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A World of Sharp Edges: A Week Among Poets in the Western Cape

In Antal Szerb’s The Incurable, the eccentric millionaire Peter Rarely steps into the dining car of a train steaming through the Scottish Highlands and sees Tom Maclean, the writer, in a corner scribbling away. ‘I’m not disturbing you?’ he asks, taking the empty seat opposite him. ‘You certainly are.’ Tom replies, ‘Please stay and disturb me some more. It would be a real kindness. You see, at least while I’m talking to you, I won’t be working. Sir, the amount I have to do is intolerable. I’m fed up with myself, absolutely fed up. I’ve just been to Scotland for a bit of rest. I tell you – I was there for a month – in that time I translated a novel from the French, wrote two essays and a novella, eight sketches, six book reviews, ten longer articles and I’ve still got two radio talks waiting to be done.’ ‘But why the devil do you work so hard?’ Peter asks. ‘For a living, my dear sir, to make a living.’ As Tom is so busy he doesn’t even have the time to read a book for its own sake, Peter decides to grant him a thousand pounds a year on condition he gives up writing entirely, a proposition Tom wholeheartedly accepts. A month goes by, during which Tom gives vent to his desires: he goes fishing, walking, learns foreign languages – and yet feels unnervingly restless, to the point that when he visits his sister’s family one afternoon and finds his nephew Freddy itching to go off to a football match, but unable to do so because he needs to finish an essay on Shakespeare and Milton, Tom writes the essay for him. Having failed to keep his end of the bargain, Tom calls on Peter to renege on their agreement, ‘I’m terribly sorry,’ he says, ‘but I really have no choice in the matter.’ ‘But haven’t you been happy without your writing?’ Peter asks. ‘No, sir. It’s just no good. If you threw me in prison I’d write in blood on my underwear, like that Mr Kazinczy my Hungarian friend told me about. I wish you a good day.’

The ‘Mr Kazinczy’ Tom refers to is Ferenc Kazinczy, one of the great Hungarian writers who, finding himself in irons after a failed Jacobine uprising, is said to have used his own blood when he ran out of ink. Rumour or not, it might as well have been true, for the point Szerb makes is that real writers rarely have a choice. Vague echoes of Szerb’s story echoed through my head as I listened to the panel conversations at the ‘Dancing In Other Words’ festival that took place in Stellenbosch on May 10 and 11 2013. As the participants took their place on stage, I couldn’t avoid being reminded how high a price many of them had paid for their obsession to bear witness: Breyten Breytenbach spent almost two years in solitary confinement in Pretoria before being transferred to Poolsmoor in Cape Town for another five years; Albie Sachs lost his right arm and the sight of one eye in a car bomb placed by the South African secret services while working for the ANC in Mozambique in 1988; Ko Un was imprisoned on four occasions in the 1970s and ‘80s for his involvement in the South Korean pro-democracy movement; lecturing in New Zealand at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, Yang Lian and his wife Yo Yo opted for life in exile; after two years of documenting human rights abuses and dodging assassination attempts in El Salvador, Carolyn Forché was able to flee the country thanks to San Salvador’s Archbishop, Óscar Romero, who was gunned down a week later during mass; even Tomaž Šalamun, who seems so unassuming in person, was threatened with a twelve-year prison sentence and held for a few days before being released – all because of a poem.

 

Of course, this is not to say these individuals are defined by their suffering. That would be a dangerous way to look at it: it’s often far too easy to sympathise with someone’s suffering than with the beliefs or ideas that led to that suffering in the first place, or even to miss the point entirely and ask asinine questions. As Albie Sachs says in his preface to The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter, ‘Was it worth it? – To this day they look without looking and ask without asking – was it worth it?’ Instead, one should perhaps take a cue from Rumi, whom Breytenbach – who curated ‘Dancing In Other Words’ – selected as one of the festival’s guardian spirits, and see ‘the wound as the place where the light enters you.’

 

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

*

 

On the evening of May 4 2013, I boarded a flight to Cape Town from Heathrow. I had spent the previous six months living in the melancholy, maze-like city of Fez, Morocco’s ancient capital, translating the poetry of Abdellatif Laâbi, one of its greatest living poets. After which, I had gone back to London, which I’d used as a base for the previous five years, chiefly in order to ply my trade as a literary translator and sign enough new projects to make a living. Soon after my return, I’d scheduled a meeting with a publisher with whom I’d once happily worked. We met for coffee one morning, and as I was trying to interest him in a novel by a Cameroonian writer, he cut me short half-way through my pitch: ‘To be absolutely honest with you,’ he said, ‘I don’t much care for Africa, and neither do most people here. That’s just the way it is.’ The next project didn’t fare any better: ‘Too political!’; at which I gave up, shook his hand and left. Feeling hungry for travel, I got in touch with Breytenbach, who had commissioned me to translate Laâbi’s Le Règne de barbarie/The Rule of Barbarism for his Pirogue Poets Series, which aimed to issue the works of leading African poets in both their mother tongue and in English. Having heard that Breyten was assembling a gathering of poets, I decided to have a look at the polished but incredibly vague website. The names, or rather the books they recalled, were truly impressive: Ko Un, from South Korea, Tomaž Šalamun from Slovenia, Yang Lian from China, Joachim Sartorius from Germany and Carolyn Forché from the United States – with the South Africans Petra Müller, Marlene van Niekerk and Antjie Krog rounding off the ensemble. All I could glean from the programme was that they would meet for a week and ‘explore poetry’s age-old function as “the dreaming vein in the body of society”.’ My first reaction was to giggle derisively. It all sounded incredibly pretentious. Then I checked myself. Was that what I really thought, or had close proximity to people like that publisher finally worked its nefarious charm? Coincidentally, I had just received Antjie Krog’s Skinned in the post a few days earlier. Picking it up from the stack, I opened it at the back and lingered over this stanza, from ‘On my behalf’:

Apathy neutralises the senses
as survival deploys its brutal forces one gets cut
off from others and becomes more and more
familiar with the complete inward-turning of death –

Had apathy made me giggle? There was one way to find out. I immediately sent Breyten a letter, hoping I would score a free ticket to one of the events and use what few coins I had left to buy an airline ticket. I couldn’t really afford it, but I would worry about that later. Unlike the publisher I had just spoken to – who was after all mirroring an all too prevalent reality – and after six months of splendid Moorish isolation in a Moroccan house whose blue tiles, as my partner put it, made it look like the bottom of a swimming pool, I was determined to spend some time with writers for whom talking back wasn’t so much a choice, but a necessity. I waited impatiently for a reply. True to form, Breyten didn’t answer my missive, but an invitation from Marí Stimie, the festival’s project manager, materialized in my inbox a week later. Would I like to participate in this mysterious week-long caravan? What a question! But there was a catch: I would have to take part in a master class in translation entitled ‘Lost in translation, found in poetry’, the very sound of which made me squirm. When it came to theories about translation, I thought of them as the devil’s work, simply a means by which unscrupulous hacks could capitalise on the lecture circuit. Still, ever since I had met Breyten in Paris in 2008, I had realised the man had an infallible bullshit detector – one only needed to read his essays to see that – and so I agreed. ‘And you thought it was just going to be moonshine and drinking and chatting up the stones?’ Breyten said in one of his later letters. Admittedly I had.

