Old Dog, old tricks

Breyten Breytenbach’s Time of the Writer speech reads like an apology for his latest book, A Veil of Footsteps (Human & Rousseau), launched at the same festival. The book itself (though unmentioned) is ‘brutal” and ‘ill-tempered”. Perhaps the speech is trying to counteract the bilious impression of despair and pointlessness that the book generates.

A Veil of Footsteps is the ‘memoir of a nomadic fictional character” and here Breytenbach is up to old tricks. The book’s ‘fictional” voice is Breyten Wordfool, who popped up in Breytenbach’s last poetry collection, ‘Woordvoël” being both a Wordfool and a Wordbird. (Not that he sounds different to any other Breyten-voice.) In one mention here, a doggy persona is named — I Doggod.

Birds and dogs of course are key Breytenbach figures, though whether birds are good and dogs are bad is another question. Dogs bite off one’s hands, or scratch the ground to disinter and eat rotting corpses; birds fly, but they are also starlings that devour everything, as Breytenbach noted in a previous prose work, Dog Heart (1999). There he says: ‘It was Nietzsche who decided to call his pain ‘Dog’.” The doggone pain is so strong in A Veil of Footsteps that perhaps he should have called its writing persona Worddog or Dogword.

The book is structured (so to speak) as a series of journeys to and from and through Spain, Vietnam, Senegal, Mali, South Africa, Mozambique, the United States. These trips provide some insights, but mostly they are the vehicle for an inner journey across the landscape of Breytenbach’s increasingly rancid ruminations about failed revolutions, a dying Africa, the idiocy of humanity. This journey returns always to the same site of disappointment, anger and pain. It all comes across rather like an extreme version of TS Eliot’s description of his poem The Waste Land as a set of ‘rhythmical grumblings”, though in this case without much rhythm.

If only the language provided some of the energy and ecstasy that Breytenbach, at other times, has believed it can — and has produced so gloriously, especially in his poetry. Maybe it’s the effect of writing in English, not his native Afrikaans, that makes so many phrases fall flat or go nowhere, or makes metaphors that don’t add up (though he has managed perfectly well elsewhere). That’s apart from routine errors such as ‘to whit” instead of ‘to wit”, ‘cast” when he may mean ‘caste”, and so on.

There’s a saddening lack of the ‘exactitude” Breytenbach calls for in his speech. The language itself is often as murky as the photographs reproduced in these pages. (And the book’s cover is one of the ugliest I’ve seen in a while; perhaps appropriately, it’s a blurred and pixellated self-portrait in a mirror, the author peering out of darkness.) Blurring fact and fiction, as he avowedly is here, does not invigorate either, but means that the work has neither the solidity of fact nor answers fully to the pressure of imagination. It feels like a lazy way to avoid checking any facts.

At one point Wordfool or Dogvomit tells I-Breytenbach that ‘he wished to project his imagination by way of putting flesh on half-remembered fictions and give it the fatness of fact. ‘Imagination’ could thus come to live as houseguest on the page in his absence, he said, as house goat eating everything in sight —” But it is not merely goatish to refer to Rita Barnard, a leading South African-born literary academic, only as ‘a friendly white lady with good breasts”. This is to allow the bile to overwhelm the writing.

Breytenbach has often, within various texts, asked what writing does or should do, but A Veil of Footsteps contains an unprecedented number of attempts to define and redefine writing, its uses and its effects. ‘I don’t know why I’m writing this book — except to make a fool of myself!” — ‘Writing — is about words multiplying in the dark and the dust despite one’s best precautions” — a sense that this book is the trace of logorrhoea or glossomania. Writing is ‘that tragic and absurd exercise in making memory, trying to create a continuum, a present in other words — By pretending to represent the permanently stopped present and fashion the future, writing brings about false consciousness” — ‘Breyten Wordfool will die from the bleeding and the secretion of words — He may be writing so as to die” —

Perhaps the death of Wordfool is the necessary prelude to rebirth in the novel Breytenbach says he is trying to write. It is The Last Days of Simon Snow, about a retired undertaker — someone who no longer even does his job of processing corpses.

Towards the end of A Veil of Footsteps a ‘Declaration” simply states that Wordfool and ‘I, Breyten Breytenbach” are one and the same: ‘I — write these words, or they write me.” After a passage of delirious but tedious wordplay, he writes: ‘I teach writing at the university, it is in many ways a stimulating experience, but it has not done my own work any good. Perhaps it has forced me into a zone of reasonableness and good behaviour where one licks fractured mirrors until the tongue bleeds. Crap will smell.” Right. But there is little reasonableness or good behaviour here. As he put it in Dog Heart, ‘I am my own defecation.”

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