The JRB presents an excerpt from The Dao of Daniel by Lodewyk G du Plessis, translated from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns.
The Dao of Daniel
Lodewyk G du Plessis (trans. Michiel Heyns)
金鸡独立 Jīn Jī Dú Lì
The golden cock stands on one leg
For months I have thirsted after the delight of a young body in my lap. On chilly autumn nights, the first frost crusting on the cut lucerne, I craved, like King David, a virginal Abishag, the Shunammite, to cosset my loins.
‘Carnal intercourse is like koeksisters and milk tart at four o’clock on a Sunday afternoon on the front stoep of Ystervarkfontein,’ I told you, that evening as I was lighting the opsitkers, the candle that in my youth attended my courting activities. You had a hay fever attack. ‘But,’ I added when your sneezing fit had subsided, ‘you must never fret about the fiddling and groping between the sheets, nor try to understand it. There’s nothing unsavoury about the huffing and puffing and panting. Naturalia non sunt turpia. Ovid’s words: What is natural is not shameful. A cock under the hens, that man. An exile …’ I fondled your pliable ears between my fingers. ‘Brood on everything that you were still hoping to get up to in bed, and a cockroach will crawl from the seam. A deed for doing, the sex deed, while you can still do it. Before the moon has smiled twice at its own reflection in your water bowl, Kaspaas, the fleeting years have knocked your hipbone from its socket and you’re lying at the bottom of the well, a shattered urn.’ You licked my hand and wagged your tail.
You, my faithful dog, were still alive when we had that conversation. We were living at Ystervarkfontein, the Fount of Porcupines. Now you are lying under the ground at the foot of my pre-plastered grave on the farm and I’m sitting in a monk’s cell on a crippled stool by a ramshackle table in a heathen land penning my history.
I lift my head from the writing pad. In front of me, in the Temple of Eternal Peace, three Buddha effigies glitter in the flickering light of pink lotus candles. Yes, Kaspaas, Daan van der Walt, your lord and master, has been tarrying for a week in the land of the phoenix and the dragon. The lusts of my flesh have been quenched. All that keeps me standing is the thought of good old-fashioned farm fare and approaching death. The bedding on my cot is no longer tumbled and no longer reeks of erotic night sweats. Here I sleep on a pallet without sheets. A hard, bare plank. In the morning I eat a bowl of rice and spinach and dream of a plate of mealiemeal porridge with crackling and buttermilk on the scrubbed pine table in the kitchen in front of the old coal stove. With body and soul I long, here in China, for a lashing of lard and Lyle’s golden syrup on a slice of fresh crusty bread from the outdoor oven next to the abandoned antheap. With a little bowl of spinach in one hand and a pair of chopsticks in the other, I crave a glass of red wine from the Swartland, the land of black scrub. But let me rather record what happened this morning.
Two bronze lions are glaring at me. Incense is stinging my eyes. I am standing amidst a loose assemblage of men in long dresses, trying to balance, like them, on one leg.
‘Ai ya! Nī bù …’ I hear his voice. With his outlines soft as a souskluitjie I see him through a haze of incense: my tai ji quan master. Yang Ying Sheng is his name, this man who is trying to induct me in the secrets of Chinese martial arts, who is trying to teach me in front of the Temple of Eternal Peace to balance on one leg. Yang Ying Sheng, whom I address reverently as Yang, lao shi, Master Yang.
‘Ai ya! Nī bù zhuān xīn. You’re not concentrating, Da Ni Eu. What are you thinking?’
How, my dear departed dog, could I tell my master that after my Fall I dreamt of sex for months? The act, not the filthy four-letter word. How could I tell him that at night in my incense-fume-filled monk’s cell I fancy I smell braaivleis when I’m agonising over my sin-besmirched past and the hereafter? The hereafter, yes, Kaspaas. Man is on a journey, death but an interval, an interjection on the voyage to eternity. A man must have direction, and a destination, otherwise he’ll lose his way.
