June 2008

Elizabeth Bachner


All One Horse by Breyten Breytenbach

“I go wandering in the forest, drenched in thoughts,” writes the protagonist in “Remnants of My Story,” “And a strange man comes up to me, a mad look in his eyes, inchoate of mouth, he grabs me by the jacket and shakes me with broken questions. Eventually it dawns on me (please forgive the lapsus) that this apparition is looking for a small elephant gone astray. Maybe he is the trainer of a passing circus, or the monarch’s game-keeper, or the guardian of the idol. He is in any event a foreigner and quite beside himself with worry. Together we return to the family farm. The land is dark and asylum not easily found.”

Breyten Breytenbach’s All One Horse is many things, including a cartography of exile, a primordial mythology, a surreal philosophy of history and an exegesis of the art of poetry. It reminds me of an illustrated book I had as a child, in which a man went on a journey into a many-colored land and, in a shack on a mountaintop, with a view of prismed hills rippling far past the horizon, ate a great stack of beautiful flapjacks, thick and supernatural, curling over each other as they steamed on the plate. I can’t remember the name of that book or its great illustrator, and even though I’m holding All One Horse in my hand right now and looking at Breytenbach’s bird-filled, totemic watercolors, this new masterwork seems just as magical, essential and elusive as those imagined pancakes in my memory.

Each surreal, interconnected piece in All One Horse has the effect of quicksand or a tornado -- you travel entirely into its vortex and, afterwards, retain only some remnants of the experience. You remember an image, maybe, or a moment, or some dreamy scenes that mutate and grow in your mind later. Yet there is weight to every passage, political weight, human weight, natural weight. In “A Chain for His Watch,” for example, Breytenbach’s retelling of O’Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” there’s a woman with bleeding legs and a beard, with a handicapped husband, and “only one half of his body, taken down the middle, is alive. He drags the dead part after him. The two of them are the caretakers of an apartment block where people eat geese and listen to Brahms.” In “Bathed in Tears,” the protagonist picks up his long-dead mother at the airport and takes her to see his brother, who “resides in a small glass cage… He is thin to the point of emaciation, his dark skin stretched taut over the bones of his face, the ears smaller and more intricate than sea shells… Day after day I become more fed up. Why should I be subjected to these uncertainties? Why is it so imperative to remember? … In our family we all have blue eyes and smooth cheeks. We have linen-white ears. I look at the mummy at the table. True, we have traveled a long history, but this cannot be my brother!” It’s as if Gerard de Nerval had made it, immortally, into the twenty-first century, gone deep into apartheid-era South Africa and refused to go mad.

In “Like a Whiplash,” Breytenbach offers instructions for writing poetry, a lament, and a demonstration all at the same time: “I repair to the toilet to perch over nothingness. Like an angel sickening for take-off. And there I die inside out. The discretion of poetry, all the more polite for never being talked about, is the hiding of the bitterness of evacuation. Shall I spare you the description of wells and black walls, of stench and corruption -- that death which is the underground of poetry? For though I know now that I shall never be immortal -- and I had to die to have the mirror face of death -- I have acquired at least some of the tics of being a poet. Suffice to say that there is a shift, a sickening lurch, an unexpected slope, a long twisting fall, so much like flying, through the bowels of the earth.” Yes.

Throughout All One Horse, there are sly, veiled references, and stories that do not seem to connect snake together surprisingly. Breytenbach’s work may well be a cure for writer’s block. It frees you up to write absolutely anything, however strange, as long as it’s the truth. There is something visionary about it. It glows, and the very air around it seems jumpy and excited. Like that lost childhood book with the dazzling pancakes, I want to take it with me to the playground, and read it in the backseat of the car -- even when there are real mountains outside. It’s a book to slip into your rucksack if you’re being kicked out of someplace, or if you’re leaving voluntarily. It might haunt you. It might erase itself and have to be read again.

All One Horse by Breyten Breytenbach
Archipelago Books
ISBN: 0979333075
170 Pages