At one point in this book, except that it’s not so much a book as a series of sharp-eyed digressions, Breyten Breytenbach tells the story of his friend Tobe. We’ve already got used to Tobe’s name cropping up in unlikely places in French Africa, or as a character in the dreams, the take-offs into magical realism or the one long drinking bout that make up this book. The notion of a famous literary figure on an inebriated progress across a continent has a certain raffish hilarity to it and once produced a study called Dylan Thomas in America. This book is a sort of ‘Dylan Thomas in Africa’, with the difference that Breytenbach has written this one himself and cares about the continent he’s travelling through and getting drunk in. As he says, to be African is not a choice but a condition and he’s got it. Even worse he’s an Afrikaner: ‘I am of a people who are the mortification of Africa, a people of colonists without a metropolis, with whom nobody wants to share history.’
As for Tobe, he was a leader of the 1976 Soweto rising who then set up as a guerrilla leader. Three of his men held up a Johannesburg bank, took the customers hostage and demanded, as their quid pro quo, the release of a list of political prisoners, one of whom was Breytenbach himself, then in jail as a result of his own venture into revolutionary guerrilla activities. The three got wiped out, of course, in the ensuing fire-fight.
Meanwhile Tobe and two buddies, Barnum and Siphiwe, rolled up in London at an ANC press conference where they were supposed to support the ANC’s claim to have been the moving force behind the uprising. Tobe mucked this up by admitting the ANC had been so far underground it was invisible. The movement cut them off, their attempted guerrilla operations were aborted, their search for funding blocked, they became non-persons – the usual story. Barnum took a job as night porter in a seedy London hotel. Siphiwe defied the ANC and smuggled arms back into South Africa, which earned him a jail sentence and the status of perpetual-motion exile, drifting from one African state to the next. Tobe, in Paris to welcome Breytenbach on his journey into exile, then washed up in Guinea as a protégé of Miriam Makeba. There poor Tobe became emaciated, insane, died mad and alone.
Tobe being a hero of the Soweto uprising, there was great call for his body to be repatriated as that of a martyr of the struggle. The Defence and Aid Fund, jealously controlled by the ANC, refused to help a politically incorrect body. The corpse started a long and halting journey back home, got stuck at endless African airports, began to decompose. Eventually, Barnum got it disguised as a Taiwanese spare part, smuggled it across the Zimbabwe border and the great Soweto funeral show could go ahead at last. Various factions disagreed over which flag should cover the coffin, fighting broke out, people got killed. So more coffins, more funerals. Safely buried, Breytenbach predicts, Tobe will soon figure on the ANC’s roll of honour. Barnum, meanwhile, found fund-raising for the return of the dead hero’s body a financially rewarding activity and thus continued with it well after the event.
The story is typical of Breytenbach’s disabused – he would say ‘heartbroken’ – stance. Having fought the Afrikaner establishment, gone to jail, and knocked around Africa with ANC exiles, he now finds he is against ‘the new politically correct orthodoxy, the exile community of professional victims, and finally the ANC’. When he left ‘there were still white pipedreams of decency in the land,’ but there’s no going back to them: ‘I am now of the wrong sex and wrongish colour ... using a wrong language and holding the wrong opinions. Worse – I’ve run out of convictions!’
‘There is,’ he writes, ‘such a thing as incurable nostalgia.’ In his case it has to do principally with timelessness, with Africa’s ‘clarity, its bareness, its horizons burned clean of history and of time’. ‘I had to come here,’ he thinks as the plane carrying him back crosses the African coast, ‘to insert space, to make the inner construction a little more impervious to time. To blow the mind.’ But then he thinks of his African arrivals, the airports where you have to bribe the customs officials, the rapacious porters and taxi drivers, the beggars in the concourse, the airlines which refuse to accept their own national currency – ‘so many portraits of dictators dirtying the walls, so many panels carved from precious indigenous wood, so many impatient ministers with fat bellies and swollen rings and hangers-on with imitation club-ties and empty briefcases’. He remembers writers’ conferences where the conference president steals thousands of dollars by cashing air tickets provided by sponsors for guests that he manages never to invite. So many broken dreams, failed revolutions, the grandiose descent into tattiness. For Africa is dying, not just of Aids and locusts and desertification and drought, but from the fundamental betrayal of its public life: ‘old circles are broken open; civic spaces shrink or wither; soldiers and politicians and apparatus people infest the state and produce corruption and waste and nepotism and clientelism; the intellectuals have wooden tongues and powdered arses ... The more you travel, the less chance you have of arriving.’
On his travels Breytenbach notices that Gaddafi, ‘clanging with more medals than the scales of a fish’, wears boots with built-up heels like Eugene Terreblanche of the AWB. He meets up with his mysterious friend Walker who delights in new trades and scams: with the fall of the USSR Walker’s got a hoard of busts of Lenin and Stalin which he believes he can sell in South Africa – it’s the last place in the world where you can – and then invest the proceeds in ‘recruiting’ young black women for ‘service’ abroad. Walker, who’s hoping to extend his range to busts of Castro and Ho Chi Minh, is a continuous embarrassment to Breytenbach, in whose guerrilla band he once served. A reader not from Africa would probably wonder if Walker really exists; if you know the place you’re not surprised. In a way we all know Walkers, though that’s never their real name.