Settling into the twelve-hour flight, I began thumbing through Rian Malan’s new collection of essays, The Lion Sleeps Tonight, and stumbled on this passage:

 

Every inch of our [South African] soil is contested, every word in our histories likewise; our languages are mutually incomprehensible, our philosophies irreconcilable. My truths strike some South African writers as counter-revolutionary ravings. Theirs strike me as distortions calculated to appeal to gormless liberals in the outside world. Many South Africans can’t ready any of us, so their truth is something else entirely. Atop all of this, we live in a country where mutually annihilating truths coexist entirely amicably. We are a light unto nations. We are an abject failure. We are progressing even as we hurtle backward. The blessing of living here is that every day presents you with material whose richness beggars the imagination of those who live in saner places. The curse is that you can never get it quite right, and if you come close, the results are often unpublishable.

I took this as a warning. The grandson of D. F. Malan, South Africa’s Prime Minister from 1948 to 1954 and the leading architect of Apartheid, Rian started out as a tabloid crime reporter until the success of My Traitor’s Heart (1990) turned him from an exile draft-dodger into the new enfant terrible of South African letters, thanks to its uncompromisingly candid exploration of race relations – in fact it was so uncompromisingly honest that Malan may well be remembered for the following line: ‘I loved blacks, and yet I was scared of them.’ As the first free elections approached in 1994, Malan had been among those predicting ‘an orgy of ethnic butchery’. While not a few of his white compatriots shot off to Sydney and Dubai – ‘it’s like Joburg thirty years ago!’ – Malan ‘bought a flak jacket’ and ‘drew up a will’; ten years later, having realised the end was nowhere in sight, he penned a piece entitled ‘The Apocalypse That Wasn’t’, which ended on the following note: ‘The gift of 1994 was so huge that I choked on it and couldn’t say thank you. But I am not too proud to say it now.’ Reading Malan was – I’m not sure he’s often been told this since everything about the man seems to indicate his only reason for getting out of bed in the morning is to ruffle feathers – reassuring. Here was a leading commentator calling it as he saw it and trying his best to keep an open mind – refreshing considering The Economist ushered in the new millennium by calling Africa ‘The Hopeless Continent’. Most articles about South Africa – and the African continent in general – I had ever read had that ‘sad I-expected-so-much tone’ that Binyavanga Wainaina mocks in ‘How to Write about Africa’. Despite the fact I had read a fair amount of South African literature, I made my peace with my inevitable idiocy and resolved to ask as many questions as a 4-year-old on a sugar high.

 

*

 

When you tell South Africans living abroad that you are going to Cape Town, you are likely to get two types of responses. First, their eyes will light up as they describe how impossibly beautiful it is; second, they will lower their tones and expertly inform you that you won’t be seeing the ‘real South Africa’. They might also tell you about the city’s knack for luring jaded Europeans looking for idyllic spots to detox and about the city’s bohemian feel and its wine-swilling hipsters, all of whom drive fast and talk slow – but that’s only if the conversation doesn’t drift to a relative or friend who was car-jacked, mugged, raped or killed. Flying over South Africa’s oldest city, your eyes skirt along the terrain’s rippled, rocky contours, past the miles and miles of beautiful beaches and finally settle on the cluster of mountains – Lion’s Head, Signal Hill, Table Mountain and Devil’s Peak – that fence the central districts of Cape Town, whose regular grids recall the unforgiving Calvinism of its hard-nosed Dutch founders. With its very own Alcatraz, the infamous Robben Island where Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders were imprisoned, jutting out of Table Bay, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d landed in an African San Francisco, an arty, yippy student town with a modern central business district, large enough to feel anonymous and yet still cosy.

I was met at arrivals by Faieez Alexander, the driver of the minibus, where Breyten was waiting with his white beard and beaming smile. Some of the other participants had also arrived that morning: Tomaž Šalamun and his wife, the painter Metka Krašovec, as well as Joachim Sartorius – who in his linen suit looked the sort of suave, cosmopolitan diplomat, which in fact he was, that you might picture as you read Lawrence Durrell’s Mountolive – and his wife Karin Graf, the German translator of Malcolm Lowry, V. S. Naipaul and Joan Didion. Piling in, we set off on the thirty-odd kilometres from the airport north-east to the Spier wine farm where the festival was to be held. As we rolled along the N2, Faieez pointed out the miles of corrugated metal shacks of Khayelitsha, one of the fastest growing townships in South Africa and home to just under a hundred thousand families. I later learned that most of Khayelitsha’s inhabitants are blacks who left the countryside and migrated to the city, much like Azure, pronounced ‘Ah-zoo-ray’, the blue-eyed adolescent protagonist of one of the other novels I’d brought with me, K. Sello Duiker’s Thirteen Cents (2000), which with its brutal depiction of street-life reminded me much of Mohamed Choukri’s For Bread Alone. Once Azure’s parents die, he hitchhikes to Cape Town and starts sleeping rough on the streets of the wealthy neighbourhood of Sea Point, turning tricks to make a few bucks. Azure is that most frightening thing: an adult in the body of child; after all, as he repeatedly tells us, he is a man, as he is ‘almost thirteen’. The number thirteen keeps coming up. Azure is almost thirteen, he has thirteen cents in his pocket – and although that’s just about what Duiker tells us, I have a hunch the number thirteen also stands for the ‘Natives Land Act’, which was passed in 1913 and relegated blacks to 13 per cent of the country’s land. ‘Land’ is an inescapable word, concept and reality everywhere in Southern Africa, from Zimbabwe, where land redistribution has created a number of problems, to South Africa, where the lack thereof is equally problematic.

 

The Cape Winelands unfolded once we reached the Baden Powell Road. In the middle of the southern autumn, everything is reddish and golden and the air is brisk and slightly smoky. The Cape Winelands are like Napa Valley in California, the Bekaa in Lebanon or Bordeaux in France: everything is packaged to seduce the well-heeled leisure-seeker: the hotels, set in green expanses, are both luxurious and homely, the food, served up by organic – sorry, ‘biodynamic’ – eateries is twee, and of course wine flows so freely they might as well be pumping it directly into your veins. Although nowhere close to mining, the South Africa’s chief source of export revenue, wine is big here: South Africa is the eighth largest producer in the world and it’s also one of the oldest businesses. Starting in the late seventeenth-century, the Dutch East India company handed out farm-plots to its retired officials, who would then import slaves from Indonesia, East Africa and India to work them. Wine farmers owned the largest number of slaves in the Cape throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A little under a year before we’d arrived, the town of De Doorns, one hundred kilometres north-east of Spier, in the heart of the Winelands, had been the setting of a five-month strike to raise the minimum wage from 69 Rand a day (£4.5/$7). Road blockades and a few fires later, the minimum wage was raised to 105 Rand (£7/$11) in February 2013. I am told Spier pays above the minimum wage, giving their staff 150 Rand (£10/$15). The difference may seem minimal, but it really isn’t. It was of some minuscule comfort to think that while I and my fellow guests would be wined and dined, that our hosts did at least have some genuine convictions and ideals.

