Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Victor Dlamini

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Podcast: Conversation from the Country of the Heart with Breyten Breytenbach

A Veil of FootstepsBreyten BreytenbachIn our age of consumerism, when even ideas must be stripped of their complexity and delivered ready to serve, there is something to be said for those who are still prepared to speak in riddles, who still think that ambiguity adds to the joy of language and that narratives are far more open than is often reflected by those who insist on closure.

Any careful reading of Breyten Breytenbach‘s A Veil of Footsteps (Memoir of a nomadic fictional character) reveals a writer deeply aware of the demands of convention – the convention of the memoir, of the convention of the “observer” – and it is the risks Breyten is prepared to take in resisting, even frustrating these demands that bear the most fruitful rewards.

Breyten Breytenbach Memoir is an increasingly popular form, and Breyten warns us that A Veil of Footsteps is not a memoir, or is rather a fictional one – which I daresay is an appropriate signal for an author to give, when allowing himself artistic freedom under a nominal rubric like “memoir”. But this has not stopped some commentators from ignoring the warning, and misreading the writer’s insistence on exploring ambiguity, captured in so many ways in Footsteps, perhaps most of all by the plurality of the narrative voice, which shifts from that of “Breyten Breytenbach” to that of Breyten Wordfool and back, and in some passages adopts a third voice or incarnation to move events forward.

WindvangerJoin me on The Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast as I chat to Breyten Breytenbach about his work across so many fields, and about his views on the ideas of our age, such as identity, culture and memory, which have lost their innocence over the past decades and assumed unexpectedly potent and even sinister meanings. Breyten talks softly, thoughtfully, and with care, but it is also clear that once he has made up his mind about something, he is prepared to speak it, and at times to express in a forthright manner any anger or disappointment that he feels. When talking to Breyten, it becomes clear that it is not as a politician that he expresses his concern about his home country and continent, but as an artist who uses his full powers to “imagine Africa”.

Breyten is a man who expresses himself with admirable eloquence and artistic depth across several mediums: poetry, fiction, painting, teaching. In our conversation, I was struck by the realization that it wasn’t just his words that were important, but equally important, where these words were coming from; after some reflection, it is clear from the way that Breyten speaks that he reaches to a very deep place to find the words that he utters. He conveyed to me a sense that for him even the most personal narratives are open to question, because memory is more unreliable than we often wish to admit. One of the things that fascinates Breyten is the extent to which travellers, nomads, are seekers who always carry with them the seeds of their discontent, and this is an important issue to explore in the context of South Africa, where emigration is increasingly used as a blunt instrument of political protest.

For most of the year, Breyten works and lives on Gorée Island, Dakar, Senegal, where he is the Executive Director of the Gorée Institute, but he also travels each year to New York where he teaches in the Creative Writing Program at NYU. He combines his activities as a writer, poet, novelist, teacher and with his work as an activist. His many volumes of poetry include Die ysterkoei moet sweet (1964; The Iron Cow Must Sweat), Voetskrif (1976; Footscript), and Die Windvanger (2007; The Windcatcher), the last of which won the Herzog Prize. Some of his most notable early poetry was published in English translation in In Africa Even the Flies Are Happy: Selected Poems 1964-1977 (1977). Other notable works include Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, Dog Heart and Lady One: the CD; and most recent one-person exhibitions were held at La Maison Française (New York, 2003) and Galerie Espace, Amsterdam, 2005.

Please tune into the Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast with Breyten Breytenbach:

  • Play now: use the widget links below, or click the link under Latest episodes in the sidebar on the right.
  • Visit feed: You can also play the podcast directly from its source feed; click here, then scroll to the bottom of the page (opens in new window).
  • Listen via iTunes or subscribe through a podcatcher or alternative service: use the buttons and/or feed address in the sidebar.