Before I go back to Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus, I’ll pause today to write about the book I finished last night, André Brink’s The Rights of Desire.
I mentioned earlier that I had some trouble with The Rights of Desire and I’d like to write about that, mainly because I’m still working out what exactly bothered me about this beautifully-written book. Certainly the writing was a pure pleasure to read, thoughtful sentences and precise but poetic description. The first-person narrator in The Rights of Desire reminded me of a John Banville narrator except less guarded and much less apologetic for any melodramatic expressions.
The story is simple – a widower living in Cape Town with a full-time but live-out housekeeper is forced by his two sons (who live far away) to take in a boarder as a sort of protection against illness, violence etc. He grudgingly agrees and then settles on a 29-year old woman, Tessa. The situation is made a little more complicated by the fact that the house is haunted by the spirit of a young slave woman, killed some 300 years earlier. The book accepts the presence of this ghost and so the reader must as well – the truth of her existence is never called into question, at least not as one of the book’s essential questions.
The book is about Ruben falling desperately in love with this young woman, and then spends its time in a kind of meditation on the ups and downs of their relationship. Ruben and Tessa are products of their respective generations. So in that sense they are presented as opposites – Tessa is sexually promiscuous, free with drugs, fairly irresponsible and burdened with a fatalistic, if not negative, outlook on the future. She is also full-of-life, unafraid and beautiful. Ruben is quiet, reserved, awkward with people he doesn’t know and represents a way of life no longer relevant to the contemporary situation he finds himself in. But he does appear to have a firmly anchored moral compass.
The situation in The Rights of Desire reminded me of something Nadine Gordimer took up in The House Gun – this idea that contemporary society has lost its purpose in a whirlwind of violence, that violence (both outward and inward) has become a means of expression for individuals of recent generations. And Brink explores this notion carefully and respectfully, without positing any easy answers or trying to solve what reveals to be a complex dilemma.
My fundamental criticism of the novel comes from the fact that I found Tessa unworthy of Ruben’s unconditional love and so as I was reading, a lot of the novel’s tension eroded out from under me. Right from the start, I could not understand what Ruben saw in this young woman and so why should I care so much about how much he cared for her. Everything about her persona was constructed – she lied consistently and manipulated Ruben (whether consciously or not) and Ruben was aware of this but somehow didn’t care. Their conversations seemed utterly one-sided and yet Ruben unequivocally declared that he’d met his soul mate.
I can easily see how a 66-year-old man could fall in love with this kind of 29-year-old woman for his own reasons (not saying there aren’t some exceptional and deserving 29-year olds out there, but this particular one was not) and so I tried to look at the book from this perspective. What was Brink trying to express about Ruben, and about this idea of consuming violence, through this lopsided relationship?
The story of the slave girl runs parallel, I think, to this. She was involved in a dangerously obsessive relationship with her master and now haunts the household as a kind of spy. Which is exactly how Ruben behaves with Tessa. So here are three individuals, exercising their “rights” of desire – Ruben in indulging his complicated lust for a woman who should technically be off limits, Tessa in accommodating her various lovers, and the ghost by reminding the entire household of the perilous undercurrents of passion.
I’ve always believed that rights come with responsibilities, at least from a socio-political perspective, and this is a book very much about South Africa’s socio-political brokenness. Looking at the novel this way, Ruben’s unbalanced relationship with Tessa and Tessa’s compulsive promiscuity are examples of a deeper collective distortion.
So despite my frustration with how Ruben’s attachment to Tessa is represented, I’m willing to believe it served a larger purpose and that it was actually meant to disturb me. Regardless, I’d like to look further into Brink – especially in relation to Gordimer and Coetzee.