 

Cape Town may or may not be the real South Africa, but the Spier estate is not the real anywhere: it has a conference centre, an art gallery and hosts an annual arts festival, all in the midst of manicured lawns and little paths traversed by golf buggies transporting square-jawed preppies in sweater vests and their stepford girlfriends to their spacious chalets. The estate is owned by Dick Enthoven, a dissident MP during the bleakest years of Apartheid, who made his money in insurance and bought the farm in the early 1990s. The Enthovens have pumped a lot of cash into Spier: in a way, it seems to have less to do with wine than one might at first suppose. Having been to one or two such establishments before, I can’t recall them having had an amphitheatre, a primary school and a cheetah reserve on their grounds, or for instance giving out funds to Kayamandi, a township outside Stellenbosch – which we visited during our initial days there. Some might call the Enthovens philanthropic colonialists, others mavericks of the type that built model farms and villages in Victorian England. The fact is, I suspect antipathy towards the wealthy, the state and institutions might be slightly less pronounced if more people of their economic class attempted to think outside the box.

 

We spent the first two days getting to know one another, beginning conversations that would be left off and picked up again throughout the course of the week and ultimately, it was hoped, inform the panel conversations. To be able to spend such a large amount of time together was certainly innovative. There are usually two sorts of literary festivals: the commercial kind where any half-brained performer of half-baked ideas is rolled out to recite their spiel for a fat honorarium – and then there are the odd, fairly small events funded by wealthy eccentrics, who are perhaps eccentric purely for the reason they have decided to use their wealth tastefully. The latter of course are always more interesting, their less regimented approach being conducive to their becoming a laboratory of ideas, where thoughts – poems even! – take shape on the hoof. Aware that events of the latter variety are growing increasingly rare in Britain or America allowed me to appreciate the time spent with the dancing poets all the more. It is one of the strangest features of free market democracies that they grow progressively less interested in analysing the world and looking beyond their functional plateau. In the West, every day sees a major newspaper or periodical ask the question of whether culture is dying; at the same time, Hannah Arendt is a bestseller in Tehran; the streets of Kolkata overflow with books, and dozens congregate around serious newssheets pasted up on the walls to read and discuss them. Attend most literary festivals in Europe and North America and you will notice that while a shock-jock with a ghost-written memoir will ramble to sell-out crowds, an Angolan novelist will draw a turnout of six or seven pensioners. Thus, while there are perfectly open-minded progressives who oppose tyranny and oppression walking the streets of Paris, London and New York, they do not actually know what tyranny and oppression look, sound and feel like, let alone the intricate ways in which they work.

 

Many of these reflections had been fuelled by a slim book I had found in the tote bag the organisers had handed out to the participants, a gem entitled Pots and Poetry and other essays by the Capetonian philosopher Martin Versfeld (1909-1995). In ‘Our Rapist Society’, perhaps one of the finest pieces in the book, Versfeld wrote:

 

Democracy is a thoroughly ambivalent institution, requiring untiring attempts to fan the heavenly sparks still living among the ashes of self-interest. Notice the bearing of this image: it is the ashes that cradle the sparks. The tares and the wheat go together. This is the parable of the profound ambiguity of our situation.

*

On the morning of May 7, as we drove through the Boland, Toast Coetzer, a prominent young South African poet, pointed out Victor Verster Prison, the last prison where Mandela was held before being released in February 1990. We were due to stop in Wellington for a reading at the Breytenbach Centre and then move on to Hopefield, a small settlement on the West Coast, deep in sandy-soiled farmland. After years of unsuccessful attempts at managing small farms, Breyten’s father had moved his family (by family, look no further for one that encapsulates South Africa’s recent history: while Breyten was his country’s premier poet and cause célèbre before, during and after his incarceration, his brother Jan was a Colonel in the Special Forces and saw action in Namibia and Angola, while his other brother Cloete, a reporter, photographed many of those conflicts) to Wellington, where he opened a boarding house. Now converted into an arts centre that hosts readings and exhibitions by local artists, it is situated between a police station and a library. After Breyten read a few poems and gave a speech, we sat down to a lunch of exquisite Cape Malay food. Arriving late, I take the only seat left, opposite Ampie Coetzee, our host for the afternoon. A fierce advocate of the Afrikaans language and literature, Ampie published many inflammatory works as head of Taurus in the ‘70s and ‘80s and taught at the University of the Western Cape – set up in 1959 after the segregation of South Africa higher education as an institution for coloureds – from 1987 to 2004. Ampie instantly appeals: his thick grey goatee, mischievous eyes and wry, sardonic smile are winning, and he possesses a fearsome intellect and a biting sense of humour. ‘This man’s an absolute bullshitter, don’t trust anything he says,’ he exclaims, slapping Breyten’s back in the way that you do only when you’ve know someone for a good handful of decades. ‘You can’t trust poets!’ I had the feeling that, as with everything Ampie says, he was only being half-facetious.

Although visibly pleased by the company and the event, it was obvious he was anxious about the direction his country had taken post-1994. After the festival was over, I pulled up an article he had written for A Moment magazine:

 

The gap between rich and poor has became wider than ever before in this country. Education suffered; and the greatest sufferers were black learners. One of the main reasons for this deterioration is the fact that instruction in the mother tongue has not been encouraged. The Constitution of South Africa states that there are 11 languages in the country, and that they all have equal rights. But this has never been made into a law. The situation has arisen that English is the favoured language; that English has become the national language. Practically all the previous Afrikaans universities will become English – at the expense of the other 10 African languages. The majority of the population of South Africa will be forced to become English-speaking. If language is understanding, if language is identity, if language is communication there can be growth and one nation. But this will not be so in this country until people are educated in their mother tongue for at least the primary stage of education.

Complex as the new South Africa can be, the clichés of the rainbow nation that are routinely served up to outsiders by global – i.e. Western – media outlets make a concerted understanding of this country even more difficult. For instance: is South Africa a better place than it was in 1994? The ANC says it is: all social and economic indicators are up, yet these are offset by the rising cost of living and the widening wage gap. South Africa, we are told, is one of the most unequal societies on the planet, but that may also very well be because it is simply among the few heavily unequal societies to actually allow such surveys to be carried out. Like most other foreigners who have come here on brief sojourns, I could go ahead and quote figures and statistics, but as Disraeli put it, ‘there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics’. There is reason enough to believe that, like Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, South Africa has also been stunted by its mineral wealth, which thanks to the easy income it provides, impedes creative thinking on the government’s part to push through necessary reforms and tackle critical problems. Further, it is obvious that the public psyche is haunted by violence: those who can afford to sleep behind barred windows and doors with ‘ARMED RESPONSE’ signs prominently displayed on the walls, and with good reason.

