pam and MohaleThe day I was there, Saturday, the presence of the spirits of these literary giants was palpable. The attempt to establish “a truly non-racial” space for writers, artists and the public to engage with one another’s ideas was a great success. I attended with a dear friend, Pamela Power, the author of Ms Conception and the upcoming psychological thriller, Things Unseen. We came away inspired, glowing, and moved to the core.

Continue reading: LitNet

with Pam and Kalim

The Grandfather Clock

The Grandfather Clock

The clockmaker came out only at night. He arrived at the young widow’s house shortly after half-past eight. Books and remnants of a simple dinner lay across the table in the sitting room where the grandfather clock had been standing silent for a year. The woman pointed at the ancient instrument in the corner and folded her hands in front of her as if in prayer.

‘Sorry for your loss,’ he said.

‘Thank you.’

In the silence that followed, she could feel her heart galloping in her chest.

‘How long has it been now?’

‘A year, today.’

‘Ah. I’m sorry.’

They stood facing each other as time passed in slow motion.

‘So, what would you like me to do?’

She had summoned him earlier in the day, the explanation for the call vague. Something about an anniversary.

‘My husband had always taken care of it. It stopped when he died,’ she said.

‘So there’s nothing wrong with it? You just want me to get it going again?’

‘Yes.’ A prayer. ‘And please teach me how to keep it working.’

He nodded and opened his tool box, trying to concentrate on the task ahead instead of the woman beside him, tense like a coiled spring.

As the clockmaker set to work, she stepped back, watching from a distance. He asked about the key. She did not know what he meant, but eventually remembered the small black handle her husband had used to wind the clock. She was surprised how easy it was to keep the mechanism running.

‘It should be fine for a while,’ the man explained, turning the clock’s hands to the correct time, ‘but I’ll have to take it in for proper servicing soon.’

The clock chimed for the first time in a year. It took all her strength to keep her composure. Time stood still.

 

Before he left, she asked, ‘Tell me, do you think it’s true what they say, about your whole life flashing before you when you are about to die?’

‘I am not sure, dear,’ he said, reverting to the familiar address, not knowing how else to comfort the young woman.

He refused to take money from her. ‘Next time, when I service it properly,’ he said.

She thanked the clockmaker and gently closed the door after bidding him a good night. Alone, she leaned her head against the passage wall and cried.

The clock chimed nine. She counted the heartbeats and wiped the tears from her face with the back of her hand. She walked over to the grandfather clock. It towered above her in the silence of the night. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. The stories of a long-lost friend returning home. She listened to the soothing whispers of its hands telling her about the future. They reminded her of violin music announcing a new dawn.

 

 

The heart has spaces – the love letters of André Brink and Ingrid Jonker

Drawing in Ingrid's letter of 15 October 1963
In the beginning there were the women of his past, a ghost among them. André Brink had never been afraid to love. After the life-defining relationship of his youth with Ingrid Jonker, her suicide, and four divorces, at the age of 69 he had the guts to say yes to a delicate possibility.

When we met in Austria towards the end of 2004 I was terribly young, on the verge of a divorce, broken by betrayals, and almost paralysed by mistrust. Continents and cultures apart, 42 years between us, the odds staked against us could not have been higher. Yet we somehow mustered enough courage to dare the impossible and turn it into reality. For ten years, the first thing we did every morning after waking up next to each other was to smile. No matter what. Of course it hadn’t been easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is. And coming to terms with our respective pasts was our greatest challenge.

André first introduced me to Ingrid in a letter on 23 December 2004:

She was a year or so older than me, and light-years older in terms of sexual experience. It was an incredible, hectic, heady, head-over-heels love of extremes, swinging wildly from ecstasy to the depths of misery; and it became just too exhausting and demanding. After two years (and several break-ups and new starts) she started a new love-affair, and then I did too (both of us, I think, grasping at possibilities of getting out of our own relationship which had become suffocating). And so it ended. She had one more mad love-affair, and committed suicide.

Coming to live with André in the South African spring of 2005, I very quickly realised that in order to know him – truly know him – I had to understand what had happened between him and Ingrid 40 years earlier. We both had to. No other woman in André’s life had left as indelible a mark on him as Ingrid. No other haunted me as much in the beginning of our relationship.

