SEVEN CIRCUMSTANCES

Book Reviews & Essays on Literature

Oulap se Blou, by Chris Barnard

Chris Barnard died on  28 Dec. 2015. He was a multi-award-winning South African and Afrikaans author and playwright who was one of the “Sestigers”. The Sestigers (Sixtiers), also known as the Beweging van Sestig (the Movement of Sixty), was a group of influential Afrikaans-language writers in the 1960s, started by André Brink and Breyten Breytenbach. They introduced new, radical subjects like atheism, sex, art for the sake of revolution, and anti-Apartheid ideas to South African literature, and their declared aim was “to broaden the rather too parochial limits of Afrikaner fiction.” Acclaimed South African-born author Breyten Breytenbach wrote this when Chris Barnard died (my translation from Afrikaans): “And now, Chris, He was the quiet one. The big guy. The man with the generous heart and the truly deep involvement with the nature and the complexities and fears of humanity. He was the stylist, the writer who, with economical but striking word choices, could conjure up a situation or a part of the word that seemed local – and he was always fed by his roots – but which were, in fact, descriptions of the condition humaine, the human condition or man’s fate. Others will hopefully be able to describe how their own work was influenced by Chris Barnard’s approach of sincerely, plainness, and almost invisible dexterity.”

Master of the short story

Barnard was a master of the short story format, and published many collections. Mahala (meaning “for free”, 1971) is considered an Afrikaans classic. But of all the books he has written, and those I have worked through as a student of Afrikaans Literature, I have, and still keep, and still read, Oulap Se Blou; (A Penny’s Worth of Blue) 40 short stories (2008), his last fiction work. Why? Because it is like holding a little bit of South African soil in my hands, of hearing the sounds, dialects, and musicality of Afrikaans right there in my ears. The Afrikaans that was, and that was beautiful. Not the mangled Afrikaans-pronounced-as-English monstrosity that is spoken these days, particularly by Afrikaans singers. The Afrikaans that sounds like music with gravitas and soul, like symphonies, not elevator pop. When I read the stories, my childhood comes back to me and for a second, I am young again, and a child again, and nothing at all is wrong with the world, and at yet, as Julian Barnes says, there is nothing to be frightened of.

Oulap Se Blou (A Penny’s Worth of Blue)

There are too many quotes from Oulap Se Blou that move me and make me long for something that was probably not that great to begin with, but here are two: – untranslatable, sorry, folks, because this Afrikaans very subtle, very emotive.

“Waarmee bly jy oor? Met dik geskiedenisboeke. En ‘n bietjie onbetroubare oorlewering. En plekname. Wenen. Mooinooi. Duiwelskloof. Lekkersing. Dwaalboom. Blyderivier. Mara. Baardskeerdersbos. Minnebron. Bloedrivier. Taal is meer as wat dit op die oog of die oor wil voorgee. Dis meer as net ‘n stel tekens en klanke of biblioteke vol boeke of die lawaai in ‘n duisend koopsentrums. Dis ‘n kollektiewe geheue, dis die hart van elke oomblik wat ooit in daardie taal belewe is – elke sonde, elke sterwe, elke ekstase, elke teleurstelling, elke grap en hartseer en berisping and oorwinning en verlies wat ooit in daardie taal ervaar is, lê opgeteken in een register. Uiteindelik word dit soos ’n reuse-olienhout allenig op sy stuk vlakte: ‘n sigbare en tasbare astrak van die aarde waaruit dit voorkom.” (Reise)

“In ‘n laat strepie lig onder swaar winterwolke hang brug op brug en elkeen se weerkaatsing oor die blink Seine soos armband om ‘n stil arm. Herfs se kastaiingblare val soos skoenlappers grond toe. Bo uit verligte vensters lag gewone mense. Vannag as almal slaap, sal die sneeu saggies en onsigbaar kom soos Kersvader. Maar môre oor drie maande sal die bome begin bot, soos ‘n jong meisie, asof dit vir die heel eerste keer gebeur.” (Die Stad Met Drie Gesigte [Paris])

And for every one of these forty stories, he has the perfect closing line – brief, deep in innuendo, and in itself a little work of art.