 

When reality – or rather statistics, and the ability to process them objectively – fails, then we can thankfully make recourse to novels, which as Breyten once said, can ‘tell us truths that history cannot’. For a glimpse at the post-1994 transition, there seems to me no finer book than Marlene van Niekerke’s Triomf, the first major novel written in Afrikaans after the end of Apartheid and one of the most devilishly funny, heretical books. Triomf – or Triumph – is a white-trash suburb of Johannesburg built over the ruins of Sophiatown, a black township. Enter the Benades, an incestuous, drunken family, who, like Rian Malan, are ready to pack up and trek north like their Boer ancestors in case ‘the shit hits the fan’ after the ANC takes power. Yet there is no north to go to. There is only the now, the haunting present:

 

[…] In Triomf they know it’s actually just Ontdekkers that separates them. ‘Cause across the road it’s Bosmont, and in Bosmont it crawls with nations.

 

Not that they have much trouble with them, here in Triomf. It’s only at the Spar in Thornton that the Hotnot children stand around and beg. Pop gives them sweeties sometimes when he takes Toby and Gerty to the little veld behind the Spar. But when the pianistic play with the dogs, Toby and Gerty don’t want to. All they want is to chase those big kaffirs who play soccer there. Young, wild kaffirs with strong, shiny legs and angry faces. And they play rough. Toby got his wind kicked right out one day when he tried to bite one of them on the leg. Pop says it’s ‘cause Toby’s a white dog – although kaffirs are quite fond of dogs in general. Then Treppie says that may be the case, but it really depends how hungry the kaffir is. And then he starts telling that old story about Sophiatown’s dogs again.

 

When everything was flattened – it took almost three years – the dogs who’d been left behind started crying. They sat on heaps of rubble with their noses up in the air and they howled so loud you could hear them all the way to Mayfair.

 

Treppie says he saw some of the kaffirs come back one night with pangas, and then they killed those dogs of theirs. After a while, he says, you couldn’t tell any more who was crying, the kaffirs or their dogs. And then they took the dead dogs away in sacks.

 

Treppie says he’s sure they went and made stew with those dogs, with curry and tomato and onions to smother the taste. For eating with their pap. A little dog goes a long way, he says, and those kaffirs must’ve been pretty hungry there in their new place.

 

Some of the dogs died on their own, from hunger. Or maybe from longing for their kaffirs. 

 

And then their bodies just lay there, puffing up and going soft again, until the flesh rotted and fell right off the bones. Then, later, even the bones got scattered.

 

Even now Lambert finds loose dog bones when he digs.

 

Treppie says the ghosts of those dogs are all over Triomf. 

 

*

 

Just before sunset, we arrive at Kersefontein – or ‘fountain of wild cherries’ – where the gatepost marks 1770. Settled by Martin Melck, the farm is still in the family’s hands after eight generations. The manor house, in the old Cape Dutch style, with its period furniture, stately dining hall and musty, stale tobacco smell – or was it wax? – is impressive. Julian, our energetic host, hands me his business card:

JULIAN MELCK
FARMER – PIG-KILLER – AVIATOR

 

Julian studied law at Stellenbosch University, worked briefly in Windhoek and then took over the farm once his father retired. In his sixties, he looks twenty years younger. The punishing routine he keeps, sleeping roughly four hours a night, has clearly worked wonders.

 

On evening at Kersefontein, Albert du Plessis and Carel de Beer, the filmmakers hired to film the festival, gave me an account of the Bantu expansion, one of the greatest mass migrations in history, when Bantu-speaking peoples moved from Western Africa towards the Congo and Southern Africa, drastically altering the face of the continent. While they talked, I couldn’t help but be struck by the connectedness the Afrikaners seemed to have to their land. This was further impressed on me by our visit to a small graveyard that housed the remains of Julian’s forebears. It was difficult for me to fathom the sort of rootedness that this graveyard represented, and it was certainly strange to weigh the Melck family’s thousands of hectares against the repercussions that the Natives Land Act has had on South Africa’s blacks, which effectively tossed them out of their farms and turned them into a supply of cheap labour – if not for wine and fruit concerns, then for the mines.

 

On the second afternoon, we assembled in the breakfast room to listen to Petra Müller’s lecture on the history of the Khoisan people, the original inhabitants of this corner of South Africa, who could trace their genetic lineage back one hundred thousand years. When she mentioned the thin, emaciated aspect of the Khoisan she’d encountered, it recalled a couple of lines from ‘Reading Disgrace’, the poem she’d composed for the festival: ‘Emaciation is a theme which never lets one alone. / When the ribs become visible, even words achieve their honesty.’ The younger participants of the festival then read out some of their work; of particular note was a letter Dominique Enthoven had written to her parents to explain her thoughts behind the writing of her novel, False River:

 

What is writing if not an exercise in recuperating memory? It is stopping to listen – of consciously being alive and attentive. Memory is the mentor of imagination, as stars are its vectors. The discipline of writing is also a great gift, a freedom – by writing one is gradually relieved of the sense of uniqueness of self. It is in many ways a liberating shuffle in the direction of humility.

Although the Afrikaner writers I was acquainted with – like Breytenbach and André Brink – had written in Afrikaans partly also out of a political desire to demonstrate that it was not exclusively the language of apartheid, often then translating their own works into English, younger writers like Dominique, who wrote False River in English and then translated it into Afrikaans, appeared to be finding new approaches to their language.

 

As we set off the next morning, I sat staring out of the window, contemplating the Khoisan, how different the stars looked in the southern hemisphere, and the song Ko Un had sung for us on our last night. Weeks after my return to London, I received this poem in the post, ‘Ko Un Sees Stars’, which Toast Coetzer had composed in the wake of our stay:

 

the Korean poet Ko Un
is outside on the lawn
in the night and recalls
Tibet
and the Himalayas
the closeness of those stars
which he wrote many poems about
says his wife
translating his thoughts and words and life
but now
here on the banks of the Berg River
she says he says
he feels
less
less in comparison with all these stars
less

and then he sings ‘Arirang’
their folk song of lovers’
longing across adversity and stars
as if this is the first song he ever learnt
which he probably did
and the last one he will ever sing
which he probably will
and the night sky above us
intensifies and blows
a billowing leaking Bedouin tent
of white coals and deep space cities
light years and sunny porches
as we bow down to the lawn and listen
to Ko Un
the mighty
Ko Un

*

 

On our way back to Spier for the festival proper, we stopped off at the University of the Western Cape, where Antjie had arranged for the poets to read to the students during lunch hour. The auditorium was packed, standing room only. One by one, Tomaž Šalamun, Ko Un, Yang Lian, and Joachim Sartorius read their poems, but it was perhaps Carolyn Forché’s ‘The Colonel’ – part of the sequence of poems inspired by her time in El Salvador – that provoked the most visceral effect that  afternoon:

WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house. His wife carried
a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went
out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the
cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over
the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English.
Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to
scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace. On
the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had
dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for
calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of
bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief
commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was
some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot
said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed
himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say
nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries
home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like
dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one
of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water
glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As
for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck them-
selves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last
of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some
of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the
ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.

