Margaret von Klemperer reviews David Maughan Brown's 'Despite the Darkness'

05 November 2019 - 11:03 By Margaret von Klemperer
'Despite the Darkness'.
'Despite the Darkness'.
Image: Troubador Publishing

Published in the Witness: 04/11/2019

Set in Pietermaritzburg in the dark days of the 1980s, when white South Africans who did not buy into the apartheid ideology of the Nationalist government were feeling increasingly desperate, David Maughan Brown’s Despite the Darkness skilfully captures the pervasive sense of fear and hopelessness that characterised those years and that we are inclined to forget in the dramas of the present.

The novel is largely set around the university campus, which the author obviously knew well.

The plot concerns a history professor, Cameron Beaumont, already under surveillance by the Special Branch for his left-wing views, who is approached for help one night by Mirambo, an SRC member on the run. Mirambo may or may not have been involved in a bombing that killed an innocent security guard.

Beaumont helps him to escape, albeit a little reluctantly, but eventually the student vanishes and, of course, the fear is that the Special Branch has dealt with him and may have made him reveal who helped him.

As the Special Branch steps up its harassment of Beaumont in a number of creatively evil ways that target him, his wife and young children, he becomes increasingly concerned for Mirambo. And his life, academic and personal, begins to unravel and he finds himself more and more isolated. Under pressure, he makes several spectacularly unwise decisions.

The novel, which blurs the lines between fiction and reality, moves briskly and is a stark reminder, should one be needed, of where we have come from. 

David Maughan Brown lectured in the English department at the then University of Natal in the 1970s and 1980s, before becoming deputy vice-chancellor and principal on the Pietermaritzburg campus. In 2002 he moved to the UK, where he continued his academic career at York St John University until his retirement.