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Photo Gallery and Four Videos: Breytenbach’s A Veil of Footsteps Launched

Breyten Breytenbach in Beads A Veil of Footsteps Breyten Breytenbach

Breyten Breytenbach has been described as an enigma, but perhaps the word “trickster” – in its literary sense – is more appropriate: an artist open, using Franchot Ballinger’s phrase, to “life’s multiplicity and paradoxes”.

“Exhibit A” in this argument would be Breytenbach’s attire at the launch of his latest book, A Veil of Footsteps, at the Breytenbach Centre in Wellington yesterday. He wore a striking black t-shirt bearing a simple directive in it’s bullseye-red centre: “Imagine Africa”.

This in contrast to the style of many of the launch’s guests, who appeared in large numbers, wearing what might be called their casual finery. The trickster, who was incarnated that night in many guises – as himself; as the subject of a beadwork “painting” by his wife, Yolande; as a painter and sketcher via the art that adorn’s the Centre’s walls; and as a ghostly figure on the cover of his book, carried around by many in the audience – was gently admonishing us to embrace the unconventional.

“Exhibit B” in this context, of course, is Breytenbach’s book, whose subtitle, Memoirs of a Fictional Nomadic Character, is tricky enough to turn the grey noodle inside one’s head into a pretzel shape.

Ampie CoetzeeThe challenge presented by the text, which visits Paris, Spain, Gorée (Senegal), Cape Town, New York and Vietnam by turns, and which features the thoughts of one Breyten Woordfool in its pages, was enough to confound the likes of Prof. Ampie Coetzee, who introduced it to the gathering, praising its lushness, its intellectual vigour, its ability to draw the reader into its world.

But Coetzee didn’t know what to call Breytenbach’s marvellous creation: fiction? biography? poetry? non-fiction? In which genre should the book finally be placed? He commended the author on his ability to avoid such pigeonholing.

Sanelle Lategaan and Casper OelofsenSurprisingly, Breytenbach had an answer for Coetzee, when he rose to respond to what he called the Professor’s “beautiful approach” to the book. His answer took the form of another question: not – What is this book; but – What is this book not?

“It is not an autobiography, it’s not a detective story, it’s neither prophecy nor report, nor yet political or social analysis… please don’t look for these things,” he said.

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Video: “What this book is not”

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Willemina Whitman, Sharon Becorne, Mary Jurie, Wendy Richards, Henry Fritz, Lucia Lemboe, Meghaan Carolus, Ampie Coetzee and Stuart van WykBreytenbach then introduced a term that was new to many in the audience: “Middle World”, or “Middelwereld”. A Veil of Footsteps is a middle-world text, he said, the third volume in what he has come to call “The Middle World Quartet” – a series of writings that explore the in-betweenness that comes to define an exile’s life. (An essay called “Notes from the Middle World” by the author first appeared in McSweeney’s issue 6; and he expands upon the concept in Afrikaans in this interview with Murray la Vita in Beeld.)

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Video: Breytenbach on the “Middle World”

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Marguerite and Hilmari RouxEarlier in his talk, Breytenbach mentioned that it was the first time that he and his wife Yolande had “exhibited” together: he, his book; and she, her exquisite beadwork, which was on display in the front rooms of the Centre (see a photo of her wondrously-worked portrait of her husband above).

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Video: Breytenbach’s thank-you speech

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Sharon Montgomery and Lydia UysThe evening’s lightest note, perhaps, was struck when Breytenbach closed his remarks with an encomium for the American song artist Joe Cocker, whose concert he and Yolande had seen the previous evening, at Kirstenbosch Gardens.

He smiled as he praised Cocker’s performance. “Especially what struck me about him is how all of him has become an instrument,” he said. “You know… he stood there vibrating like an old bullfrog with his gonads caught in a trap laid by the scorpions…”

Izak de Vries and Mattie van der MerweHere was real passion, real music, Breytenbach continued, in contrast – and this is where trickster’s eyes began to gleam bright with mischief – to the “saccharine” sounds of Celine Dion, who played a disastrously-organised concert over the weekend, and for whose fans – “all these people crying their eyes out because they had golden tickets, and they had to sit in a traffic jam, to be seen by other people sitting in a traffic jam, to go see the song from the Titantic” – he had scant sympathy.

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Video: Breytenbach on Joe Cocker and Celine Dion

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Mirthful cannonfire from an unexpected direction, and an entirely appropriate conclusion to the trickster’s talk.

A Veil of Footsteps launch photo gallery

Hillary Hendricks and Carmen WilliamsBreytenbach SentrumFancy TippleLelani Strohwald, Ellziena Kariel and Theo KempLou-Ann Stone and Ramon AlexanderPiet PotgieterLinda Marais, Adriaan Meyer, Loftus Marais and Louise ViljoenChristine Siebrits, Ingrid Boag and Cara BoagBalie Semmelink and Jean ConradieRudi Venter and Kabous MeiringJanita Holtzhausen and Francis GallowayBreyten Breytenbach and Alida PoetgieterBreyten BreytenbachSentrum SquareEsther KotzeNaomi Bruwer and Magdel MeyerCasper Oelofsen, Engela Duvenage and Louis DuvenageKobus Coetzee and Batman (Look Closely)Breyten BreytenbachKobus Coetzee and Anne-Ghrett ErasmusYolande BreytenbachBreyten BreytenbachBreyten Breytenbach, Kerneels Breytenbach and Albert du PlessisFrancois Bekker and Mari BorstlapFred Orban and Fritz SnyckersAmpie CoetzeeBreyten Breytenbach, Ampie Coetzee and Kerneels Breytenbach

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A Veil of Footsteps, Memoirs of a Fictional Nomadic CharacterBook Details