The case of the acclaimed South African novel that ‘borrows’ from Samuel Beckett

Pereant qui ante nostra nostra dixerunt: let those perish who speak our words before us. This mild Latin curse speaks a truth that many readers and writers have felt: having our thoughts articulated by someone else.

Coenraad de Buys is unfazed by such a possibility. He is the anti-hero of Willem Anker’s award-winning 2014 Afrikaans novel, Bought. Wandering philosopher that he is, Buys reflects on the nature of memories. Their substance is flaky; their sometimes obscure origin. You might see them in dark glass or even find them outside of your own mind – in the books you read. When this happens to Buys, he feels

as if other people’s stories captured something of my own life… the outlines of a conversation, a fly on the brim of my hat, but not the words.

This reverie occurs during one of the novel’s few uneventful moments. Nothing happens; no one comes or leaves. Perhaps that’s why the text opens with four pages of almost undiluted dialogue from the 1952 play by famed Irish author Samuel Beckett. Waiting for Godot. Of course, it’s one thing for a character to be cavalier with other people’s words, and quite another for a writer.


NB Publishers

According to my analysis, at least 78 lines of Beckett’s play are reproduced in Bought without significant alteration – a fact which, if noticed, has not been noted to my knowledge.

The Afrikaans text bears no acknowledgment of Waiting for Godot, nor does it acknowledge Beckett’s influence. The English translation, Red Dog (2019), also does not credit the piece, although Beckett is mentioned along with American writer Cormac McCarthy as an author whose “remains” might be recognized.

The McCarthy Affair

Shortly after the publication of the English text, a critic of the Times Literary Supplement and The Guardian noted close matches to McCarthy’s epic novel blood meridian.

The examiner disputed Red Dog“the clumsy act of mimicry” and wondered if McCarthy was getting enough recognition. He writes that Anker walks a fine line between appropriation and plagiarism.

This drew a defense from the book’s translator, Michiel Heyns. Anker himself explained that these matches belong to the book’s “playful rewrites and quotes (which, when noticed, would enrich…wider conversations.”

Between Beckett

I said earlier that Bought opens on Waiting for Godot. More precise formulation: he yields the floor, gives himself to Beckett without attributing the merit to him.

For scale and seriousness, consider that the amount of appropriate material exceeds the nearly 60 uncredited “borrowings” recently identified in Australian author John Hughes’ novel, which was removed from the prize, Dogs. It also goes beyond what Faber and Faber, Beckett’s publisher, consider “fair use.”

Beyond the question of copyright, the durable nature of the reproduction of Godot perhaps offers its own curious form of attenuation. Surely Anker wants us to resume this bulk transfer? And isn’t it a universally recognized truth that a writer in possession of individual talent can sometimes lack a riff?

In defense of Anker?

That was more or less the position of American-born poet TS Eliot, himself used to accusations of unscrupulous kidnappings. But Eliot got away with practicing what he preached:

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets disfigure what they take, and good poets turn it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his flight into a whole of unique sentiment, quite different from that from which he was torn.

Now, one could mount an unorthodox defense and claim that Anker is a bad writer. You could say it just failed to pressure cook its source into something rich and weird. Embarrassing, to be sure, but advocacy would at least reduce accusations of ethical to aesthetic wickedness.

A book cover with a graphic of a wild dog and large red letters behind the inscription 'Red Dog'

NB Publishers

The problem is that Anker is not a bad writer, quite the contrary. This is confirmed by the awards Bought won: among them the UJ Prize (2015), the Hertzog Prize (2016), the K. Sello Duiker Memorial Award (2016) and, of course, Red Doglong list for the Man-Booker International in 2020.

Add to that the voice of Anker’s translator, Heyns, who cites the author’s “incredible linguistic dexterity” as a charm against the temptations of literary theft:

Anker is more than capable of writing his own novel.

One can then ask: why does Anker not do it from start to finish? Why copy Beckett so closely and for so long?

