All One Horse, Breyten Breytenbach. Archipelago Press. 170pp, $20.00.
In the preface to All One Horse, Breyten Breytenbach, playfully writing under the moniker “A. Uthor,” explains the artistic impulse behind this book of 27 “minor pieces of writing” and their accompanying 27 watercolor paintings with the following bit of Eastern philosophy:
The title is culled from a Chang Tzu saying: “Heaven and earth are one finger, all things are one horse.” This, by the way, also precisely indicates the contents, made up of a structure wrapped in themes and motives. Arguments of course are informed and/or illustrated by imagery or texture, or both. Images, again, depend on how far the horse of association can travel, as do textures which would be blank were it not for imagination—and there the finger goes galloping over uncharted regions determined by the life from which they echo forth. And life, the translation in other words, is nothing if not severable.
I think it’s important to note that Breytenbach, a man who speaks, writes, and even dreams in multiple languages, not only uses the word translation in its usual sense (as in the author has attempted to translate his experiences into stories), but also means to achieve a subtler meaning, that of the word transformation: the transformation of life through language, the informing of argument by imagery and texture, the structured wrapping of themes and motives.
While a lesser poet could misunderstand how something so abstract might affect the creation of her work, Breytenbach lives up to his words: the 27 minor texts here—closer to stories than poems—truly feel as though Breytenbach has freed his language to explore life’s uncharted regions and has welcomed the various truths these expeditions discovered. In his hands, this “all one horse” metaphor encourages a kind of free association that reads quite freshly when compared to popular, purpose-driven texts like stories about mother/daughter relationships and associated morality tales. Moreover, although a few of the texts feel a little heavy with the philosophy of language, the vast majority of them tell some of the most fascinating stories I have read in a while.
Breytenbach seems to have developed this technique of free association during his time in solitary confinement; from 1975 to 1982, he served in a South African prison, having been charged and arrested under the Terrorism Act during a visit there to establish further anti-apartheid connections. In prison, he wrote as long as he could before the guards took away his pens and paper, and since this give and take occurred each day he was forced to carry on his writing without having access to previous drafts. Though it’s a little unclear as to how he replenished his dwindling stock of pens and paper or why the guards simply didn’t just keep him from writing anything ever, the point is that his writing process varied drastically from the norm: he revised in his head, began anew each day, developed a particular sense for the memory of language. In an interview with Ann Landsman, published in the November 2006 issue of The Believer, he said of his prison writing:
I felt that as I wrote, I was entering a world that started unfolding as you entered it. You didn’t know where you were going to go when you entered it. It took you—it took you to places which may have existed there before in your mind somewhere, in your memory, but that you could not be sure about . . . the sense I had was that the writing was a kind of thread into a maze that revealed itself to me as I entered it with the line of writing.
Of course, Breytenbach published several other books before the first edition of All One Horse came out in 1989, so I doubt that many of the texts included here directly came from work he composed during his time in prison (curious readers ought to look for Mouroir: Mirror Notes of a Novel and The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist); however, it is hard to read All One Horse, with its many surreal leaps between sentences, and not think that it’s in some way derived from Breytenbach’s time in prison.
If Breytenbach truly has used writing to find his way through an otherworldly maze, then the texts collected here represent quite a vast number of twists and turns, even dead ends. In “dead at last,” for example, the narrator describes a man whose head is crammed with useless knowledge, such as “the answer to apartheid”; this phrase is perhaps one of the most arresting in the entire book, given that it follows this sentence: “This is not to say that his knowledge was exclusive, but it was precise and arcane and utterly unwanted.”
This mazelike structure allows Breytenbach to widely vary his subject matter, from the politics of the other and meditations on the doubling figure of brother to art as both a creative and destructive act of the self and memory. The breadth of the book’s content gives Breytenbach the opportunity to investigate more thoroughly the benefits of certain prose forms as paths to truth. His favorites seem to be the fable, the satire, and the philosophical meditation, and though these show up often, they in no way seem overused.
