Monday, 7 August 2017

A Memoir of Love and Literature

In the European tradition, Karina Szczurek celebrated her name day on Wednesday 2 August. It was a double celebration, in fact, as she had chosen the date to launch her memoir, The Fifth Mrs Brink, at the Book Lounge in Roeland Street, Cape Town. Published by Jonathan Ball, the book is an account of the year following the death of her husband, internationally acclaimed novelist André Brink, interwoven with Szczurek's life story and her relationship with Brink. This was a time of loss and mourning, catharsis and renewal: 'The only reason to write a memoir is to share something that might matter to other people,' she said. 'In order to reach out and connect, you have to make yourself almost unbearable vulnerable.'
Szczurek, whose family defected from Poland thirty years ago, led an itinerant life thereafter – the Italian refugee camp to which they were heading burnt down and they managed to cross the border into Austria. The family spent financially harsh years in the US, after which Szczurek studied in Austria and Wales.
They met in Vienna when Szczurek was a graduate student of South African literature. 'For me, meeting André was a homecoming on all levels,' she said.
After Brink's death in February 2015, the idea for a memoir simmered in her. But 'thinking about something doesn't mean doing it,' she said. Finally, sitting at a café, she ordered a drink and petitioned the universe. 'I thought, ”If I'm ever going to write this book, the first sentence needs to come to me now.'' And it came: “There is nothing like chocolate.” There can be no writing about André without mention of chocolate,' she said. The sentence was relocated during editing but served as her way in to the story.
In response to Book Lounge owner Mervyn Sloman's questions, Szczurek spoke of the personal meaning of writing. 'Those moments that are so ungraspable at a given time... When you try to grasp them and articulate them and communicate them to someone else, that's what writing is all about.' Memoir-writing also entails keeping some things to oneself: 'No-one is better at hiding among words than a writer,' she said.
No longer hearing Afrikaans spoken around her has been an unexpected loss. 'I missed it terribly. I still do.' These days she reads children's books in Afrikaans. 'It gives me pleasure to have Afrikaans around me. I speak it, but only to my cats.'
The Fifth Mrs Brink  is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek title, considering Brink once erroneously told an interviewer that Karina was his sixth wife (and Wikipedia indeed states he was married six times. The memoir is a tribute to a connection that lasted a decade in real life and endures in book form and in the heart of its author. Before leaving the stage, Szczurek held up a burgundy pen. 'Dark red was André's favourite colour. This was his favourite pen and I am using it to sign books tonight.'  

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