I am proud of countless things André and I have achieved together, but the one that made all else possible is the space we created in our relationship for sharing, for being painfully open with each other. André and I met at Vienna International Airport when I went to pick him up and accompany him on the train journey to Salzburg, where he was participating in a symposium I’d helped organise. On that trip we began a conversation which, literally, lasted ten years until I told him I loved him for the last time and closed his lips with a final kiss just before he died earlier this year. It was a stripping of minds and hearts. Time after time, we stood completely soul-naked in front of each other, risking everything, and eventually knowing that love would prevail, always, no matter how terrifyingly ugly the revealed truth – on both sides – was. It is the kind of knowledge which can lay any ghost to rest.

At the end of Everything I Know I Learned from TV: Philosophy for the Unrepentant Couch Potato, my favourite philosopher, Mark Rowlands, writes: “If I could repay you with a wish it would be that you find something in your life so important that without it you would not be the same person. If you’re lucky you’ll have it already.” The relationship with Ingrid was such a thing for André. He wrote in his memoir, A Fork in the Road (Harvill Secker, 2009): “On that memorable afternoon of 15 April, 1963, a group of us were gathered in the lounge of Jan Rabie’s rambling old house in Cape Town, when Ingrid walked in, barefoot and provocative, and the movement against censorship officially began, and the course of my life was changed.” Her influence permeated everything: his personal life, and, just as crucially, his writing. One only needs to look at André’s women characters, walking in Ingrid’s footprints across the pages of his novels, to comprehend what an impact their meeting had on his creativity. And they are only the most obvious example. But despite the evidence, for many years André was exceedingly reluctant to speak or write about Ingrid after her death.

At the time of our engagement in early 2006, together with Antjie Krog and Ingrid de Kok, André was working on the new translations of Ingrid Jonker’s poems which would result in the publication of Black Butterflies: Selected Poems (Human & Rousseau, 2007). It must have been during this period that he showed me his and Ingrid’s correspondence for the first time. He kept the letters in the same place as his diaries which he reread for the writing of the introduction to Black Butterflies, the first text of its kind after many years of silence. An intimate treasure and a chunk of literary history many had wondered about for decades, even back then the letters had an irresistible appeal for me. Although my grasp of the Afrikaans language and literature was shaky at this stage, I understood their importance as a key to André’s life story and to the creative and intellectual forces culminating in the literary movement of the Sestigers. We looked at them together, he told me their story, and allowed me to comment on the translations as well as on the introduction. The title for the collection followed from a suggestion I’d made. Being included felt like a form of exorcism.

I wrote in my own diary of the time: “Dear Ingrid, are you smiling at us after all?”

Continue reading: LitNet

How to Survive Christmas

It hit me the other day that Christmas this year is going to be bloody awful to survive. And yesterday, I was hit by another thing which almost made it unnecessary to survive anything else as it nearly killed me: a tome of André’s collected short stories. It fell on me from a high shelf while I was reaching for other books. I suppose a fitting end to someone like me who lives for books, but Lady Fate decided that it was not my time to go yet. So I still have some surviving to do next month…
tomes
André always maintained that he was not a short story writer, but in fact he started off as one. Short stories are a fine way to “cut your teeth”, as a friend who visited today remarked when I told her about it. Indeed. Back in the day, it was also a way to earn some serious pocket money, and so to support himself in his student days André wrote short stories for magazines in the 1950s (he was barely twenty years old at the time – sigh! – some writers were born with a pen in their beautiful little chubby hands). He collected the individual magazine copies and had them bound into big leather tomes. I estimate there should be just over a hundred stories. Early André Brinks. How exciting is that! I knew about the collected tomes as they are stored in the little André Brink Library next to my study. But until recently I did not feel confident enough in my grasp of Afrikaans to attempt reading them. However, I do now!

When Christmas revealed itself as the nightmare that it is going to be this year, I started compiling a list of survival strategies. Since travelling is a bit of an issue, I can’t go to my family in Austria or Poland. And anyway, being away from home this year is simply impossible to imagine. So, Christmas in Cape Town it is going to be.

Karina’s How to Survive Christmas this Year List:

One: Watching all Sissi movies (for the hundredth time – hey, anything to survive!).
Sissi_film_poster
Two: Star Wars (whoever planned the release date for the latest Star Wars movie can pick up a really passionate kiss of gratitude from me, anytime – all yours, whoever you are!)
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Three: Throwing the Christmas Party of the Year for my friends, divine Polish Christmas dishes and fireworks included.
Four hit me on the head: Reading all of André’s early short stories (some were written especially for Christmas!).
story1story2
Five was added this morning: I was invited and accepted to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with my other family, the families of dear friends.

