Who is Breyten Breytenbach?

Breyten Breytenbach

Widely recognized as South Africa’s finest Afrikaner poet, Breyten Breytenbach (born 1939) wrote poems characterized by lush, evocative visuals; command-ing use of metaphor; and interwoven elements such as Buddhist references, memories of South African landscapes, and Afrikaans idiomatic speech.

Staunch Opponent of Apartheid

Breytenbach was born into an eminent family of hum-ble means on September 16, 1939, in Bonnievale, South Africa. His ancestors were among 17thcentury South Africa’s first white settlers who called them-selves Afrikaners. The year after his birth, the Breytenbachs moved to the small town of Wellington. After graduation from high school, he developed an interest in poetry and art and enrolled in the English-language University of Cape Town’s fine arts program.Wishing to escape the increasingly repressive environ-ment of apartheid, he withdrew from school at age 20 and left for Europe, where he held various jobs. In 1961 he moved to Paris and began painting, writing, and teaching English. Among his first African friends there were members of the banned African National Congress anti-apartheid group who were living in exile. In 1962 he married a French woman of Vietnamese descent, Yolande Ngo Thi Hoang Lien.Breytenbach published his first book of poems Die Ysterkoei Moet Sweet (The Iron Cow Must Sweat) in 1964, the same year he published his first volume of prose, Katastrofes (Catastrophes), and had his first art exhibition, at the Galerie Espace in Amsterdam.

He followed up by pub-lishing Die Huis van die Dowe (House of the Deaf, 1967) and Kouevuur (Gangrene) in 1969. In 1970 he published Lotus under the pseudonym Jan Blom.Breytenbach wanted to go back to South Africa to accept poetry awards he had won in 1967 and 1969, but the government refused his wife an entry visa as a ‘‘non-white’’ and Breytenbach faced arrest for violating the Immorality Act, apartheid legislation that made interracial marriage a crime. His poetry collection Met Ander Woorde was pub-lished in 1973, and the Breytenbachs were both able to obtain three-month visitor’s visas to return to South Africa.After 12 years of exile, his return to South Africa elicited tender childhood memories and bolstered his fury over the injustice and violence of the apartheid system. His strenu-ous public criticism of the Afrikaner nationalist government so annoyed authorities that at the end of his stay officials told Breytenbach not to return to South Africa. The poet’s feelings about his homecoming were published in a 1976 book mixing poetry and prose that came out in a censored version in South Africa called ’N Seisoen in die Paradys. A later English translation, A Season in Paradise, appeared in 1980.

Held as Political Prisoner

Once he returned to Paris, Breytenbach quickly re-newed links with anti-apartheid groups. With other exiled white South Africans he founded his own anti-apartheid organization, Okhela (Zulu for ‘‘ignite the flame’’) and wrote its platform. They devised a plan for Breytenbach to travel to South Africa in disguise and contact some black spokespeople and sympathetic whites to funnel money from European religious organizations to South African black trade unionists.In 1975 a French anti-apartheid group provided a forged French passport to Breytenbach, who flew to Johan-nesburg under another name. The French organization had apparently been breached, however, and Breytenbach was under the surveillance of South African security police from the moment he acquired his visa. He was followed, his contacts were noted, and he was arrested and charged under the Terrorist Act. Breytonbach was sentenced to nine years in prison. The court considered anti-apartheid trade union campaigns to be a threat to state security.

A few months later, Breytenbach began a period of solitary confinement in the maximum security section of Pretoria’s prison. In June 1977 he was again accused of terrorism, tried a second time, and acquitted of all charges other than smuggling letters from prison, for which he paid a fine equivalent to 50 dollars. Breytenbach was transported to Pollsmoor Prison, where he was held as a political pris-oner for five years.The French government exerted diplomatic pressure on South Africa and increased its efforts once France’s socialist government came to power under Francois Mitterand. In late 1982, Pretoria finally acquiesced and commuted the poet’s sentence to seven years, stipulating only that he leave the country. He was permitted a short visit with his father, then he and his wife flew back to Paris. Breytenbach be-came a French citizen in 1983 and alternated living in Paris and Gore´e, Senegal.