Compare texts

What about allusive correctness? After all, the “borrowings” occur at a time when Buys and another character are waiting for a farmer who never shows up. This lull makes them aware of their existential distress and of the received idea which blunts a critical faculty. The problem, however, is that these ideas only arise because of GodotHer presence. They are themselves received wisdom blunting Anker’s creative faculty:

Graphic comparing Godot and Buys with the words Waiting for Godot Vladimir: how come of the four evangelists only one speaks of a thief being saved.  And only one speaks of a saved thief.  Why believe him rather than others?  Buy Ek dink ma

Rick de VillersCC PER

Thanks

Late to the party, I had started reading the novel towards the end of May 2022, unaware of previous accusations. Halfway – before I notice the Godot torn out – I leafed through the last pages. Here I met the “Thanks”:

As for other quotes, references and rewrites: Omni-Buys has seen it all, read every word. He eats while reading. As he plunders mission stations and cattle kraals, he plunders the texts of others far and wide in order to tell his own story. If you then come across his account of the remains of other authors, consider it a villain’s homage.

(I reproduce Heyns’ translation but without mentioning Beckett and McCarthy, since these do not appear in the Afrikaans version.) I took this as an ingenious defense of creative logic that lets the protagonist slip his temporal boundaries and wander transhistorically.

But after meeting the Godot pages, it became clear that this insert was a get-out-of-jail card, an author’s self-forgiveness. Anker does not speak for Buys; he speaks in his name.

What to do with it?

It seems to me that there are three ways to answer. The honest reader will say, of course, while the Afrikaans text does not quote Beckett, the oversight is corrected in the English translation.

They might add: novelists are hardly expected to declare the influences and sources that go into the making of their work. Isn’t the intertextual game the beating heart of the modernist tradition to which Bought pay homage? Half the pleasure of reading a literary work is that it engages our participation.

Also consider how Anker takes Godot‘s Bible and transforms it to match the wilderness of late 1700s/1800s South Africa, as well as Buys’ wild psyche:

Graphic comparing two texts with the words: Waiting for Godot Vladimir: Do you remember the Gospels?  Estragon: I remember the maps of the Holy Land.  They were colorful.  Very beautiful.  The Dead Sea was pale blue Buys As jy wil klets oor die Bybel, eerder dan

Rick de VillersCC PER

A skeptical reader must agree that this is a fine transposition. But this isolated example shows exactly how much other sentences have changed.

Forget the not inconsiderable fact of missing recognition in Buys. Set aside the puzzling fact that an uncopyrighted addendum gets full bibliographic treatment (a quote from German physician and explorer Hinrich Lichtenstein) while Godot doesn’t. Also, disregard the gloomy outlook the Beckett estate is likely to take. You’re still faced with Buys’ baffling disavowal:

It’s as if other people’s stories capture something of my own life…the outlines of a conversation, a fly on the brim of my hat, but not the words.

Given Beckett’s shameless translation that soon follows, “but not the words” reads either as a deletion or as a provocation. Although in a different language, it is Beckett’s exact words that manifest on the page.

The third position is that of the “ruimhartige” reader. This word appears in Buys. It is much more expressively generous than its English counterpart, magnanimity (generosity). Be ruimhartig it is to be open to complexity – as a principle of compassion but also of intellectual open-mindedness.

Such a reader will respond to the argument in good faith by following it to its logical conclusion: if Anker declares its debt and wants us to see the presence of Godot, this is done at the cost of its own success. For who, following Beckett almost verbatim, would not pale in comparison? Tribute to the master means damage to the pupil.

Unless, of course, the tribute remains unfinished. Trading on the beauty of the Tarragon and Vladimir trades, tapping into Becketti’s well of despair, and earning redemption through global recognition, Anker has his cake and eats it too.

A ruimhartige vue must also admit the possibility that Anker was seduced by its very alluring creation. Buys declares himself to be a wanderer, a looter. He acts with impunity not only in the world of the novel but throughout time.

Having written a conceptual ‘grensroman’ (a novel about borders), Anker was charmed by the idea that borders don’t exist. He spoke the fathering curse without considering that the already said could come back to haunt him.

Disclosure: While writing this article, the author was contacted by Buys’ publisher, NB Publishers, who asked him to submit a report detailing his analysis. That’s what he did as an independent consultant.

Irene B. Bowles