Catastrophes

An excerpt

Breyten Breytenbach

Artwork by Breyten Breytenbach

16 September 2001

A man bought a pumpkin at the Union Square Market in New York City for his birthday the sixteenth September such a birthing slip should be remembered and celebrated there aren't many more to come or go and the world is growing cold around us. He walked straight and carefully home with the pumpkin wrapped in a plastic bag because he wears a beard (even if white by now) and his face is dark like that of a nomad and he was nervous lest people take him for a terrorist and the pumpkin for a bomb. It was only an organically cultivated genetically modified product all cheeks and buttocks stuffed with the good orange sun of growth and with heat from the soil. "Do we have a choice? Quick! Quick!"

we pray each day to give thanks for the sand
where we walk and sleep and which we scoop
to wash the bodies for worship –
when a prince of the capital comes to the wasteland
we prepare over the coals in the fire pit a camel
crammed with a goat stuffed with pheasant
farced with a desert dove stopped with two eggs
and present the steaming fragrant caravel carcass
as if crouched for praying on the festive table –
high against the fingertips of the towers of convocation
two ostrich shells are built into heaven
to catch and hold the full moon's light,
nothing ever decays in this burning away of time –
then we show to our guest in the holy writings
how these arabesques of the revelation of faults
like so many consonant insects of God
are silently mounted by the shifting dunes
of a timeless dream of oblivion,
and our words become sand

He took the elevator to the twelfth floor and tried unlatching the apartment door softly. What do you have there his wife asked? Oh it is just an old whassisname for my birthday the sixteenth of September. What? Again? his wife called out. And his daughter said she doesn't want to hear about it she knows her father's fabulations and she wants no part of his flights of fancy anymore. And it is not even Halloween yet. But the man said look this is not my imagination it is but a pumpkin stuffed with the sun of a past when we were young and firm come let us partake of it tomorrow for my birthday the sixteenth of September and we'll pretend not to be here but at home in a distant land where the mountains are blue and the beaches white and we will hollow it and make a mask with a candle lit inside in memory of the dead. What home? his wife and daughter muttered. We have no home at home remember? We were chased away there because you made a pumpkin of yourself. But the man stopped up his ears and put the pumpkin out on the balcony because the apartment was fouled by a stream of image material spewed by the television set in the dining room corner it is all because of bad eating habits the world can't deal with all this shit anymore. And that night the man couldn't sleep his head was in a twirl for he'd never yet succeeded in slicing open a pumpkin story down to the last seed and now it was nearly time again. He got up and went to squat next to the pumpkin on the balcony. With eyes carefully closed not to look towards where night's hem smouldered and smoked around the absence of the towers of Babel that had been attacked from heaven exploded with neither rhyme nor reason. You have nothing to fear the man whispered to the pumpkin. Everything must come to an end the moon is dead now pinned to the underworld's mourning coat she won't be in any position to come and bewitch you tomorrow morning at the crack of day we shall with quiet yellow mouths make you part of our doings for my birthday the sixteenth of September there aren't all that many left you're at home here with us. But when the pumpkin burst out in tears the man jumped with fright and threw the pumpkin far below to the street. And police and soldiers came with a wailing from the domain of the dead and with masks and assault rifles and spotlights and pinned the man like a fly to the balcony wall. DON'T MOVE DON'T MOVE they hollered through megaphones. And the man clasped his hands to his head and moaned: oh brothers and sisters warriors of the bright hereness it was a slip it was a slip! It is but a bad story and look now how broken the words lie scattered! What will I have to recall my birthday the sixteenth September in New York City?

translated from the Afrikaans by Breyten Breytenbach


Used by permission of Archipelago Books. Catastrophes will be in stores in February 2013.

Click here for more information about the book.



Breyten Breytenbach is a poet, novelist, memoirist, essayist, visual artist and an outspoken human rights activist. His paintings and drawings have been exhibited around the world. Born in South Africa, he immigrated to Paris in the late '60s and became deeply involved in the anti-Apartheid movement. Breytenbach's works include All One Horse, Mouroir, Notes from the Middle World, A Season in Paradise, Dog Heart, The Memory of Birds in Times of Revolution, and Voice Over: a nomadic conversation with Mahmoud Darwish. His many honors include the Alan Paton Award for Return to Paradise in 1994 and the prestigious Hertzog Prize for Poetry for Papierblom in 1999 and Die Windvanger (Windcatcher) in 2008.