May 1978 

*

 

May 10 and 11. The festival was finally upon us. There were to be four panel conversations over the course of two afternoons and the titles were imposing: 1) Lost in Translation, Found in Poetry: A master class in translation; 2) What has ethics got to do with it? Does poetry open a way to an awareness of being and dignity in the processes of political and cultural transition?; 3) Is the world decayed metaphor? Does poetry shape the world, or is it but a pulse beat of reality?; and 4) Is there a South African Way to the great Nowhere? We filed into the Spier Manor House and began.

Gunther Pakendorf, the moderator of the first panel, which I was to sit on, began the daunting proceedings on a humorous note, reading his translation of ‘The Festival of Poets’, from Breyten’s latest collection, Katalekte:

 

look at the poets
they come from torn countries
with coals in their eyes
and drizzled dandruff on collar
and sleeve, some have folded flags
of commitment in four parts
for confinement and condensation
of a text in a slim volume
which they will be mumbling in the limelight from the podium
to a sparse audience who understand nothing

look how dancing with clumsy little steps
they try to encircle and enchant each other
how in romantic delusion
they seek seduction in the body of the other
how messy and short-lived and lonely
is love

listen how they listen to each other
reading from poems
as if it were the most important news tonight
that will flit away tomorrow morning
like a bat into nothingness
rock-bye-baby in the treetop

look how they regale each other
with well-shaped turds of sound,
a family row, unfaithful lovers,
forgotten fathers, a touch of suppression,
the yearning for silence in the soil

look how the poets drink
the drinks paid for by others
observe their worn-out shoes
the lipstick applied short-sightedly
how on the toilet they try to solve
the crossword puzzle from the paper
left free of charge at the hotel door

look how the poets remember the names
of the one and the other who was still here
last year leaning on a crutch
or drunk in the passage, having wet their pants

look how important the poets are
each before their own mirror
when the light from the bulb is weak
look how flat are their wallets
look how importantly they take their leave
to disappear into the real world
invisible like beggars
with secret instructions
whose voices should not be heard

Gunther had set Tomaž Šalamun, Marlene van Niekerke and I the task of translating two poems into our respective languages – Tomaž in Slovenian, Marlene in Afrikaans, while I was given the choice of either Italian or French. The poems he selected were Philip Larkin’s ‘This Be The Verse’ and Wopko Jensma’s ‘In Memoriam, Ben Zwane’. Although the poems were well chosen the discussion only really got going once it shifted to the real crux of the matter: the arguments in favour of either a literal or an interpretative translation. The panel was evenly split: Gunther and Tomaž were in favour of a literal approach but Marlene and I both agreed that, as she put it, ‘normative strictures are to be avoided’. Marlene’s resistance to the concept of a standard, faithful translation, as she commented, was due to the fact that although Afrikaans had never throughout its history been a fixed language – on the contrary, constantly evolving and absorbing – it had become standardised by the high priests of Apartheid and that she was glad that de-standardisation in the wake of 1994 could finally begin. Fascinatingly, Tomaž pointed out the cultural dividing line that can sometimes be seen in the context of translation: while the French tended to favour imitations, the Germans almost always opted for literal renditions, thus meaning definitions of what constituted a ‘good’ translation would vary from country to country. From the audience, Victor Dlamini, a journalist, spoke of how indifferent many South Africans were to the importance of translation, noting that white, English-speaking journalists working at The Star, a leading Johannesburg tabloid, would spend decades visiting Soweto to write up their stories and yet never bother to learn the languages spoken there, isiZulu and isiXhosa, relying instead on interpreters. Next came Leon de Kock, a poet and translator of the opinion that South Africa is living in a state of ‘multi-lingual contestation’. Stressing that languages do not ‘rainbowishly’ live together in his country, how, he asked, does one transpose the energy of the agonistic literary act and still replicate the emotional, cultural and sonorous registers? Translating poetry, he argued, allowed for a greater freedom than translating prose, enabling the translator to attempt a ‘licentious’ adaptation, as opposed to a ‘licensed’ translation. Leon argued there was room enough for many translations, in many different styles and that this would in turn expand our culture. Again, it seemed the concept of mutually annihilating truths coexisting entirely amicably, as Rian Malan had put it, was a South African speciality. Although a fascinating discussion, it was further proof that the topic of translation is still rather nebulous, where definitive answers are largely impossible. Tomaž regaled us with a bizarre statistic: although writing in a language spoken only by two million people and hailing from a land that is by all accounts a political backwater, there are currently more translations available by Slovenian poets in the United States than by Italian or German poets combined.

 

After a short break, it was time for the second panel – What has ethics got to do with it? Does poetry open a way to an awareness of being and dignity in the processes of political and cultural transition? – which had the greatest potential for controversy and crossed wires, if everything went well. Conversations on the topic of ethics can often evaporate into a cloud of high-minded pieties, but with Antjie Krog on board, we were at least guaranteed a handful of reality checks. Probably best known outside South Africa for The Country of My Skull (1998), Krog’s very personal – and yet public – history of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where as part of the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s radio team that covered the proceedings, she painstakingly recorded the agonising statements put forward almost on a daily basis by the victims (and perpetrators) of Apartheid over the course of two years, from 1996 to 1998. Part of what made The Country of My Skull so distinctive was that Krog constantly resisted the temptation of wallowing in self-absolution and self-consolation, which many writers covering such events ultimately succumb to. Instead, her words, like pixels on a screen, slowly assemble a picture of the ‘big South African tongue of consciousness’ as it gropes ‘towards a broken tooth’ – and this despite the mounting dichotomies directly or indirectly unveiled by the TRC, perhaps one of the most resonating being: ‘If I write this, I exploit and betray. If I don’t, I die.’ Yet what I believe has made that book a classic, is that while Krog records horrors, testimonies and conversations, educating the hearts of her readers as much as their minds, time almost ceases to exist. Martin Versfeld’s lines on love, from that book Breyten had handed out, summed it up: ‘to love is to have time for somebody or something … another word for this is caring, that little bit of extra absorption in what you are doing that makes you forget clock time…’ Dele Olojede, the Nigerian journalist, introduces the speakers. By the time he turns to Antjie, her discomfort is palpable. ‘Antjie Krog is a figure of tremendous fascination for me,’ Dele says in his bassy voice, ‘because she is guilty of feeling too deeply about this country. Perhaps as poets are wont to do.’ At which Antjie leans into the microphone – ‘I thought you were going to say that like many people in this country I feel too guilty.’ Many in the audience laugh, perhaps a little nervously, since Antjie might as well have been referring to their guilt: everyone here is white, middle aged and middle class. Despite their presumably liberal stances, they are the direct beneficiaries of Apartheid.

