26 February 2010

Here's to a voice

‘your letter is delightful, larger and lighter
than thoughts of a flower when the dream
is the earth of the garden,
I fled to your letter, to read
that the small orange tree is a mass of white blossoms
opening with the sun,
as your letter opens
there is an unfolding of sky, of word from the outside’

(Extract taken from ‘Your Letter Is Delightful’, Breyten Breytenbach 1984, The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, Emmarentia, Jhb: Taurus, p 348. Photograph, by Philip de Vos, scanned from the back cover of my copy of Dog Heart)

In Standard Five, our class teacher – the woman who led us through each day – was also our Afrikaans teacher. She was the closest thing to a witch I’ve ever encountered, in looks and in manner. She scared us to death. For many years, I disliked that language intensely. It sounded so harsh, and though I didn't articulate the thought at the time, looking back the main things it seemed to express were disdain and cynicism, weariness and impatience. But then sometime in the late 90s I chanced upon a TV documentary on Breyten Breytenbach, in which he slides from English into Afrikaans and back again (as he also does here), and suddenly Afrikaans sounded wonderful – warm and courteous, at once mysterious and graspable. Since then, two friends have confirmed the impression.

Without Breytenbach (also without my two friends and one or two of the other Afrikaans-speaking people I’ve chatted with), I wouldn't have been able to enjoy the humour or the whimsy or the colloquial flavour of phrases like ’n helse fout and ’n engel uit die blou hemel (funnily enough both uttered by chefs in two issues of Taste), the latter of which Breytenbach seems to have had in mind too, for when ‘the showers abate and heavens suddenly expose a silk-blue underlayer’, the narrator of Dog Heart sees ‘angels walking hither and thither up there’ (Breyten Breytenbach 1998, Dog Heart, Cape Town: Human & Rousseau, p 105).

And without him, we would have the pleasure neither of thought-provoking ideas like 'When a language dies, the dead die twice', nor of poems such as the above-quoted one. There are many things to appreciate in that poem in print, but perhaps it achieves its full impact when spoken, as Breytenbach does here.

He’ll be launching his new book of essays, Notes from the Middle World, at Boekehuis, Auckland Park next week, 4 March, at 6:00. There’s also an interview with him about this book here.

05 February 2010

The writer

(Illustration by Rico Schacherl 4 Feb 2010)

Jean-Baptiste is being painted, in miniature. The image is to be reproduced on the back cover of each copy of his latest crime novel, The Bloodiest Rose. As he poses, pretending to be hard at work, he contemplates his successful career with something close to despair. He is living a bit of a lie. While the artist hums, and squints at him, he softly sinks into a cherished reverie, in which he stands at the centre of an admiring circle, the acclaimed and unabashed romance novelist who does not hide behind a nom de plume.

Detective Inspector Duchamp, JeanBap’s protagonist, is a loner, given to blunt, cryptic statements and the occasional moral stance. Men envy his insistent smoking and drinking, his lack of remorse and his silent suffering of chronic wind. Women, with no foundation, love him too. Each one believes that were he a real person – by the ultimate twist of fate, should he turn out to be real – she will be the one to break down his defences.

They have no basis for this conviction, that is, other than sixth sense, which if it came to it would turn out to be accurate. There is indeed a heart – warm and strongly beating – beneath both Duchamp and JeanBap’s impassive exterior.

As a child, secretly encouraged by the women in his family, JeanBap wrote little stories of love and tragedy, short-lived joy and untimely death.
‘Like Romeo and Juliet,’ his mother would sniff, putting down his latest offering.
‘Sadder!’ his aunt pronounced.
Or ‘Like that Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ his mother would chortle.
‘Funnier!’ his aunt proclaimed, dropping her knitting.
JeanBap would lower his head modestly and suck his pencil.

His father, involved not at all, exerted a powerful influence nevertheless. Should he have discovered his son’s favourite subject matter, there would have been hell to pay. Scorn would have dripped. JeanBap knew this without ever being told, and as he grew into the role of creator of the Duchamp cases – texts even his father admitted to enjoying on the rare occasion he had time to read – he, his mother and his aunt kept quiet as quiet can be. For his childhood yearning developed too, and over the years he has written copiously of the affairs of the lovely Dominique, former Duchesse de Deauville, under the pseudonym Jeanne Bécu. Which brings us to this day, and JeanBap’s despondence.

A fundamentally honest man, he is made tense by guilt. He wriggles in his seat, and yawns a great anxious yawn. The artist has to ask him to settle down.
‘Just relax,’ he tells the author. ‘Be yourself.’
Myself? JeanBap ponders. Do I know who that is?
But yes, he answers himself. It’s easy. You’ve always known.
So, he decides, one day, soon, I will stand up among my gathered devotees and say, I am Jeanne Bécu. I am the creator of your beloved romance series, les affaires de coeur de Domi.

It’s a decision he makes now for perhaps the fifth time in as many years, but it feels brand new.