"Nelson Mandela has achieved the impossible. It is now up to Thabo Mbeki to address the possible." When South African writer Andre Brink said this he was still an A.N.C. apologist. Alas, since its liberation from apartheid the country has become a gangsters' paradise. "Whoever elects to stay here cannot expect to remain unscathed," Brink writes today.
In The Rights of Desire (Secker & Warburg; 311 pages), the winds of change buffet Ruben Olivier, a widower who has lost his job as a librarian to an affirmative action appointee and whose sons have emigrated or are about to leave. He takes in a lodger named Tessa — young and beautiful, vivacious and volatile. She plugs him back into life, rekindling long-forgotten desires. Brink writes warmly if wistfully about the tribulations of aging, about an older man's unrequited passion for a younger woman.
But Olivier and Tessa get mugged. His best friend is murdered. When a mob burns down his maid's house, she utters the ultimate insult to the new South Africa: "In the ole days things was bad, but this is worser."
Brink takes his title from a sentence in the Booker Prize-winning Disgrace by fellow Cape Town writer J.M. Coetzee. But while Disgrace is full of bloodless characters and clinical prose, The Rights of Desire is about real people muddling through, and warmth and cruelty cohabiting. It is about Africa, where the possible is forever elusive yet the impossible is never beyond reach.