“The Rights of Desire” by Andre Brink

A May-December romance in a post-apartheid South Africa where violence is always ready to erupt.

Topics: Books,

He seems an unlikely candidate for operatic passion, this Ruben Olivier: He’s 65, a widower with mild memories, a former librarian and inveterate reader whose sole joy in life arises from the “reassurance of words,” the “wild and sacred space” of books “where meanings are manageable precisely because they aren’t binding,” where “illusion is comfortingly real.” That Olivier lives in post-apartheid South Africa, amidst the bitter recriminations and confused violence outside the very doorstep of his Cape Town manse, infuses that last line with a kind of dark naivete; Olivier’s life, both public and private, is a study in shelter. And “one day it will be mercifully over,” Olivier broods, “but it seems you never really get there.”

Olivier’s sons, worried for their father’s safety after the random murder of his best pal and chess-opponent, are committed to spiriting him out of South Africa, but Olivier won’t submit. After all, he argues, he has Magrieta, his petulant black housekeeper, to look after him, and also Antje of Bengal, the ghost of a 17th century slave executed for the poisoning of her master and lover’s wife. To appease his children, nonetheless, Olivier agrees to take in a lodger. Enter Tessa Butler: 29, caustic and carnal, “with dirty feet and a smudge on her cheek,” and “nowhere else to go.”

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“I won’t cook, I won’t keep house, I won’t sleep with you,” she tells him. “But I can be around.”

From their first conversation — “the large easy loops, the repetitions and variations and divagations, the sudden changes of direction” — Olivier is in love: madly, deeply, as if all the illusions and allusions in his books had shuddered to life in one blinding instant. His father, Oliver recalls, “in one of his more exuberant or desperate moods,” would “go out in the veld and sprinkle brandy on the daisies to make them drunk so that they wouldn’t feel the pain of shriveling up and dying,” and, for Olivier, Tessa becomes the brandy, the final drunk pleasure. Tessa allows him all this, even revels in it, though her motives are never quite clear, perhaps not even to herself.

Like every great novel, “The Rights of Desire” teeters occasionally on the cusp of sentimentality, but there is also comedy here — after a botched attempt to navigate a condom, in heady (if vain) anticipation, Olivier tries to flush it down the toilet only to have it keep returning to the surface “like the corpse of a saint” — and no small measure of genuine poignancy. When the harsher realities of the outside world — and the very literal ghost of South Africa’s dusky past — invade Olivier’s geriatric amour, he is forced to step from the flat, sheltered world of his books and memories into a world made round by blood and desire. It is a world rendered brilliantly, ambitiously and humanely by Brink; this novel, chiseled and rigorous, feels as durable as desire.

Jonathan Miles, a contributing editor at Men's Journal, writes regularly for Salon Books.

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