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PRAYING MANTIS (article first published : 2005-07-17)

Andre Brink’s new book Praying Mantis is a heady mixture of comedy and tragedy, the real and the mystical that explores the origins of racial tension in the shadowlands between myth and history through the historical figure of Cupido Cockroach.

In his early years, growing up on a Dutch farm in the deep interior of the Southern Cape, Cupido Cockroach became the greatest drinker, liar, fornicator and fighter of his region. Coming under the spell of a woman, the soap-boiler Anna, and particularly under the influence of the great Dr Johannes Theodorus van der Kemp of the London Missionary Society, Cupido is then made the first Khoi missionary ordained at the Cape of Good Hope. Received into the fold of the Church, Cupido passionately turns against all his early beliefs.

After being drawn into a fierce struggle between the missionaries and the Dutch colonists, he rises to some prominence and is appointed as missionary in a remote and arid region in the north-western Cape. However, this also marks the beginning of his decline as the society abandons him to his fate.

One by one, the members of his congregation disappear into the desert so that in the end, abandoned even by his wife and children, he is left to preach to the stones, thorn trees and tortoises, returning to the dream world of his people.

Andre Brink was born in Vrede in the Free State on May 29, 1935, so the publication and launch of Praying Mantis coincides with his 70th birthday. An academic for over 40 years, Andre Brink is also highly regarded as a literary critic, dramatist and translator of works that vary from Shakespeare through Alice in Wonderland to Islands, Dan Sleigh’s historical epic on 17th century Dutch colonization of the Cape.

His first-ever novel – at the age of 10 - was rejected as “too erotic”! During his 60 years of writing he has twice been shortlisted for Britain’s Man Booker Prize, won the CNA Award several times, The Sunday Times Fiction prize for The Other Side of Silence and has been on the shortlist for the Nobel Prize for Literature on more than one occasion. He holds France’s highest literary honour, The Prix Medicis Etranger, has won the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize and also the Monsimanien Prize for Human Rights from the University of Uppsala.

Many years of his life were spent in almost daily conflict with South African authorities after Kennis van die Aand (Looking on Darkness) became the first Afrikaans book to be banned in 1973. It was this banning that drove Andre Brink to the remarkable process he uses when writing his novels to this day. Determined not to be silenced and desperate to retain his well-established readership, Andre Brink began writing simultaneously in both English and Afrikaans. As each work develops – and there are often as many as 14 versions written before completion – two distinct novels unfold, rather than an original plus translation.

Published by Secker & Warburg, Praying Mantis is available at leading booksellers at R135.




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