Breytenbach's oorblyfsel/voice over: an intimate sharing

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oorblyfsel/voice over
Breyten Breytenbach
Publisher: Human & Rousseau
ISBN: 9780798150712



At the end of oorblyfsel/voice over, Breyten Breytenbach includes a note that states that he does not consider the pieces of this publication, each written side by side in Afrikaans and English, as translations, but as the physical and emotional projection of what a conversation is. It is both a tribute to and an engagement with Breytenbach’s friend, Palestinian poet Magmoed Darwiesj / Mahmoud Darwish (true to the form of this collection, the Palestinian’s name must be read and spoken in two languages) – Breytenbach freely admits to adopting elements of Darwiesj/Darwish’s work and weaving it into his own, and effusing his voice with the Palestinian’s, so that the speakers of the pieces have both internal and external conflict as well as harmony that reaches across the twelve pieces in the collection, or the twelve moments of the dialogue. It is, simply, an ongoing dialogue largely concerned with death and the afterlife, a common enough topic of conversation, but it is characterised by one poet framing his thoughts on the topic through the insights of the other while at the same time asking questions as the other poet has passed into death and in a sense knows more about it, as far as their dialogue is concerned. This may bring recent memories of Chris Chameleon’s Ek herhaal jou, but Breytenbach writes with both urgency and apprehension at sharing the intimacy between two poets from different countries. A voice-over is not a repetition of someone’s words, or merely just an interpretation: it is an assimilation of thoughts, experiences and trajectories.

While a study of Darwiesj/Darwish’s work and friendship with Breytenbach would be stimulated by reading oorblyfsel/voice over, Breytenbach’s own standing as among the foremost and most popular poets in South African literature counts as an added weight, and as frequently happens with a Breytenbach collection, comparisons will be made – either, to some, he has never regained the crispness of articulation he displayed in, for instance, Lotus (1970), or he is constantly reimagining himself with each new collection, looking back at his life and how well his literary path may have been mapped and then each time tearing up the map and starting anew. Breytenbach is nothing if not immediate – a conversation or debate about his older work usually stems from a discussion about his newer work, and the greats will, happily, always retain this quality. He seems quite aware of his readership at all times and, possibly anticipating responses, states in his note at the end of oorblyfsel/voice over what his intentions are and aren’t.

Of course, this recent work is rich in political and socio-historical metaphor, being as it would be, among other things, a view to two different yet also similar countries in Palestine and South Africa, with two poets both known for their political views and stances. As could be expected in a Breytenbach work, the necessary questions of sex definition between nature and man arise, and so too of friendship sustainability, and of warfare, both psychological and physical. On the surface, Breytenbach shows a dialogue between a local and a foreign poet (in so far as his South African readership is concerned) and discusses his incorporation of much of his admired other’s work into his own, like C Louis Leipoldt did with the Dutch writer Multatuli a century ago. This dialogue, though the micro-space of a two-person conversation, goes on to take in the much larger vistas that befit an epic, only to return to its intimacy as if it never left, which is the route of most human dialogues. As mentioned above, Breytenbach asks for this poetic dialogue not to be seen as a set of translations. Inevitably, however, many of his readers and listeners will set about doing just that: focusing on translation.

Breytenbach never imagined himself to be Samuel Beckett, who had the ability to translate himself from French to English with an almost rhythmic precision, nor does Breytenbach seem at all interested in academic debates about the role and power of the translator. Some may argue that he would be better off writing in Afrikaans only, or leaving a few choice translations of his work in the hands of someone like André Brink. But in oorblyfsel/voice over, Breytenbach is in some measure of control of his own literary translation: the glaring differences between the Afrikaans and English bodies of the same pieces are almost put side by side for the reader and listener to pick up on, and the space between is exactly where the reader and listener is invited to experience some very intimate thoughts and reflections, which is exactly what the poet reveals quite blatantly in the note – itself a personal dialogue – that concludes oorblyfsel/voice over. Yes, the English pieces are bad, but bad has seldom worked so well.

