Review: Notes from the Middle World, Breyten Breytenbach

[Original in Afrikaans at Rapport.]

Breyten Breytenbach, Notes From the Middle World, Haymarket Books, 2009, 978-1-931859-91-2

Once gathered into English liberal bosoms for his cultural and armed opposition to the ideology of his tribe, Breytenbach has of late received controversial coverage, especially in the English press. (But I do remember a cartoon in the Afrikaans press – was it in Vrye Weekblad? -, which showed Breytenbach standing in Paris and pissing on SA.) In 2008, a lot of this centred around A Veil of Footsteps (see the coverage at BookSA). His new book of essays, Notes From the Middle World (it includes two beautiful but scorching poems), has now already received a critical review at the Sunday Independent.

But the controversy precedes the new book. Included in it is “Mandela’s Smile: Notes on South Africa’s Failed Revolution”, which was published in Harper’s Magazine in December 2008. The essay sparked an outcry among local journalists and spokespeople, who focussed on selected, sensational extracts. And, typically, people dismissed the essay by questioning Breytenbach’s credentials as a by-now uitlander (foreigner/outsider). What right, was the retort, does he have to criticise SA? He doesn’t live here anymore.

These responses, I believe, misread the essay on many levels; and questioning Breytenbach’s geographical and other credentials is impertinent given his biography, and deny the multiple accurate criticisms he levels at the new South Africa. More particularly, the overlooked emotional force driving this essay is a key to present South Africa that we ignore at our peril. Thus I want to focus on “Mandela’s Smile”.

Notwithstanding the ammunition this essay gives to rightwingers, Breytenbach is still firmly on the left. Throughout Notes from the Middle World, he weighs in against Bush’s war in Iraq, the role of the IMF and World Bank in keeping countries down, the paternal exportation of ‘democracy’, and so on. So his critique of SA is his own brand of lojale verset (loyal resistance, loyal criticism), and must be read and understood as coming from a son loyal to the broad aims of the anti-apartheid struggle.

I am starting to consider “Love ” as the best metaphor to describe and understand SA politics and people’s relationships with each other. Love and its betrayal. And Breytenbach’s essay resonates as a love letter written by the brokenhearted, a heart that feels betrayed. But a heart that has the courage to admit that betrayal and its broken-heartedness. It is not a critique that dismisses the ideal of a post-apartheid SA, a too easy, knee-jerk dismissal of the essay itself in any case.

In the title essay, Breytenbach defines the “Middle World” as, among others, that place of “belonging and not belonging”, with all its baggage for an itinerant like him – leaving home, but not being rid of home. A place of ambivalence and of uncertainty (another key term in the book). But ambivalence and uncertainty is not to be rejected – for decades now Breytenbach has embraced and celebrated his baster (bastard) identity, in a rejection of the dogmatic racial certainties that historically underpinned Apartheid. And in “The Afrikaner as African” he unearths an etymology which points to “Afrikaner” as a creole racial identity.

This celebrated middle position easily switches to the modus of lojale verset, especially when a loyalty is betrayed, when a heart is broken. And I think that “Mandela’s smile” speaks to and for many people on the broad left who see anti-apartheid ideals trampled on, loyalty betrayed and hearts broken.

Why love? Why do I use these metaphors of emotion to frame Breytenbach? Dry statistics on crime can only do so much as critique. The academic prose of sociologists can only convince other sociologists. But who – rich, poor, black, white – can ignore the cries of the broken hearted?  It is when we understand the emotional source of the despair in “Mandela’s Smile” that we can start to understand the depth of the political problems South Africa faces. It is when we understand to what extent even those loyal to a broad progressive idea of South Africa feel broken and betrayed that we can ask: how do we start to mend our broken hearts.

With “Mandela’s Smile” I think Breytenbach has opened a vein in SA political discussion, and it hurts. But it shouldn’t be ignored because of this pain. Those who feel targeted by this essay should confront it honestly and note that it is a critique from inside. It is a critique both from a place of belonging and of not belonging, the only place from which any worthwhile critique will come: loyal, but not blindly critical, and critical, but loyally so.

While the book has several deeply searching essays – in a manner I believe congruent with a writer of long standing – I recommend it strongly on the strength of this one essay.

Addendum: I was pleased to be asked to conduct a discussion with Breytenbach as part of his Cape Town launch of Notes from the Middle World, a day after the review was submitted. In a discussion with him afterwards, we discussed NP Van Wyk Louw’s idea of ‘lojale verset’, a frame that Louw, probably the greatest poet in Afrikaans, used in his critique of the National Party of the time. I have always understood ‘lojale verset’ as a term by which Louw sought to have his targets understand his critique as from the inside. I.e. resistance, but sympathetic to broader ideals that underpin the National Party’s unfortunate brand of ethnic ‘socialism’. Breytenbach pointed out that the ‘loyal’ pole can also be understood as containing resistance or critique – that is, criticism should always remain loyal, a form of self-admonishment.

3 Responses to Review: Notes from the Middle World, Breyten Breytenbach

  1. papRika says:

    Reverberant booms from this side of a rather flimsy and tattered curtain. Admiringly yours.

  2. A thought-provoking review. I was directed here by Maria-Milene Rust, who saw links between Breytenbach’s book and answers I gave in a recent interview. (http://www.itch.co.za/?news=32) I’ll try to get a copy of BB’s book in Amsterdam or when I’m next in SA.

    I usually seek refuge in fiction, as you know, but more recently I have been asked to share my personal opinions and experiences, which usually leaves me floundering, mainly because I am inclined to consider such issues from so many different angles, each idea or opinion prompting a new and/or contradictory idea. Which is exactly why I am drawn to fiction, because I can create characters who voice or represent these opinions.

    What I find most vexing is that once I have formulated an opinion in the real world and others have responded to it or countered it, it suddenly becomes “my opinion” (fact), even though I myself still feel it is open to question and adaptation and supplementation.

    I expect Breytenbach, as a public figure, is even more susceptible to this social-intellectual-political phenomenon.

  3. Engela Geyer says:

    What a stunningly sensitive review!

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