Breyten Breytenbach, Die Beginsel van Stof, Human & Rousseau, 2011
(originally published in Die Burger, 4 March 2011, translated by Willem de Vries. Afrikaans version online at Boekeblok.)
I was 14 in 1980 when my Afrikaans teacher lent me two banned books wrapped in brown paper: Brink’s Kennis van die Aand and Breytenbach’s Om te Vlieg. We were out on national school boycotts, becoming politicised and teachers who cared did what they could.
Of course the explicit sex in Brink was any teenage boy’s fantasy, and the book’s politics also took away the breath. But the Breytenbach book is the one that stayed with me, just as any fantastical dream stays with one. After the giggling at swear words, what remained of that book still remains: the complete otherness of the book. Om te Vlieg showed what was possible in a book, and what was possible in that book, what Breytenbach did in that book, has remained a hallmark of especially his Afrikaans work, specifically his poetry.
Die Beginsel van Stof shows off that same, classic Breytenbach: it is other. But the hallmark is there: a dialectical tension between the earthy and the cosmic. And how the cosmic is reached only via the earthy; at the same time, how the cosmic can never allow full flight from the earthy. Love must always make way for death, stars and moon are stone and pumpkin.
The poet is a shaman and Breytenbach as poet has never recoiled from that role. Through the past century, via Modernism and Postmodernism, we have become sceptical of any kind of Romantic inclination and refuse to consider the poet as healer, as oracle, as a voice from elsewhere speaking against the dark. As the one who crosses over to some other world – or who is from another world – and reports back in strange and estranging codes, who makes and remakes our world.
Through identity politics and all manner of fragmentation of our lives into numbers and statistics, we have looked on poets as only representing or answering to this or that demographically defined interest. Breytenbach refuses this poetry of carefully considered language and carries the shamanistic shroud without denying his individual identity. While poems about love or about visitations from grandparents are fragile expressions of the personal, they are also aware of ever-present death, death as a universal.
But not only does death hover over these poems like a strange angel that simultaneously threatens and lovingly beckons. Poetry itself is a medium through which the poet engages with death, hopes to negate it, hopes to make it part of the self, and so even cajoles death as if it is a long lost friend.
Some may say that this is a natural development. As poets age and become aware of death’s proximity – friends and relatives pass away (see for instance Derek Walcott’s White Egrets) – it is only natural that their work may become preoccupied with death. But what lifts Breytenbach’s poetry in this book is his persona in the gentle inquiries, the almost spontaneous indictments of contemporary life, the balance between anger and love, and the strange object that Afrikaans becomes at the same time as the poetry becomes strange through the Afrikaans of Breytenbach.
This then brings to mind an ever-present question as I read Die Beginsel van Stof. Why has Breytenbach not won the Nobel Prize for Literature yet? Breytenbach is a poet still at the height of his powers and, in my book, the foremost South African poet. It seems though that the source of his strength as poet may also be an obstacle. Breytenbach’s surrealism is strongly tied to his reinvention of Afrikaans poetics. The otherworldly quality of his poetry, the shamanistic tension between the earthy and the cosmic, seem to derive also from his relationship with Afrikaans.
Put another way, it is the conjunction between his Romantic inclination, the way Afrikaans lies on his tongue and the authentic expression of a place and identity in that language (the earthy) that simultaneously reaches beyond it (not in content but in spirit and technique), that makes Breytenbach’s poetry. It is an original, authentic magical realism (tied to place through language), unlike that of Marquez or Borges (admittedly available to me only in English). But it is also untranslatable into English. When the poet sees a boerpampoen in New York, it can certainly be translated, accurately, in a literal sense. But it’s not going to be the same pumpkin. Beyond the default debates about literary translation – a translation can never be the original – with Breytenbach’s poetry this untranslatability seems more acute.
And so Breytenbach appears even more shamanistic: a poet for the world, but largely unheard by the world. Highly recommended.