 

Dele asks the speakers to voice their thoughts on the potential of poetry to take us through the many challenges that societies in transition face. Quite appropriately, Yang Lian begins by mentioning how privileged and moved he felt at being given the chance to see the country before speaking about it. Although it is a beautiful country, he says, he perceived it as a ‘stormy ocean’. Poetry is fuelled by the passion to ask questions, he says, and this transcends all ethnic, religious or linguistic divides. ‘We’re in diamond country!’ Yang exclaims with a grin, and suggests that the poet’s task is to burrow tunnels into the self so as to ask those uncomfortable questions. ‘If reality is an ocean, culture is the boat, and poetry is the ballast that keeps the boat steady in the right direction through the storm.’ Dele passes the conch over to Antjie who sighs, ‘I have to say I only have problems… If we use the boat metaphor, then I feel I see a hundred boats on a stormy sea in South Africa and they’re all going in different directions. … I feel I’m in a country that has a fractured morality; one that is deeply confused about what its ethics could and should be, even what ethics is. The ethics in which I was raised proved to be a failure. Now you have to re-learn. But there are several barriers that prevent this engagement.’ Antjie singled language out as one of the principal obstacles.

 

She is of course correct. Although poets and writers may rise above apathy by using words both ethically and responsibly, this does not matter much unless those words are then propagated, or in a country like South Africa – with eleven official languages – properly translated. Krog spoke of how translations – and by extension translators – are not encouraged, respected, or rewarded. This is also true. While I translate four to five books a year, I barely make enough to cover the rent, and this is thanks to the availability of grants and schemes that are simply non-existent in South Africa. Yet is this surprising? One cannot expect translation to be held in high regard when books themselves – regardless of whichever language they’re printed in – are read and sold less and less. Politicians certainly don’t read. That much is clear – in fact, they actively encourage their voters not to. ‘I don’t have time for fairy tales,’ David Cameron told an interviewer when asked about what he was currently reading upon taking office, obviously seeking to reassure his voters that culture would not get in the way of his merciless war on the poor and immigrants, while Ed Miliband, the Leader of the Opposition, sheepishly followed suit and parroted a similar philistinism, obviously fearing he might haemorrhage support if he dared come across as a ‘reader’ – let’s remember that this is of course a man who started wearing contacts the moment he set his eyes on leadership of the Labour Party, as though twenty-first century England had suddenly turned into Pol Pot’s Cambodia, where bespectacled individuals were executed for looking like intellectuals. Addressing the problem of the engaged intellectual’s difficulties in breaking through the marketing-driven concerns of publishers, Krog quipped, ‘People are constantly interviewing you to hear what you think instead of reading what you write.’

 

Olojede then turned to Albie Sachs. ‘Even though I’m a judge,’ he said, ‘I’m often accused of being a poet,’ and though he resisted the appellation – perhaps all too humbly as Sachs has arguably written some of the finest prose ever seen in the legal profession – he then spoke admiringly of the poet’s role as a bridge-builder. ‘My own attempt to build a bridge in relation to different concepts of ethics across various communities,’ he continued, ‘led to that bridge collapsing into the water and I couldn’t swim very well with one arm…it was a saddening experience.’ There is a passage in Jacques Pauw’s Dances with Devils: A Journalist’s Search for Truth, where the journalist comes face to face with Pieter Botes, a former member of the SADF death squad that masterminded the car bomb that led to Sachs’s loss of his arm. Pauw meets Botes for dinner at a hotel and is left dumbstruck when his interlocutors exclaims ‘I made a little sauce out of Albie’s arm,’ while chewing on a chunk of steak. ‘Was it a success?’ Pauw asks and Botes replies, ‘You know, in a war it’s sometimes better to maim the enemy than to kill him. We knew that everywhere Sachs went in Maputo, people would see the stump where his arm once was and say: “Look, the Boers blew it off,” knowing we could do the same to anyone we chose.’ In The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter, Sachs tells us how around the time of the TRC, each month would bring new information about who his would-be assassin might have been, and although several likely candidates emerged – Botes being one of them – the identity of that person ultimately didn’t matter, and that if such a person should come forward, what he would most want would be him ‘to contribute towards the building up of the country for the benefit of all who lived in it.’

 

‘Was it worth it?’ The questions seems to repeat itself ad infinitum. As though picking up on this, Dele asks: ‘Is anybody listening when the poet is talking? Doesn’t it sometimes feel as though they aren’t?’ While Yang Lian spoke positively about his experience of translating a Uyghur poet and how this process enabled them to see past the animosity that has often characterized the relationship between the embattled, Turkic-speaking Uyghur minority and the Chinese government, Krog opined that whether people listened or not wasn’t so much the issue. Rather, the literature on offer was not rooted to the reality it was meant to describe: ‘What is really happening in this country is being said in other languages … we are an illiterate country. There are many people who can’t read. Broken English is this country’s official language.’ At which the audience clapped and giggled knowingly. On a concluding note, Krog stressed that a writer should not concern themselves as to whether they are well read or not, since ‘one writes so that you don’t die of shame, that you didn’t say something when a girl is cut up somewhere in a parking lot and raped … you know that a poem will achieve nothing, but at least you will get through the night.’

 

As the sun set, the festival attendees flocked into the tent that had been erected in the main courtyard, where Marthinus Basson, the renowned theatre director choreographed the readings given by Šalamun, Ko Un, van Niekerk and Müller on the first night, and Krog, Breytenbach, Forché, Sartorius and Yang Lian on the second – with Neo Muyanga leading the musical component. In lieu of writing about the reading, which was an experience that would hardly translate on the page, I thought I would instead select a poem from that night, Ko Un’s ‘A Certain Joy’:

 

What I am thinking now
is what someone else
has already thought
somewhere in this world.
Don’t cry.

What I am thinking now
is what someone else
is thinking now
somewhere in this world.
Don’t cry.  

What I am thinking now
is what someone else
is about to think
somewhere in this world.
Don’t cry. 

How joyful it is
that I am composed of so many I’s
in this world,
somewhere in this world.
How joyful it is
that I am composed of so many other others.
Don’t cry. 

