Remembering and writing

2008-04-16 00:00

Increasingly, writers — aware as they are of the elusive, selective, even creative nature of memory — are adopting innovative approaches to producing their memoirs. Breyten Breytenbach, former anti-apartheid activist, imprisoned in South Africa between 1975 and 1983, is no exception. Calling himself Breyten Wordfool (presumably as in jester/entertainer, though also with an element of self-mockery) and variants thereof, writing in both the third person and the first person, sometimes even within one sentence, and switching tenses, he assembles memories, dreams and visions that he has apparently recorded over a given period of time in a miscellany of countries and contexts.

Nomadic and polyglot, Breytenbach writes lyrically and — despite or because of the unorthodoxy — with hypnotic appeal, of experiences and encounters in Europe, Africa, America and the mysterious territories of the mind. He is concerned, too, with writing itself — with the writing imperative, the writing process, the purgation that writing may effect for those who practise the art. And always, there is awareness of ephemerality, ageing, amnesia and the inevitability of death — the death that signals the end of any creative project (such as this book) and that other more troublesome lurking termination of self. Considerations of finality provoke thoughts about possible burial places or ash-scatterings, though it is almost impossible for the much-travelled man to select a site from the many localities that have resonance for him.

With an eye for detail and drama, Breytenbach writes evocatively, and not without humour, of places and people wherever he happens to be. However, of contemporary Africa, a continent in which not only people, but structures, institutions, even dreams seem to be dying and only nightmares appear to be thriving, he is sombre. In New York at the time of the attack on the Twin Towers, he writes movingly of 9/11 and its aftermath, though of the initial Bushian bluster and subsequent bellicosity, he is suitably scathing.

Breytenbach’s is a strong voice and there is much of interest to read of a life lived with intensity, curiosity and perspicacity wherever in the world he has found himself.

Moira Lovell

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