Breytenbach becomes a buddy of Captain Thomas Sankara, the President of Burkina Faso, who makes the whole population, including fat and heaving cabinet ministers, participate in Wednesday-afternoon sports. Sankara dances, composes songs, gets Breytenbach and Tobe to carry out spoof interviews to hoax his Minister of Foreign Affairs, drinks and laughs aloud at life while the man who made his coup with him, Blaise Campaoré, listens, teetotal. Sankara tells how, on an official visit to Libya, Gaddafi takes him to see his father, but warns him that his father’s ‘mind is not so clear any more’. The patriarch returns the compliment, mumbling to Sankara to beware his son – ‘the fellow is nuts.’ Gaddafi tells Sankara that it’s ridiculous for him to be President: ‘people like you and I aren’t presidents, we are leaders; we are above politics.’ On the spot he promotes Sankara from captain to colonel, as if his powers extend easily over other armies, other states. Sankara laughs. In the end Campaoré betrayed Sankara, set an ambush for him, gunned him down, and buried him in a grave so shallow that one of his hands was left sticking through the soil. But then think, Breytenbach says, of Prince Johnson of Liberia, who had a video made of his predecessor, Sergeant Doe, being tortured to death, with Johnson talking him through it, offering him a smoke, scolding him for dirtying his pants as the torture proceeded. Foreign delegations who come to pay court get special showings of the video.
If this book has a theme it is betrayal. Some time back in exile, Breytenbach understood that the South African revolution had been betrayed: too much corruption and Stalinism, too many lies. He himself was betrayed by the ANC’s late foreign affairs man, Johnny Makatini, whom he depicts as an agent provocateur, the SACP fixer and chancer, who stitched him up when he was in jail. Meeting him again after many years, Breytenbach is too tired to go through it all: you bastard, you betrayed me, but what the hell, let’s have a drink. They drink, for Makatini’s worn out too, and individual betrayals aren’t such a big deal when whole movements and dreams and generations are on the line.
Breytenbach has sharp eye for individual corruption and the manipulations of the SACP, but he relies mainly on his nose. Here he is sniffing the air at the 1990 Wembley concert for the released Mandela:
Neil Kinnock sat puffing a pipe, trying to look as people as possible. Jesse Jackson ... with shiny hair and shiny moustache and a camel’s-hair coat and a nose for the television-lens like a fly for shit: each time the camera looked his way he was on his feet with clenched fist held high and a pious tear in the combative eye; when the camera swung away he was back to supercilious boredom. There were opportunists and arse-talkers and boot-lickers and pop singers and banana politicos and exiles who’d grown white in these foreign climes ... As befits such an occasion (or any other) most expatriate South Africans were already visibly moved ... Sam Ramsamy, filled to the brim with the importance of his task ... Father Trevor Huddleston in his purple cassock ... small, like a figure from a Punch and Judy show ... ready now to announce the coming of the Lord – or was he the Pilate to hand Him over to the mob? And if he were to cry, ‘Who shall I deliver unto you, De Klerk or Mandela?’ – what would the rabble’s answer have been?
Not that Breytenbach’s disgust at the present and future betrayal softens his fury at die Boere. When he gets to Pretoria he can hardly bear it:
May this earth be blighted! May locusts devour their jacaranda trees! May Loftus Versfeld Stadium be used for political rallies by the ANC! May the State Theatre be turned into a cattle market for wormy beasts from Botswana! May the married whores run out of hair lacquer and the accents of the society ladies be taped and played back publicly day and night at ear-splitting level!
He and his wife roll back from their travels to a dinner-party, where, faced with the usual mix of power-wielders and struggle artistes, Breytenbach retreats into reverie, sees naked people all round the table, laughs, misbehaves. Afterwards, his host gets angry, ‘points a finger of thick exasperation and accuses me of being a “poseur”, a misery sponge, a bird of doom come here for the satisfaction of high and holy moral indignation to spew disgust over the assembly, flying off to lick imagined wounds in “exile” ’. Breytenbach clearly feels some of this is justified. He and his friend make it up, and he flies back to France.
Breytenbach concludes with some stark thoughts on exile, on how the clarity it gives is merely ‘a blind seeing’. He is troubled, dissatisfied with all his options. He can’t make the Return, but he can’t accept that he’s just an émigré, his roots are far too strong for that – which leaves the unsatisfactory but virtually certain role of recurrent returnee, of a self-disgusted but necessary tourism.
The hard question is about the storm to come – you can smell it in the air. It’s a storm that’s been coming all of Breytenbach’s life, maybe longer. Perhaps we shall avoid the very worst – though even civil war is thinkable now – but we shall not avoid great carnage. In I960 we protested about 69 people shot dead at Sharpeville, but that’s just a normal week’s tally now. During the suffering to come South Africa will be the land of the politically correct and the dead. Maybe there is no other way, perhaps the storm has to rage, has to blow itself out. But when it does the country will need its Breytenbachs. Breytenbach is in the habit of returning to the island of Gorée, off Dakar, where he and Van Zyl Slabbert (former leader of the Opposition, now head of the Institute for Democratic Alternatives for South Africa), sit and plan an institute for democracy and development in Africa. Gorée was once a slavers’ depot, bad things happened there. In South Africa too another time will come. The storm will eventually subside. There could yet be a happy return.