The following afternoon, the third panel – featuring Carolyn Forché, the Dutch poet Alfred Schaffer and Joachim Sartorius – assembled to discuss the topic: Is the world decayed metaphor? Does poetry shape the world, or is it but a pulse beat of reality? As the chair, Kole Omotoso, the Nigerian novelist and academic, started the conversation by asking Carolyn to recount a theory concocted by the German poet and ‘public nuisance’, Hans Magnus Enzensberger: ‘When Enzensberger wrote of the twilight of the literary public sphere, he claimed that literary culture is reduced to the simple reading of pleasurable texts by the true, actual public, a minority of ten to twenty thousand people. Enzensberger later reduced this estimation, stating that lyric poetry could only really count on a readership of +/- 1,354, meaning that a good poet can count on exactly as many readers in Iceland as in the United States,’ – probably explaining why, as Carolyn pointed out, Enzensberger’s first collection in English was entitled Poems for People Who Don’t Read Poems. ‘Yet,’ Enzensberger said, ‘our seemingly anachronistic art form somehow always manages to surprise us.’ Explaining that the so-called Enzensberger constant is quite well known in Germany, Joachim Sartorius also added that however minuscule a poets’ audience, by speaking in very intimate and subjective ways, poets nevertheless become the repositories of essential human qualities that would otherwise go lost. ‘Does poetry shape the world?’ Sartorius admitted that shape was a very big word, especially in view of these 1,354 readers, and that the answer would vary from country to country. To clarify his point, he brought up the international festival held each year in the Colombian city of Medellín – Pablo Escobar’s former stomping ground – where he’d gone to read his poetry in the late 1980s, back when the city was deemed one of the most violent places on Earth. At the end of the festival, the organisers had distributed a questionnaire, which was headed by the following query: ‘Does poetry heal the wounds of the city?’ ‘This is a question no German festival organiser would ever dream of asking!’

Following on, Carolyn Forché spoke of her work as a human rights activist in various countries and how her poetry, formerly of a personal and intimate nature, had been radically transformed by the events she witnessed, leading to accusations from several quarters that she had become a ‘political poet’. ‘Being accused of being a political poet,’ she stressed, ‘is not a happy situation in the United States. One must not be a political poet!’ As one of the few contemporary poets who appears refreshingly unperturbed by the usual academic theorising as to the definition of – and boundaries between – the private and the public, the personal and the political, Carolyn seems to perceive the act of writing poetry as simply, borrowing a line from her Blue Hour, ‘opening the book of what happened’. Language, she explained to the audience, cannot help being permeated by the experiences we are subjected to: ‘Everything that happens to mark us as a result of our experience, burn us, perforate us, change us, wound us, enlarge us, it also does to our language. Writing in the aftermath of such experience, whether implicitly or explicitly, the experience itself becomes somehow legible, traceable, there and present on the page.’ Carolyn then suggested that with the ‘acceleration of the velocity of experience due to technological advances, our take on reality has become a high-speed flickering and what poetry does, whether we read or write it, is to slow us down, enabling us to increase our capacity to sustain contemplation. It’s one of the greatest methods for increasing this capacity. It will be essential for our future survival.’ This brought to mind a couple of questions Breyten had asked in a piece penned for the French daily Libération a couple of years earlier: ‘Have we gained anything from knowing more, and instantaneously, about what is happening in the world? Are we being given to understand or are we solicited to partake of the race for drama beamed and blared by the media?’

 

I entered the hall to attend the fourth and final panel of the festival somewhat hesitantly. The topic was Is there a South African Way to the great Nowhere? featuring Antony Osler, a Zen monk and poet, alongside Ko Un and Petra Müller. While some found the nebulousness of the question beguiling, I most certainly didn’t. Although I admittedly knew little about Zen philosophy, having read only a handful of texts (mostly works by Gudo Nishijima and D. T. Suzuki) I had often been put off by the way Zen appeared to encourage moral detachment from the world and how its tenets, although nearly always poetic, in fact appealingly so, seemed to resist concrete verbalisation. It had always struck me as too complacent a theory, or rather, a way of life. A few months before heading to South Africa, I had read Arthur Koestler’s Drinkers of Infinity, where Koestler had spoken of the dichotomies between Western and Eastern thought in the context of the post-Hiroshima era. Speaking of the West, Koestler wrote: ‘It seems obvious that a culture threatened by strontium clouds should yearn for the Cloud of Unknowing. Abdication of reason in favour of a spurious mysticism does not resolve the dilemma.’ This was why I was particularly pleased that Breyten, who chaired the panel, began by reading a translation of a speech Ko Un had prepared for the event, since he could not actively participate owing to his lack of English. Skipping some of the initial paragraphs, Breyten starting with: ‘I have not come to South Africa to open wide my eyes, I have come here to get drunk’, unleashing riotous laughter as Ko Un raised his full glass with mirth in his eyes. Then his speech took a direction that soothed many of my misgivings:

 

It would be paradoxical to set up a view of “Nowhere” or “Utopia” when we are faced with the appalling scenes of bloodshed experienced in Palestine or South Africa as well as the current situation on the Korean peninsula, yet it is a hugely sincere and necessary wish. … In fact, we have to consider how useless abstract concepts such as ‘Nowhere’ and brilliant intellectual expressions of it are, how remote a form of discourse they are in the extreme situations of such regions.

Contrary to my initial expectations, this panel perhaps more than all the others, eschewed the foreboding aura of the admittedly ambitious topics and truly attempted to do away with conceptualisation, allowing to panellists to voice the direct insights they had accrued through the course of their lives. As Osler, Ko Un and Breyten spoke, I began to conceive that Zen could – in controlled doses – become a much-needed tool to defend intuition – which in the West has been under attack since the Enlightenment and has all but been eradicated from our lives – against the monopolistic claims of logic, which – who knew? – might in the end help mitigate our biologically-ingrained jingoism and remind us that we are mortal leaves on an equally mortal tree. Regardless, Petra Müller provided us with one of the highlights of the festival with the following, which she enunciated in her slow, elegant drawl:

 

I started thinking a great deal on the places of loneliness in our country, of the lair of isolation that we all have in us whether we want it or not and it struck me very powerfully that to be descended from colonialists is a very strange business, because one of the things that you get to know about is that however many generations have passed – and as you all know we Afrikaners are extremely historically-conscious – there is always a part of you, way back somewhere, which does not belong. … I came to a conclusion. There are three “texts” that govern us: the family, the bible and the gun. They are not enough for us in Africa. …It seems to me that we have not lived long enough yet and that we shall have to live for a much longer time on this continent, before we who came here as colonialists – who had to deal with people whom we simply did not understand and also did not know, who had developed knowledges, intuitions and psyches that knew more about this place than the people who had come in those “big wooden houses”, as the bushmen called the first ships they saw – can understand this place. I suggest that the god whom we got to know in the old testament is not always suited to that endeavour. Fortunately, there are many gods: some are penetrable, others completely impenetrable. The world of the Zen is a world we have to get used to. Once we get used to it, we see, strangely, that we have been surrounded by it from the beginning, but it took us over three centuries to get to the word “Zen”, which quite simply means “attention”.