The most remarkable thing about the book and Breytenbach’s writing is the way both seem to maintain for the reader the rawness of newly discovered things. By this I mean that All One Horse seems to have escaped the author’s revising hand and the editor’s careful pen (I doubt this, but it does seem this way). Breytenbach has let remain all of the text’s odd turns, so that a reader can trace the author’s creative path. This is often more exciting than a carefully structured story, in which sentences move directly toward each plot point along Freytag’s triangle. Take this passage from “how beautiful the mountains”:
Sometimes the outside working population must revolt because it gives us the chance to air out and recapitulate our grievances. The male workers will gather in front of the ruler’s palace early in the morning when a thin fog still shrouds the public places. The strikers are young: labor is a question of virility. We show our discontent in a quaint but effective way—we unbutton our private parts to all masturbate together.
How one word here links to another is both unsettling and pleasing; the act of reading, by its very nature, allows Breytenbach to take full advantage of his wonderful sense of timing, comic or tragic. Notice how the language begins in the abstract and then falls into the simpler, concrete actions (compare “recapitulate” to “gather”), as if Breytenbach were searching for a way to describe his idea of revolution. Then the end of the second sentence offers the first hint of poetic lyricism: “a thin fog still shrouds the public places.” As if warmed by the exercise of the previous sentence, the third further leaps into the metaphorical realm, taking as its foundation the youth of the workers. And once Breytenbach has likened “labor” to “a question of virility” in the same sentence, he suddenly has the solution to his trouble. As a reader, I am unsettled by the connections he has uncovered—group masturbation as a form of civic action?—and yet I cannot help but admire the way the language leads to this political critique, and that is what is pleasing to me.
For all his twisting of language and form, Breytenbach has found some interesting ways to give his readers brief respite from the work of reading. The watercolors that go with each story contrast well with the black and white of the pages’ text. And while their imagery is as freely associative as the text, their presence seems to elicit completely different responses in a reader; the interpretive work is perhaps subtler, less conscious.
Subtle and also welcome is Breytenbach’s habit of taking his titles from the last few words of each text. The titles provide a hint of where the language in the story will end, a sort of final destination that the reader can have faith in during the trickier parts of the text. Part of the joy of reading these pieces, in fact, comes from the surprise at how Breytenbach arrives at each title.
Finally, the book itself has a kind of arc to it, perhaps not a narrative arc, but an arc nonetheless that seems to follow from what Breytenbach said to Landsman later in the interview: “We tend to forget that writing has this dual effect both of creating and of undoing that which it writes about or coming to stand in the place of, and it’s like the
story of the apple. You can’t unbite the apple once it’s been bitten.” The opening lines of the first story, “beween the legs,” echoes that idea, bites into the apple as he suggests:
In the beginning there is God. Or Creative Principle. If we take it that there must be a start and a stop, then there should be some entity to begin with or who/which can make the beginning begin?
As the book continues, the texts shift away from this concern for the beginnings of things and instead tell of the ends of things: death and destruction, a dead mother come back to haunt her son, a shooting at a hotel, Armageddon, imprisonment. Perhaps the clearest example of this shift comes in “no longer,” the fourth to last story in the book. The text describes the fictional contents of Ka’afir’s book, The First Book of Slow Gestures, in which it is recommended that “one should cut up in small morsels this entity known as Life. If not, how is one going to digest it? And unless one digests it entirely, how is one ever going to die?”
Ultimately, it’s not hard to understand why Archipelago Books decided to reprint All One Horse. The writing is such that a reader can open the book at any point and once again lose his way in the language, find new connections to puzzle through. It is a book not easily digested in one sitting, or even several sittings, and for that reason proves that writing of its kind will remain alive and well as long as there are readers out there patient and adventurous enough to enter the maze.
Ryan Call’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in Barrelhouse, Hobart, Avery, Caketrain, NO COLONY, and Sonora Review.
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