‘At the Woordfees memorial for André in March 2015, we, all his family and friends were asked to read something from his work. I knew what my favourite passages were, but I wanted to read something more personal.’ It was then that Karina Szczurek found the courage to revisit the two huge folders of letters she and André had exchanged after their fabled first meeting in Salzburg back in 2004.
‘So that I could refer to them and because I’m sceptical about things electronic, I printed them all out.’ Polish-born Karina admits to being an inveterate letter writer – and keeper, ‘I have kept every letter I’ve ever received.’ Understandably she is on first name terms with the people at her local post office!
For the memorial in Stellenbosch, ‘coincidentally the 10th anniversary of the day we met again in Paris ’, she chose to read ‘not a complete letter of André’s, but one very beautiful passage. Afterwards, my publisher gently and apologetically approached me to ask if I would consider publishing our correspondence. I thanked her, but was definitely not ready to even think about it then.’
Two years later, she wrote and published The Fifth Mrs Brink, a memoir of her life before, during and after her marriage to André. ‘It was a frightening experience. I had no idea how people would react, but the reception was overwhelmingly kind. That kindness made me consider the publisher’s suggestion.’ But there was a bigger goal. ‘
As long as I’ve been mourning André, I’ve thought how incredible it would be to have a prize in his honour – but how to find the money? Then I thought that with such a book there would be royalties and they could provide the funding! The winner of the inaugural Philida Literary Award will be announced on February 6th 2019 – the anniversary of André’s death.’
‘I was apprehensive – 13 years on what it would feel like to read them again. But rather than sadness, the joy of remembering came as a surprise, though I soon realised there was way too much material. My editor Danél Hanekom and I eventually decided a good cut-off point would be our meeting in Paris. So these are letters written in hope – rather than those that spelt out the intimate reality of our relationship.’
But the collection, entitled You make me possible: The love letters of Karina M. Szczurek & André Brink, is intimate – in its searing, sensory honesty and openness. ‘Even though I was partly responsible, as I reread the letters, I kept thinking this is madness, we are setting ourselves up for huge failure.’ She smiles, ‘But here I am, living proof that we didn’t imagine it all.’
Karina sits with a cat on her lap in the home full of books and paintings that she and André shared for ten wonderful years. ‘For his 70th birthday, I made him a small leather-bound book of all the little details of his history that he’d shared.’ Books and words for them both were quite simply a way of life.
Finally, she says, ‘Whilst this is a book about a love story in the making, it’s also about separation, loss and divorce.’ For some it’s also been an inspiration. ‘About a year after André died I had a call from the purser who’d been so kind on the flight on which André had passed away coming home from Belgium.
She was flying to Cape Town and wanted to meet up. We have since become friends and I gave her a copy of You Make Me Possible when it came out. It inspired her to share the story of her own relationship with me in a letter. I’m so pleased that this book could generate that kind of response.’