First Lives, First Words

Camões, Magical Realism and the Limits of Invention.



Beginning with André Brink’s The First Life of Adamastor (1988, trans.1993) – a playful, postmodern ‘writing back’ to the Portuguese epic Os Lusíadas – this article considers local experiments in that international strain of postcolonial literature known controversially but conveniently as ‘magical realism’. Surveying Brink’s post-apartheid literary output, it traces the shifts from weighty national allegories to more irreverent and fantastic re-imaginings of the past, going on to ask how successfully the flamboyant narrative procedures which he helped to import can survive in a South African context. It is an account borne of an admiration for the sheer ambition of his attempt at Reinventing a Continent (as a 1996 essay collection has it), but also from an unease that this purveyor of a prose which strays into the realms of the postcolonial exotic is regarded as such a major writer on the international stage (one who must be classed, according to the Vintage edition dust jackets, with García Márquez and Solzhenitsyn).

More broadly, this opens an enquiry into the insistence on newness and naming the land in these various types of ‘world literature’: what Derek Walcott has called the ‘elemental privilege of naming the New World’. It is a linguistic ambition and energy which informs both Camões’ exploratory cantos and the twentieth-century classics of magical realism, yet which, I would argue, is uniquely tested in the case of southern Africa. Brink’s rewritten Adamastor is one of several Cape Adams encountered as one begins to ask how such confidence to name the natural world might be earned and guaranteed, or else too easily assumed, and so forfeited, by the literary work.

Hedley Twidle, 2010.