If I won’t be killed by falling books in December, I might be around for 2016! Pray for me.

The magic of Open Book 2015

Helen MacdonaldSo, who else has fallen in love with Helen Macdonald during Open Book 2015 in Cape Town? H is for Hawk has been on my radar for a while, but I’ve only decided to get the book when I heard about Macdonald’s generous endorsement of Stray: An Anthology of Animal Stories and Poems, edited by Diane Awerbuck and Helen Moffett (all royalties donated to TEARS Animal Rescue). How cool is that? Macdonald showed up at the Open Book Stray Readings and stole my heart reading the passage in which she first saw and fell for Mabel, the goshawk who helped her cope during her time of bereavement. At one of her other Open Book events, Macdonald spoke about how you can’t tame grief and how sometimes you have to do mad things in order to survive it.

This was my first Open Book since André’s death. Last year, we were still mourning Nadine Gordimer – together. We’d thought that we might celebrate the tenth anniversary of our first and only public interview (at Schloss Leopoldskron in Salzburg in 2004) with an event at the festival, but André was recovering from a knee operation and did not feel up to it. We did pay tribute to Nadine: with Margie Orford, Billy Kahora and Imraan Coovadia reading from her work and sharing stories about her influence on their lives and writing. André read from his own work at another event. We attended a few others, gathering memories which all returned to me this year when I was walking around The Fugard Theatre – alone.

At the opening ceremony, Mervyn Sloman said that every year Open Book is infused with magic. How true. “You’re a magician,” someone magical in my life said to me once. Perhaps I can conjure miracles when inspiration and desire strike, but I would like to think of myself as a magician of a different kind, one who can recognise the magic of the everyday. Even when suffocating in the clutches of grief.

with SallyMagic was all over The Book Lounge and The Fugard Theatre during Open Book this year. In the stories I read preparing for the festival (discovering my love for the work of Karen Joy Fowler, Melissa de Villiers and Andrey Kurkov in the process); in the warmth of a friend’s grip around my arms at the opening ceremony; in Karen Joy Fowler’s humour; in the melody Petina Gappah sang during her interview with Lauren Beukes; in a walk in the sun between events; in Stephen Segerman’s and Craig Bartholomew Strydom’s devotion to the Sugar Man story; in Claire Robertson’s mesmerising reading voice; in seeing the first cover designs for the special edition of Flame in the Snow; in Elleke Boehmer’s, Henrietta Rose-Innes’s and Craig Higginson’s inspiring eloquence; in a dim sum lunch, a bubbly and a Glenfiddich shared with friends; in Beverly Rycroft’s moving honesty; in a friend’s sparkling eyes which could have been clouded by loss but weren’t; in the hospitality of Fugard’s Iris who with her colleagues took such great care of all of us; and, last but not least, in S.J. Naudé’s careful thoughts about our craft – the magic and beauty of it all.

with KarenI loved chairing the three events I was asked to. I loved seeing old friends and meeting new ones. I loved interacting with writers whose work has meant so much to me over the years. I loved buying books and talking about literature with people who care. I loved being asked to sign my novel. I loved feeling that I was close to returning to my own creative writing. I loved every single memory from the past. I loved making new ones.

Thank you, Mervyn, Frankie and all the other magicians at The Book Lounge.

You can’t tame grief. Grief is this creature that moves into your home when death strikes. It lurks, ready to pounce at all times, especially when you least expect it. It never leaves again. You can’t tame it, but you can tame the way you react to it. And live. And experience joy again, in a story and in your life. And smile. And appreciate the magic. That moment.
with Andrey and Andrew

(Photos: Books Live and PEN SA)

Polish – Afrikaans magic

This morning I received the following message (in Afrikaans, nogal!):

“Koop vandag se Rapport! Groete Jerzy”

To which I automatically replied:

“Ek sal, baie dankie! K”

And I did. Inside, was an article about Jerzy Koch’s A History of South African Literature: Afrikaans Literature 17th – 19th Centuries (Van Schaik, 2015).
Jerzy Koch_Rapport
The article and our exchange reminded me of something I wrote for Die Burger in 2008.