My destination is heaven. In what incarnation I shall arise from the grave, that gives me pause. I don’t want to wander the streets of the New Jerusalem tripping over my own shadow. I’m not vain, but after passing through the heavenly portals heralded by the sound of trumpets I don’t want to be plagued with rheumatism, heartburn or constipation. Nor do I want wings on my back and a harp in my hand; a Boer doesn’t flutter around a cloud of lightning bolts and thundercracks like a moth around a rotten apple. Mindful of the mistake made by Eos—known to the Romans as Aurora—about Tithonus, the beautiful youth who had stolen her heart, in beseeching Jupiter to bestow eternal life upon him but forgetting to ask also for eternal youth, I desire, when in heaven, the lithe body of a young man. Sturdy legs. Feet firm of tread. Muscles in the right place. Fully functional parts.
Master Yang looks at me, shaking his head, grey like mine. He is a Daoist, my son tells me. A Daoist, a retired medical doctor and an expert in the martial arts. He is full of strange sayings, this Chinese man, and as opaque as the eyes in a roasted sheep’s head. He lives in a cave at the summit of this holy mountain, at the foot of which I and ten or so monks are now practising tai ji. In the West this business is also known as tai chi.
A week ago, a day after my arrival in China, my son told me what he’d got up to this time. His news upset me so much that I suffered an attack of vertigo. My balance gone for a loop, I collapsed like an ox hamstrung by the Mau Mau. It was he, Jan-Willem, my firstborn, who came and dumped me at this cloistered Buddha business. Master Yang stuck a lot of needles into my body and scorched my naked flesh with a cigar. When I resisted, he and my son decreed that tai ji would calm me down and restore my equilibrium.
The Apostle Paul cautioned that we may be in the world, but not of the world. Where, Kaspaas, was I this morning before sitting down to write at this ramshackle table? Where? I ask you. Amidst idolators, practising devilry.
Around me these baldpates are balancing on one leg, arms extended like the wet wings of cormorants on a floating log. They are dressed in saffron robes, these monks, one shoulder bared. Little black hairs peep out at me from their armpits: not curly crinklies like ours. Theirs are only slightly frizzed, almost straight. A flea-track down the centre parts the fine tendrils in their oxters like Dominee’s Brylcreemed hair when we were first-years at university.
Master Yang recalls my errant thoughts to the present: ‘Concentrate your qì on your dāntián, Da Ni Eu.’
- Lodewyk G du Plessis is the pseudonym of Andries Buys (1938–). After he retired as a judge, he wrote Die Dao van Daan van der Walt which was awarded the UJ Debut Prize, the Eugène Marais Prize, the WA Hofmeyr Prize, the AKTV Prose Prize, the kykNET Rapport Prize for Fiction, as well as the Helgaard-Steyn Prize.
The Dao of Daniel by Lodewyk G du Plessis, an exhilarating debut novel that achieved phenomenal critical and commercial success in Afrikaans, is now available in English. Translated by the lauded Michiel Heyns, this moving and humorous narrative explores the process of a man coming to terms with himself, and his life.
Die Dao van Daan van der Walt, as it is published in Afrikaans, won a total of six prestigious literary awards in the year after its release. This is an extraordinary feat for any author, but especially one who debuted at eighty. This is a testament to his exceptional writing skill as well as the strength of this particular story.
The Dao of Daniel is a unique and incomparable debut novel. It will make you laugh, and it will make you weep. But most of all, it will make you look at the world and your place in it with different eyes.
Forced to abandon his farm in the Kalahari by a violent crime, hard-headed and blunt-talking 69-year old widower Daniel van der Walt is persuaded by a new friend, a Chinese woman who had survived the Cultural Revolution, to travel to China to see his estranged son. But shortly after he arrives Daniel suffers a vertigo attack and is put into a monastery by his son to recuperate. Under the guidance of Master Yang, Daniel has to learn Tai Chi in an attempt to recover his balance.
For the religious and conservative Daniel, China—its history, its language, its beliefs—challenges everything he has ever held dear. And there is also something else buried deep inside him that he has to set free, something unspoken which has haunted his marriage. He starts writing letters to his late wife Magrieta to tell her that he did really love her. And in his conversations with his beloved dead dog Kaspaas, he re-examines, through the prisms of history and classical mythology, his marriage and the choices he had made in his life. In doing so Daniel starts his journey on the Dao, the Way of Life, and he begins to question the old beliefs that he holds, and that hold sway over him.
There is no other character like Daniel van der Walt; and there is no other novel like The Dao of Daniel.