An Instant In The Wind is arguably André Brink’s masterpiece. In the guise of an historical novel set in the eighteenth century, Brink presents a superb portrait in miniature of the dilemmas and contradictions facing a South Africa organised by an assumption of apartheid. Unlike many stories of conflict, however, an Instant In The Wind is no tragedy. Unusually, the novel is a remarkable tale of fear, struggle and eventual survival that leaves the reader with an uplifting positive message on the value and potential of human cooperation. It’s an historical novel, it’s a travel book, it’s a road story, it deals with relationships between consenting adults and there are several battles with nature. And it’s positive. What a mix!
The story revolves around just two people who have been unwittingly thrown together. For most of the book’s duration, there is no-one else in view, literally, as the two principals wander across deserted landscapes in search of both safety and ultimately themselves. She is Elisabeth Larssen, née Louw, of the Cape. Elisabeth is married to a Swedish traveller, adventurer and aspiring scientist called Erik Alexis Larssen. Erik is a bearded and rather myopic pursuer of facts. He wants to catalogue things, usually from afar, an approach he applies to his relationship with his wife. The husband is considerably older than the wife and their communication does not run deep, their mutual understanding even shallower.
The other, the ‘he’ of the story, is Adam Mantoor, a runaway slave, a black man, or even a brown man, perhaps, but definitely not a white man. And therefore, according to the mores within which Elisabeth has been raised, he is not even a man, but he might be something to be feared. He has a past which becomes partially revealed. There is surely a history to be told about this life, but he is not willing – or perhaps not able – to tell it. What he is able to do, however, is crucial for André Brink’s story: he can survive.
And so when Larsson sets off on his desired expedition of intended discovery to the interior beyond the Cape, he must organise the transport and bearing of much chattel, whose inventory is known to include his wife. Elisabeth is used to the domestic life and fears what might befall them in what she sees as a wilderness. How will she cope? Probably none too well.
The expedition did not progress as planned. There was internal strife, theft and attacks. And then Erik Larssen disappeared without trace, leaving Elisabeth in the wilderness alone with a man she regarded as a savage, a runaway slave of a different race. Inevitably their plight required them to liaise, but initially Elisabeth seems to assume that relationships that pertain in ‘civilised’ society might be maintained. She has a lot to learn. The trek ahead of them to safety is dauntingly long and they have only one another for support. The path is long, unclear and dangerous. There are hostile people and wild animals plus some unwelcoming homesteads. There are rivers to ford, deserts to cross, mountains to climb, little water and less food.
Elisabeth is initially revolted by Adam. She is terrified of him, and he is deeply suspicious, even afraid of her. But his knowledge is essential for their survival. She wants to return to the Cape, but a miscarriage and illness complicate things. He is fearful of what might happen to him if he returns to the Cape, for there is unfinished business around this man. Together they struggle, survive and gradually learn to live alongside and then depend upon one another.
An Instant In the Wind is no historical account. The facts are non-existent about the real people, but their imagined story sounds more than merely plausible, and its telling is pure delight. In places, the reader almost feels the thirst and hunger, and senses all the dangers. Equally, Elisabeth and Adam’s growing ecstasy also becomes almost tangible as they realise, their races apparently apart, that their humanity is shared.