Found in Translation: Two Poles in South Africa
(Die Burger 28 July 2008)

There is only a handful of people in his home country with whom the Pole Professor Jerzy Koch can easily converse in the language which over the last fifteen years has become his great linguistic passion – Afrikaans. His home in Wrocław in the South of Poland is perhaps the only place in the country where one will be welcomed with homemade bobotie and some biltong which always features on his shopping list whenever he visits South Africa.

When he is here, people are pleasantly surprised with his fluent and articulate Afrikaans and his incredibly diverse knowledge of local culture, literature and history. Koch’s work forms one of the strongest cultural and intellectual bridges between Poland and South Africa, and between the two languages, Polish and Afrikaans.

Suitably, his African adventure began with magic. Sometime in the 1980s, with his students of German, Koch was celebrating Andrzejki (St Andrew’s Day). According to Polish tradition, he poured some beeswax through the hole of a key into a bowl of cold water. The ensuing wax figurine, which was to foretell his future, was interpreted as having the shape of either a heart or of Africa. Not surprisingly, a few years later, Koch lost his heart to Africa when, after completing his doctorate at the Belgian Catholic University of Leuven, he participated in a conference in Potchefstroom in 1992.

In the introduction of his latest book, Hottentot Venus and Other Essays on South African Literature (published in Polish by Dialog, 2008), he recalls his fascination with South Africa of the early 1990s: “The fact that the transition in Poland was happening at the same time as the South African one made interest in South Africa, at least in my eyes, obvious.”

In 1993, our paths crossed for the first time in the most unusual manner and unbeknown to both of us at the time. After Daniel Hugo recited some of Ingrid Jonker’s verses to him at Three Anchor Bay, Koch translated a selection of Jonker’s poetry from Afrikaans into Polish. The volume was edited and published by WitrynArtystów, a small publishing house run by none other than my uncle, Bogusław Michnik. Jonker’s poetry collection was most likely the first book ever translated from Afrikaans into Polish. It is one of numerous translations from Dutch and Afrikaans for which Koch received the Martinus Nijhoffprijs in 1995.

Jerzy Koch is also the author of several monographs and numerous articles on South African literature in general, and Afrikaans literature in particular.
Jerzy Koch_booksHis previous book of local interest, History of South African Literature: Afrikaans Literature – 17th-19th Century, published in Polish in 2004, was the first study of its kind written by a non-South African for a non-South African audience. It is comprehensive, wonderfully illustrated history of Afrikaans literature which is an excellent point of entry for Polish students of South African studies at two Polish universities, University of Wrocław and the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, where Koch introduced this particular field of inquiry. In translation, it might offer an inspirationally fresh look at literary history for Afrikaans speakers.

Koch is currently working on the sequel to this publication, a history of twenty-century Afrikaans literature and on the first Afrikaans-Polish dictionary, apparently the fourth ever bilingual dictionary that includes Afrikaans. He is also editor of the annual publication Werkwinkel: Journal of Low Countries and South African Studies. Its third issue on its way to us as I write.

Jerzy Koch, André and I in Stellenbosch in 2006.

Jerzy Koch, André and I in Stellenbosch in 2006.

In South Africa, he is presently a research fellow at the UFS in Bloemfontein and since 2005 a member of the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns, an honour rarely bestowed on a foreign scholar.

Easily recognised by his old-fashioned, long, curled moustache, Jerzy Koch was, fittingly, the first person I ever spoke Polish to in South Africa when we met at last in person in 2006 during one of his visits to the Cape. Ever since I came to live here myself in 2005 I have been absorbing Afrikaans. One day, Jerzy Koch and I will have a conversation in Afrikaans about Langenhoven. We share a passion for this country, its people and their cultural treasures, believing that it is of the utmost importance to forge understanding between peoples through explorations of the unknown with the help of the known. And a little bit of magic.

(When André and I first visited my uncle who published Tęsknota za Kapsztadem, he proudly presented the volume to us, not in the least aware of the connection between Ingrid Jonker and André. He was just proud of having published a South African author in translation. I remember I had tears in my eyes when he handed the book over to us and I paged through it, looking for a poem dedicated to André. I found one, pointed at the dedication and then at André, and said to my uncle in Polish: “It’s the same person, you know.” Tears flooded all our eyes. Magic. And Jerzy and I texting to each other in Afrikaans – that’s magic, too.)