Breyten Breytenbach was born in a conservative small town, Bonnievale, on the western side of Cape Town. He entered the then-unsegregated Cape Town University to study painting. The opportunity, for him, was revolutionary. For the first time, Breytenbach met Africans as equals, mixed with left-wing student groups, and delighted in his intellectual freedom and his escape from the narrowness and racism of his upbringing. He became a member of the radical African National Congress. At twenty-one, he left for Paris, completing his liberation, or revolt, from his family and race.
He married a Vietnamese woman (illegal under his country’s race acts). “It was . . . against the moral principles of the Christian Community that two human beings of different skin colour should lie together.” He had no choice but to remain in Paris, where he worked as an artist. He was prevented from returning with his wife even to accept the national prizes that were being awarded his work. A brief visit was arranged in 1972, during which his wife stayed across the border in independent and unsegregated Swaziland. This discrimination and rejection fostered his resentment. In 1975, he decided on active involvement and made plans almost as bizarre in practice as they were optimistic in intention. He returned on a forged French passport to set up a revolutionary organization for whites called Okhela, which would use sabotage and guerrilla action to overthrow the government.
Breyten Breytenbach (BRI-tehn-bahk) is one of the foremost Afrikaner critics of South Africa’s former system of apartheid and the country’s most experimental poet, essayist, and novelist. The son of Oubaas Breytenbach, a laborer, farmer, and miner, and his wife Ounooi, Breytenbach came of age in Wellington. He studied painting at Michael’s School of Art in Cape Town, and while attending the University of Cape Town he began writing experimental poetry in his native Afrikaans. In 1959 he left South Africa by freighter for Europe; after working in a factory in England and, later, as a cook on a private yacht off the southern coast of France as well as at other temporary jobs, he settled in Paris in 1961, where he continued to paint and to write poems and short stories. That same year he met and married a Vietnamese woman, Ngo Thi Hoang Lien Yolande Bubi. For the next ten years Breytenbach’s paintings appeared in European exhibitions in Paris, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Brussels, and, in the United States, in Minneapolis. His simultaneous recognition as a poet and prose writer came rapidly; he won the Afrikaans Press prize in 1964 for his poems in Die ysterkoei moet sweet (the iron cow must sweat) and for his stories in Katastrofes (catastrophes). Influenced by his polylingual access to other literatures, Breytenbach’s poetry of this period evoked the political subversion of such poets as Osip Mandelstam, François Villon, and Federico García Lorca; the rich pathos of love such as that found in Pablo Neruda and George Seferis; and the visual imagery of the fantastic such as seen in the French Symbolists, especially Arthur Rimbaud, and in the forerunners of Surrealism, notably Isidore Ducasse (also known as the Comte de Lautréamont).
Breytenbach, who was repeatedly denied a visa to return to South Africa because of his racially mixed marriage, continued to garner praise, even in his own country, for his avant-garde poetry, which mingled autobiographical revulsion at apartheid policies with reverence for the beauty of the South African landscape and its peoples. The three collections of poems Die huis van die dowe (the house of the deaf), Kouevuur (gangrene; literally, cold fire), and Lotus were all awarded the prestigious South African Central News Agency Prize when they appeared. As his international reputation began to grow through translations into Dutch and German, he published Oorblyfsels: Uit die pelgrim se verse na ’n tydelike (remnants from the pilgrim’s verses after [or toward] a temporary), Sinking Ship Blues and Met ander woorde: Vrugte van die droomvan stilte (in other words: fruits of the dreams of stillness). These works showed an increasingly fractured syntax, a propensity for neologism, and a dispassionate introspection. Tempering subdued Buddhist meditation with the deprivations of exile, Breytenbach’s wordplay bridged the gulf between his readers’ distant knowledge of political suffering and the direct, physical experience of those actually suffering. Images of imprisonment, despair, starvation, torture, and death disoriented readers by substituting mixed metaphors, wit, and humor, and abruptly juxtaposed tones in near parodies of documentary reportage. The realities of South African apartheid, he suggested, were beyond direct communication in any language.