From oorblyfsel/voice over’s title and its cover image, Breytenbach’s authorship is evident: his inexpert, staggered translation immediately draws attention to itself, and the idea of the impossibility of capturing a simple human dialogue is conveyed before a single piece in the collection needs to be read. Dealing with language and its complex system of signs and signifiers has always been at the core of some of the greatest dialogues in literature, the emphasis on exactly how dependent communication is on far more than just the spoken word. The pronunciation of a certain word may be the same in two different languages, but it may not necessarily span the cultural, geographical and historical divides between the one language and the other. Breytenbach is at ease in pointing out the absurdity of the everyday human ear’s "science of hearing": of course he knows that he will be criticised (and has been) for poor translation, or be accused of trying to make of poor translation and his limitations a form, a style, something so very Breytenbach. Such observations cannot be applied to oorblyfsel/voice over, if only because of the sensitivity and intimacy with which he unfolds his interaction with Magmoed Darwiesj / Mahmoud Darwish.

It is a view of a friendship we are given access to, not merely Breytenbach writing about someone, but transcending ideas of what his poetic license should be – instead of merely paying tribute, Breytenbach lets his speaker(s) constantly reflect on the very piece a reader/listener is experiencing at that moment; or the speaker in a certain piece recalls an earlier one in the collection through an obvious but not easily placed motif. This is not mere post-modern posturing on the part of Breytenbach; he is drawing attention to how an intimate connection between two or more people can sometimes work only because the parts don’t fit – there must be a blatant, awkward stagger and stammer.

Through the twelve pieces of the poem that is oorblyfsel/voice over, Breytenbach shows an intentional vulnerability to aesthetic form – his versification is good here, but then his inability to control his own enthusiasm is evident there. For example, in the same piece (10), the lines "I’m the dabbler/ partaking of the arc of dice falling" could easily have been left as nothing more than Breytenbach drawing attention to some of the processes and emotions at work in the collection. Yes, he reminds us (or, more accurately, Magmoed Darwiesj / Mahmoud Darwish), he doesn’t really have much of a leg to stand on by "revoicing" Darwiesj/Darwish, a Palestinian who mastered Arabic verse, through mismatching Afrikaans and English – all that Breytenbach admits he has at his disposal (not counting French) for this particular project. Yes, he reminds us, the very piece we are reading is something of an experiment, something tender enough for him to keep inserting these little disclaimers to that easily become woven into most of the poems and begin to recall one other. Yes, we tell ourselves, he may be clutching at straws, using his self-consciousness as a device – being a writer writing about writing, a useful enough thing when you have little better to do. But then consider the same lines in Afrikaans: “Ek is die dobbelaar/ partykeer val die dobbelsteentjies reg”, and immediately the suggestion of discomfited, distanced physical communication between Breytenbach and Darwiesj/Darwish occurs, a communication that goes through the painful, the awkward to become pleasurable in that any intimacy across cultural divides must first have the necessary reaching and stretching to become bearable and then enjoyable, and exciting all the while. After a complex stab at it, the end result of communication is always, hopefully, simple.

In the same piece (10), very much the near epic moment that brings Breytenbach and Darwiesj/Darwish together in a sustained dialogue, the idea goes further: “wie skryf hierdie gedig gesig/ vir gesig in swart bloed” nearly matches the English, “who is writing this poem face/ by face in black blood”, but then is wilfully overturned by the later “en skryf één reel in die sand: as dit nie vir Lugspieëling was nie/ was ek al lankal ‘n hersenskim/ want dis die reisiger se goeie kans dat hoop/ wanhoop se tweeling is in die bloed van poësie”, which in English becomes “and write this one line in the sand/ that if it weren’t for Mirage/ I’d long since have died for it is/ the traveller’s talisman that hope and despair be twinned in the blood of poetry”. Breytenbach is filled with verve and energy that he almost cannot control at this point; he is revelling in both the roundedness and erroneous component of his art, but it is not a selfish joy, or merely a boast, as it works because the reader/listener is already woven into its fabric, a vital third component to making it a celebration.

oorblyfsel/voice over establishes itself on its own terms, and that alone makes it similar to many other works by Breytenbach without any further comparison; it is hardly a highly ambitious or exceptional work, nor an underwhelming one, and must not be regarded as either by those who are too keen to put historical mantles on everything an artist produces. It is an intimate sharing, a simple ongoing conversation of the kind that we all have with one another, and while, as a literary work, it falters and stutters (Breytenbach does start off somewhat uncertainly, but as with any dialogue soon hits his stride), there is nothing in oorblyfsel/voice over to suggest that Breytenbach shouldn’t produce more of the same when next he feels he wants to.

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