All One Horse

Breyten Breytenbach

Archipelago Books 2008 [1989]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2012
All One Horse contains some thirty prose poems, hallucinatory fables of a few pages in length written in a kind of stream-of-subconsciousness. A few verge on having a narrative plot; most have only the partially connected logic of dreams.

The obvious themes of family and sexuality are there — brothers and penises are prominent — along with all the other ideas that can be dredged out of the mirky crevices of the mind. Reading All One Horse is like being subjected to a fishing session, with successive stories pushing fragments of Breytenbach's mind into one's own and then pulling them out again with whatever detritus has become attached.

Even if nothing is ever in sharp focus, there's an ever-present political edge to Breytenbach's writing. All One Horse was originally published in 1989 and its context is apartheid South Africa; Breytenbach is an Afrikaner, though living at the time in the Netherlands and writing here in English.

Only a quotation can give a feel for Breytenbach's language and ideas. Here is the opening of the final piece, "letter to a mummy":

"I had disappeared for a long time. Friends found me in this rainy city. During the past papers I acquired knowledge of the king and the princess of the land — or those accorded the roles — the courtiers and the courtesans and the actors and the spies. A man with sores on his face and an ugly contusion all around the neck came to me and presented himself as my brother. I wanted to believe him. Together we tried to remember a mother and a father, but it was difficult: white clay covered the bodies. Birds had discovered the meagre meat. I became acquainted with Sobek, the tamer of crocodiles, who told me that one could not always be so sure of what was to be found below the clay. Feed will be feed — that was his wisdom — and some dreams have the contours and cavities of skulls. ..."

The text in All One Horse is accompanied by nearly thirty full-page reproductions of Breytenbach's watercolour colour paintings, which are bright, surreal and often startling. Though interspersed with the prose pieces, these are not direct illustrations of those but rather share some of their themes and motifs. It is not, unfortunately, possible to include an example here.

March 2012

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%T All One Horse
%A Breytenbach, Breyten
%I Archipelago Books
%D 2008 [1989]
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9780979333071
%P 115pp