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Fred de Vries

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Review A Veil of Footsteps – Breyten Breytenbach

Here a review of Breyten Breytenbach’s A Veil of Footsteps, which will
appear in The Weekender on 6 September 2008

Most reviews of Breyten Breytenbach’s latest book A veil of footsteps (Memoir of a Nomadic Fictional Character) have missed the fact that this is essentially a travel book, albeit an unusual one. This is not a tale for the potential tourist who wants to visit the places in Breytenbach’s itinerary. Instead it’s one of those cases of travel writing where personal reflections and lack of a strong narrative eclipse tales of adventure. Hence no 4-star hotels, but plenty of introspection: A veil of footsteps stays with you, creeps into your brain where it sings beautiful bird songs.
For this book Breytenbach has assumed his alter ego of Breyten Wordfool, which has made it easier for him to sprinkle his observations with irony and self-deprecation. There are even moments where the various Breytens talk to each other.
Don’t let this literary trickery deter you. Despite its occasional surrealism and the use of the multiple self, A veil of footsteps is a highly readable travelogue written by a man in the autumn of his life, who gazes at the beauty, contradictions, death and destruction around him. Sometimes it fills him with rage, other times he revels in ecstasy, and occasionally he experiences a “powerless nostalgia”. He does this in a language of such beauty that it now and again makes you gasp for air.
As a traveller, Breytenbach is the typical flaneur, the person who drifts through the world, simultaneously insider and outsider, slightly detached while astutely observing the life of others. As German thinker Walter Benjamin put it: “[The flaneur] enjoys the incomparable privilege of being himself and someone else as he sees fit. Like a roving soul in search of a body, he enters another person whenever he wishes.”
Breyten is a man without a home, who inhabits what he calls the Middleworld, a neither here nor these. Not a bad place to be. Wordfool travels to Catalonia in Spain; he explores Parisian neighborhoods; he lives some of the time on the Senegalese island of Goree; he pays visits to Mozambique; he grumbles about his mother country South Africa; and he eventually ends up in New York, during and shortly after 9/11, which, somewhat predictably, leads to lamentations on human nature and its ability to self-destruct. These aren’t the most gripping pages. Very few writers have managed to come up with observations that transcend the obvious and the sentimental – and Breytenbach is not one of them.
He’s at his best when he describes his arrondissement in Paris, where he seem to follow the lead of the Situationists, a small band of highly influential cultural anarchists who inhabited the city in the 50s and 60s and who devised the concept of la dérive. This was their answer to modernity and its inherent consumerism: a kind of urban drifting, where you break with the routines and experience the city in a different way, full of surprises and chance encounters.
Breyten, who first moved to Paris in 1960 and must have come across the Situationist manifests, adds another layer of dérive by also letting his mind drift. While he strolls through the cityscape, he tells us, among others, about Guy Harloff, a Dutch painter who had his studio in the infamous Beat Hotel in the late fifties, where also South African beat poet Sinclair Beiles stayed for a while.
Of course it’s not easy to give coherence to these seemingly random tales of drifting and note taking. And it’s to Breytenbach’s credit that he has managed to do this. A veil of footsteps never bores. As a reader you’re with the author, sitting on his shoulder, marvelling at the spectacles and tragedies that unfold. Every so often you get irritated, for instance at his juvenile naming of South Africa as Fuckland (ostensibly meant as country that fucks things up) and Pretoria as Poestoria. But even these could be seen as Situationist tricks, the détournement, where you turn symbols and phrases around and ‘derail’ them, in this case: take vulgar language and integrate it into poetic discourse.
More grating, both in the literary and literal sense, is his obsession with female curves. After a while you start counting the times he mentions breasts and buttocks. The necessity of referring to a literary academic as “a friendly white lady with good breasts” eludes me. Although it does, not in the most endearing way, add to the fallibility and vulnerability of the writer. This is not someone who tries to be politically correct. Here’s the traveller, the flaneur, the drifter who notices certain things and toys with his obsessions. One of them is breasts, especially if they are full and well-rounded. So be it. Great travel books are never perfect.

 

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