“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.”

You Might Also Like

“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.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 10
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Michael Ohl/Museum fur Naturkunde

    Soul-sucking 'dementor' wasps and 8 other crazy new species

    Soul-Sucking Dementor Wasp

    Latin name: Ampulex dementor

    Truong Ngyuen

    Soul-sucking 'dementor' wasps and 8 other crazy new species

    10,000th reptile species

    Latin name: Cyrtodactylus vilaphongi

    Jodi Rowley/Australian Museum

    Soul-sucking 'dementor' wasps and 8 other crazy new species

    Colour-changing thorny frogs

    Latin name: Gracixalus lumarius

    Judith L. Eger

    Soul-sucking 'dementor' wasps and 8 other crazy new species

    Long-fanged bat

    Latin name: Hypsugo dolichodon

    Neang Thy Moe/FFI

    Soul-sucking 'dementor' wasps and 8 other crazy new species

    Stealthy wolf snake

    Latin name: Lycodon zoosvictoriae

    Michael Janes

    Soul-sucking 'dementor' wasps and 8 other crazy new species

    Feathered coral

    Latin name: Ovabunda andamanensis

    Jerome Constant

    Soul-sucking 'dementor' wasps and 8 other crazy new species

    World's second-longest insect

    Phryganistria heusii yentuensis

    Nantasak Pinkaew

    Soul-sucking 'dementor' wasps and 8 other crazy new species

    Slide 8

    Latin name: Sirindhornia spp

    Tim Johnson

    Soul-sucking 'dementor' wasps and 8 other crazy new species

    Slide 9

    Tylototriton shanorum

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>