Rightfully so, Petra’s speech drew thunderous applause and concluded the dialogic component of ‘Dancing In Other Words’. Yet in a sense, the dancing was still to come. Again at a loss to describe the elegance of Basson’s choreography and the quick footwork that Breyten and Ko Un displayed on the dance floor, here is Joachim Sartorius’s ‘The Palm Trees Tell Lies in Tunis’, where the German poet evoked his youth in Tunis, where his father, also a diplomat, had once been stationed:

 

We don’t look that swell on the class photograph.
Alifa, star pupil with his ingenious mug, is blurred,
Monique, who I had a crush on, is wrapped in
scratchy silence. The photo´s so yellowed –
at head-level a horizontal irruption of light
(like the blond scraps of foam on the beach) –
that the viewer imagines he’s reading schoolchildren’s
cephalograms. In their midst is the teacher,
slender. Jusqu´à l´os, I told her,
right down to the bone. She went red in the white TGM,
red as Monique’s nook in the boat off
the island of Zembra. Because no woman’s fairer
than the desire for a woman, my Arab friend
whispers. ‘The way she’s looking through her
legs. How tall she is!’ , and carves it into the wood
of the school-bench. Monique (father: Arab, mother:
French) walked home the same way as I did,
from the white station La Marsa to Gammarth,
beneath the furtive whispers of stocky, ancient palm-trees,
which still stand today, which don´t tell the truth:
That everything´s changed, each and everything.

*

The festival had come to an end, and although I had spent too short a time in so complex and stimulating a country, it seemed undeniable that it was a place where assumptions, which are brittle by nature are brittle, would, in a land such as this, hit upon some sharp edge and fall apart. Yet the constant hearing reading, recitation – and one hopes retention – of poetry managed to soften those edges, slowing the mind down just enough to allow for at least a singling out of some of the crucial questions of our time, both in relation to the South African and the global context.

The absence of a major black African poet raised eyebrows among some in the audience, as well as a couple of the participating poets, who were surprised that three Afrikaners had been invited instead. While criticism of the sort is – and should be – welcomed, I do not agree. It seems rather natural for a festival held just outside Stellenbosch to feature Afrikaner poets, since that is where the word was first coined, back in 1707. Furthermore, while I do not speak any Afrikaans and was therefore unable to understand Breyten, Petra, Antjie and Marlene when they read out their work, I was pleased that they read in their mother tongue. At a time when Afrikaner culture is being marginalised – partly due to a myriad of understandable historical factors, partly due to the encroachment of a globalised broken English, this seemed to me particularly important. Still, where were the black writers? It may be controversial, but the fact remains that most of the country’s finest writers are still white. It is still largely true that readers versed in South African literature will have encountered the likes of Alan Paton, Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee, André Brink, as well as of course Antjie and Breyten – but not Adam Small, Wally Sarote, Mandla Langa, Achmat Dangor, Kopano Matlwa, or K. Sello Duiker – whom truth be told I only learned about because he’d won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book. Why? Here’s what Lewis Nkosi said about the matter in 1991:

 

The answer may lie in all the things we don’t want to talk about: a poor and distorted literary education, a political criticism which favours mediocrity over quality, and exclusion from all those cultural and social amenities which fertilise the mind and promote confidence and control over literary skills. 

Add to this the general nonchalance of publishers in London and New York, embodied by the publisher I’d spoken to before leaving London. Nkosi’s books, for instance, are all out of print there, save for Underground People, which is published by the niche imprint Ayebia Clarke. That the question of language and ethnicity should provoke such debate was of course foreseeable. Communication is clearly one of the greatest challenges in the new South Africa and translation will – or should – play a large role in that. It remains to be seen whether the ANC government will step up to the challenge, or whether they will leave this to the mercy of private philanthropy, as has so often happened elsewhere.

 

Nevertheless, I was impressed by the audience’s vivid reactions to the words and ideas on display at the festival. People in South Africa definitely seemed to have a more sophisticated palate. They did not look awkwardly away or resent the spice. As far as I was able to gather, poetry draws a full house and a brief look at literary websites like bookslive.co.za, litnet.co.za or slipnet.co.za – the last of which featured a series of articles prompted by the panel discussions – are testament to that. In addition, the model adopted by ‘Dancing In Other Words’ seemed to me a rather congenial one, in that it allowed for deep immersion, which in turn facilitated some truly thought-provoking discussions rather than merely focus on aesthetics, or rather, the entertainment factor. After all, people who attend literary festivals pay good money, so they demand at least a laugh or two. It has sadly become overwhelmingly apparent the majority of publishers, writers, readers – in short, people – have somehow come to view politics and philosophy as pollutants of literary work. Yet to carry on down this road is dangerous. Tolstoy had warned of this back in 1897 in his essay What Is Art?: ‘It is this supplanting of the ideal of what is right by the ideal of what is beautiful, i.e. of what is pleasant, that is the consequence, and a terrible one, of the perversion of art in our society. It is fearful to think of what would befall humanity were such art to spread among the masses of the people. And it already begins to spread.’ Of course, it’s far easier not to listen. It is easier to relegate, delegate even. Ignorance protects us from the weight of our responsibilities. Yet if being confronted with past and present injustices during those days in South Africa proved heavy on the soul, it was also strangely uplifting. After all, as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once put it, it is from the injustices of today that we can create the justice of tomorrow, as I’ve no doubt Albie Sachs would agree. In time, it may very well be that South Africa – a country that has left an indelible mark on world history: imperialism, concentration camps and of course apartheid all originated here – will eventually go the way of every other liberal capitalist society, succumbing to a nihilism, that as Octavio Paz once remarked, doesn’t ‘seek the critical negation of established values,’ but instead enforces ‘a passive indifference to values’. It may very well do so, but for the moment it strikes me as one of the most inspiring places to be.

 

*

 

On the return flight to London, I attempted to concretise this vague impression – the quasi-indescribable zest that ‘you could smell in the air’ as Carolyn said to me during the course of that week – and turned back to The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter, leafing over to the epilogue, which I had left unread:

There is an historic openness and suppleness of texture [in South Africa] that makes life intensely interesting, and fills it with extraordinary choices. Part of the pleasure of living in this country today is its openness, the feeling that it can go any way, and that each one of us can still have an influence. Nothing is ordained, yet nothing is out of reach. For many, this freedom is disconcerting. They would rather live complaining under the firm authority of a powerful state, which, love it or hate it, would take all decisions for them, than slowly achieve security through the growth of a richly textured, multi-universed, and organically vibrant society. They fear the openness of freedom and resist taking responsibility for their lives.

On a final note, it occurs to me that of all the sights and sounds I absorbed during that week, I hadn’t yet figured out – or paid particular attention to – why the festival had been called ‘Dancing In Other Words’. Perhaps it was because Paul Valéry had once said that poetry is to prose as dancing is to walking, but of all the dancing metaphors I’d encountered over the past few weeks, I took a particular shine to these lines from Jack Gilbert’s ‘The Spirit and the Soul’:

 

The spirit dances, comes and goes. But the soul
is nailed to us like lentils and fatty bacon lodged
under the ribs. What lasted is what the soul ate.
The way a child knows the world by putting it
part by part into his mouth.



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


is a poet, critic and translator.