During his imprisonment, Breytenbach wrote a semi-fictional account of his mental state as a prisoner Mouroir: Bespieelende notas van ‘n roman (Mouroir: Mirror-notes of a Novel). The book is a group of loosely connected stories presented in a surreal, imagistic style. While critics widely praised the book, they also noted the complex fragmenta-tion and obscurity that made it difficult to digest, though in general the challenging work was considered beautifully written and unforgettable.Once freed from prison, Breytenbach wrote a more direct account of his incarceration, The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (1986). In his best-known work, the author describes being ensnared by his captors and sub-jected to years of psychological and physical deprivation and gives his vision of South Africa’s future prospects. This disturbing book, with its detailed depiction of a horrifying penal system, was critically acclaimed as an important con-tribution to South African prison literature, as well as a work of great artistry.

Completed Four-Volume Memoir

Breytenbach, who maintained that his experiences in prison forever scarred him, returned to South Africa in 1986 to accept the Rapport Prize for Literature from Rapport, an Afrikaans newspaper, for his volume of poetry YK (1985). He returned again in 1991, a journey chronicled in the 1993 memoir Return to Paradise. In it he describes the national turmoil during the transitional period following the fall of the white-controlled government of F.W. De Klerk. The work met with mixed reviews, praised for its narrative, rhythm, and passion, but criticized as unoriginal in its anal-ysis and uninspired in its reporting.In 1992, Breytenbach co-founded a cultural center in Senegal, the Gore´e institute. He co-founded the University of Natal’s Center for Creative Arts in 1995. In 1996, a collection of Breytenbach’s talks on South Africa, apartheid, and writing was published as The Memory of Birds in Times of Revolution. Criticism was again varied. Some felt it was outdated, lacking in insight, cliche´d and didactic; others called it another important contribution to his body of work and commented on its admirable sentiments. The 1989 novel Memory of Snow and Dust portrayed a semiautobiographical account of Breytenbach’s arrest to illuminate his personal struggle between spiritual hunger and his need to be politically useful.

In Dog Heart: A Memoir (1999), Breytenbach told about a post-apartheid visit to Bonnieville, his hometown, and his attempts to reconcile his childhood memories with the reality of South African life after apartheid. He did this with a fractured narrative that incorporated snippets of his own personal history, ruminations on the nation’s history, pieces of folk tales, and lists of past and present atrocities artfully woven together and beautifully written. In 2000, Breytenbach published Lady One: Of Love and Other Po-ems, a collection of poems for his wife that includes images of east Asia, southern Africa, and Morocco. The combina-tion of the personal and the global in the poems reflects a marriage that, because it was considered taboo under South African apartheid laws, led to the poet’s original exile. A dramatic piece, The Play, premiered in his homeland in the spring of 2001.

In addition to writing, Breytenbach was an award-winning painter. Many of his paintings depict surreal hu-mans and animals, often in captivity. He first exhibited his visual art in 1962 in Edinburgh and exhibited in 34 solo shows and several group exhibitions in numerous countries, including Belgium, France, Sweden, Germany, the Nether-lands, Hong Kong, Scotland, and South Africa. He received honorary doctorates from the University of Cape Town and the University of Natal, Durban. He taught as a visiting professor at both institutions, as well as at Princeton Univer-sity in New Jersey. He became a global distinguished pro-fessor of creative writing at New York University.Despite the deprivation he suffered from his willing-ness to speak out against injustice, Breytenbach continued to voice his outrage at matters that stirred his indignation. In 2002, he was one of a number of prominent social, cultural, and political leaders, including Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, who chastised the Israeli government for its occupation of Palestine, calling it disturbingly similar to apartheid South Africa.


Contemporary Authors, Vol. 61, Gale, 1976.


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