SEVEN CIRCUMSTANCES

Book Reviews & Essays on Literature

Best wishes for the Season – in the words of Breyten Breytenbach

Best wishes for the festive season and the new year

I cannot express my wishes for my family, friends and colleagues all over the world any better, than by quoting Breyten Breytenbach, the acclaimed South African-born poet and anti-Apartheid activist. His words bring back memories of the essence of the South African hinterland, the platteland – something almost impossible to put into words, much less translate. As he puts it: “…the fragrance of something from far away, coming to life.” The warm evening, the sunset, the stars, the mountain peaks, the songs of the cicadas and the frogs – those are intangible and unforgettable moments. This time of year, with the snow falling heavily outside, makes one more susceptible to memories of times and places past.

This poem is from his poetry/prose work, “A Season in Paradise”, written after his return to South Africa in 1973 after twelve years in exile. In a work that contains criticism and brutality, he also conveys moments of an exile’s deep-rooted love for his land of birth. From 1975 to 1982, he was a political prisoner in South Africa, serving two terms of solitary confinement. Released in 1982, as a result of massive international intervention, he returned to Paris and obtained French citizenship. He currently divides his time between Europe, Africa, and the United States. Breytenbach  wields the Afrikaans language like a master artist his brush – he has no equal, and no-one writes about the South African landscape quite like he does. This is why these lines will always be loved and shared.

Op pad na die Kouga / On the way to the Kouga (pp.61-63)
For Oom Martin
By Breyten Breytenbach / B.B. Lasarus (pseudonym)
From: ’n Seisoen in die Paradys / A Season in Paradise (1976) – Translated by Marthe Bijman
 

may there always be a light in your house
may the frogs remember you
may your apples grow sweeter every year
and your grape arbour greener
may your friends always bring over some wine
may the house you have built be redolent of
the fragrance of cedar wood and geranium leaves
may the walls of your ditches not collapse
and fall apart too quickly
so that the water can flow even more brightly in them
may the stars and the mountains and the silence
stand guard over you and your family
now and tomorrow and every morning and evening
and every day’s night.

on the road to Upper-Kouga through narrow passes over landscapes
that lie shimmering in the sun’s dying light
where the dark defeats the world peak by peak
we came over a crest
and turned off to where the moon passes over
as pale and safe as a word
in one’s own mother-trusted-tongue
en there was light in the house:
it was good,
we were glad.

the people living there met us
in the hearth the coals were still glowing
where there’s a fire there’s always kneading-chatting
we ate the fresh bread with mulberry and apricot jam
and we enjoyed the wine and later, outside,
we sniffed at the  oven
because it was still warm of the fragrance
of something from far away, coming to life
and it was good, like that
so that was that
as it should be
because we were no longer guests and hosts,
and we were glad

we drank of the water that
trickled from the mountain
we looked at the old and somber watchful mountains
how they stand guard around the valley
and at the stars and the mountain:
the cross above the ravine
and the others
like fires over a charred veldt
we saw a little plume of smoke in the moonlight
and listened to how all the frogs chew in time
all on one tooth
en how the cicadas in the trees still sing praises
to the sun of yesterday-and-tomorrow,
and we were glad

We don’t know the love-names of the stars
the trees are gorgeous but unimaginable
in the dark we do not see future visions
in the dark
we discovered that the farms here
are named for longings
so heavy and so chilled;
Begrudged, Depths-of-Sorrow, Inconvenient
to up there in Damnation Valley
but that’s not saying anything
and it is good, like that,
and we were happy
to be with you.

may there always be a light in your house
may the frogs remember you
may your apples grow sweeter every year
and your grape arbour greener
may your friends always bring over some wine
may the house you have built be redolent of
the fragrance of cedar wood and geranium leaves
may the walls of your ditches not collapse
and fall apart too quickly
so that the water can flow even more brightly in them
may the stars and the mountains and the silence
stand guard over you and your family
now and tomorrow and every morning and evening
and every day’s night.

Op pad na die Kouga
Vir Oom Martin

op pad na Bo-Kouga deur nou passe oor landskappe
wat lê bewe in die son se sterwenslig
waar die donker die wêreld vat kruin vir kruin
het ons oor ‘n nek gekom
en afgedraai na waar ‘n huis die maan trek
so bleek en so veilig soos ‘n woord
in mens se eie mond-vertroude taal
en daar was lig in die huis:
dit was goed,
ons was bly

die mense van die huis het ons ontmoet
in die vuurmaakplek was die kole nog rooi
waar vuurgemaak word is daar altyd gekniegde gesels
ons het die vars brood geëet
met konfyt van moerbei en appelkoos
en ons het van die wyn geniet
en later, buite, aan die oond gaan snuif
want dié was nog warm met die geur van iets
van vér wat lewe kry
en dit was goed so
so was dit vanself
so moet dit tog wees
want daar was geen genooide of gasheer meer,
en ons was bly

ons het van die water gedrink wat uit
die berge syfer
ons het na die ou en somber wagterberge gekyk
hoe hulle wagstaan om die kom
en na die sterre bo die berge:
die kruis bo die kloof
en die ander
soos brande oor ‘n swartgebrande veld
ons het die bietjie rook in die maanlig gewaar
en gehoor hoe kou die paddas tyd
al op die een tand
en hoe die boomsingertjies nog lof betuig
aan die son van gister-en-môre,
en ons was bly

ons ken die sterre se aainame nie
die bome is lieflik maar onvoorstelbaar
in die donker sien mens die vergesigte nie
in die donker
het ons verneem dat plase hier
na hartsugte vernoem word
so swaar en so koel;
Misgund, Dieptes-van-Ellende, Ongeleë,
tot bo in Verdoemeniskloof
maar dis nie te sê nie,
en dis goed so,
en ons was bly
om by u te wees

mag daar altyd lig brand in u huis
mag die paddas u onthou
mag u appels aljaar soeter word
en u druiweprieel groener
mag u vriende wyn saambring vir die kuier
mag die huis wat u gebou het deurtrek bly
van die geur van sederhout en malvablare
mag die walle van u slote nie te gou inkalwe
en in hulle moer stort nie
sodat die water nog helderder daarin kan vloei
mag die sterre en die berge en die stilte
oor u en u gesin bly waak
nou en môre en elke môre en aand
en elkeen van daardie dae se nag

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