Breytenbach, Breyten (Vol. 126)
Breyten Breytenbach 1939–
South African poet, novelist, memoirist, nonfiction writer, and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Breytenbach's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 23 and 37.
Breytenbach is widely regarded as one of the foremost contemporary South African writers, particularly for his poetry, which is written in the traditional white South African language, Afrikaans. As an exile and former political prisoner, Breytenbach conveys in his works his dichotomous role as both a white—and therefore privileged—South African and an outspoken opponent to his country's official policy of apartheid, the system of severe racial segregation, in place until the early 1990s.
Breytenbach was born in Bonnievale, South Africa, a descendant of the earliest Dutch settlers there who called themselves "Afrikaners." He attended the University of Cape Town until 1959, when he left South Africa and settled in Paris to work as an artist. In Paris he met and married Yolande Ngo Thi Hoang Lien, a fellow artist of Vietnamese descent. Because of South Africa's strict policy at the time against interracial marriage, the couple were not allowed to enter South Africa until 1972, when they were granted special three-month visas. Breytenbach wrote of his contradictory feelings about this return to his homeland in A Season in Paradise (1976). In 1975 Breytenbach returned once more to South Africa, on a clandestine mission for the black resistance movement to help organize labor unions. Entering the country under an assumed name, Breytenbach was betrayed by a source in Europe who knew of his true identity. He was quickly arrested and tried for conspiracy and terrorism. Breytenbach is sometimes criticized for his courtroom confession and apology; nevertheless, he served seven years of his nine-year sentence, two of them in solitary confinement. While in prison, Breytenbach gained permission to write, although not to paint. At the end of each day, his writing was collected, examined by authorities, and kept until his release. The work that resulted was Mouroir: Mirrornotes of a Novel (1984), a simultaneously surreal and hyper-realistic collection of fragments, impressions, and stories about his experiences in prison, particularly his time in solitary confinement. Since his release from prison, Breytenbach has maintained his critical stance on events in South Africa, even since the abolishment of the apartheid system.
Breytenbach's turbulent and contradictory relationship to his homeland directly informs his work. The poems in Sinking Ship Blues (1977), And Death as White as Words (1978), In Africa Even the Flies are Happy: Selected Poems, 1964–1977 (1978), and Lewendood (1985) are unconventionally structured. Composed of sentence fragments, isolated images, and dreamlike sequences, they convey brief, intense moments rather than linear narratives. Strongly influenced by the early Surrealists, Breytenbach juxtaposes life and death, growth and destruction, and joy and sorrow, reflecting his own mixed feelings toward South Africa. The isolation and degradation Breytenbach suffered in prison intensified his ideological opposition to the government and gave rise to two works: Mouroir: Mirrornotes of a Novel and The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (1985). The latter is a vivid examination of the South African penal system and Breytenbach's experiences as a political prisoner. Breytenbach chronicled his brief 1972 return to South Africa in A Season in Paradise, an ironically titled account of his personal reactions to both the beauty of the African landscape and the horror of apartheid. In 1986 Breytenbach published End Papers: Essays, Letters, Articles of Faith, Workbook Notes, a collection of pieces further iterating his political and personal beliefs regarding social injustice. Memory of Snow and of Dust (1989) is a novel telling the story of two lovers separated by the man's imprisonment in South Africa; as in earlier writings, Breytenbach used experimental nonlinear narrative. Return to Paradise (1993) is considered the third installment (along with A Season in Paradise and The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist) in Breytenbach's triptych of works in which he deals autobiographically with South African social and political issues. It is composed of reminiscences, meditations, prose poems, and fragmented observations inspired by another trip he made to his homeland with his wife in 1991. Memory of Birds in Times of Revolution (1996) is a collection of essays on Breytenbach's reaction to events in post-apartheid South Africa.
While Breytenbach is considered South Africa's premier poet to write in Afrikaans, he is not without detractors. His courtroom apologies were widely censured as backtracking, and in fact, the 1975 incognito mission for which he was arrested is sometimes interpreted as having been careless and perhaps arrogant. Some critics have found the publication of End Papers in particular as evidence of egotism and self-importance. Additionally, he has at times been accused of exhibiting sexual chauvinism in his work. Nonetheless, Breytenbach's passionate commitment to abolishing apartheid and his continued outspokenness regarding injustice, as well as his lyrical evocation of his beloved African landscape, generally outweigh such criticism.
Die ysterkoei moet sweet (poetry) 1964
A Season in Paradise (nonfiction) 1976
Sinking Ship Blues (poetry) 1977
And Death as White as Words (poetry) 1978
In Africa Even the Flies are Happy: Selected Poems, 1964–1977 (poetry) 1978
Mouroir: Mirrornotes of a Novel (fiction) 1984
Lewendood (poetry) 1985
The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (nonfiction) 1985
End Papers: Essays, Letters, Articles of Faith, Workbook Notes (nonfiction) 1986
Memory of Snow and of Dust (novel) 1989
All One Horse: Fictions and Images (short stories and paintings) 1990
Soos die so (poetry) 1990
Hart-Lam (speeches) 1991
Return to Paradise (nonfiction) 1993
Memory of Birds in Times of Revolution (nonfiction) 1996
(The entire section is 92 words.)
Show us the love and view this for free! Use the facebook like button, or any other share button on this page, and get this content free!free!
SOURCE: "Rimbaud's Nephews," in Parnassus, Vol. 11, No. 2, Fall-Winter 1983–84, pp. 83-102.
[In the following review of In Africa Even the Flies Are Happy: Selected Poems 1964–1977, Des Pres surveys Breytenbach's works and attempts to assess his importance and success as a political poet.]
Breyten Breytenbach is not yet a fixed star in rhyme's firmament, but seven years in South African prisons have done wonders for his reputation and a movement championing his life and work is underway. Breytenbach's friends, André Brink among them, have celebrated his cause since the time of his arrest in 1975. An international plea for his release was taken up by PEN, and more recently (May 1, 1983) the New York Times Book Review gave over space usually reserved for established heroes and printed an interview-portrait from which Breytenbach emerges like Orpheus back from hell. His work, likewise, is increasingly available in English translation. A Season in Paradise, Breytenbach's visionary prose work, made its mildly explosive appearance in America in 1980, and a significant portion of his poetry has been translated from Afrikaans, three volumes so far, one of which may now be got, via London, in the States.
This looks like the rise of yet another poet from elsewhere—not, that is, American—whose art is valued for political reasons. Breytenbach has suffered for his stand...
(The entire section is 6649 words.)
Show us the love and view this for free! Use the facebook like button, or any other share button on this page, and get this content free!free!
SOURCE: "Betrayal," in Commentary, Vol. 80, No. 4, October 1985, pp. 71-74.
[In the following review, Schwartz examines revelations made in Breytenbach's The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist and reflects on his own involvement in the political movement to support Breytenbach.]
Breyten Breytenbach, considered the best modern poet in the Afrikaans language, first received substantial publicity in the English-speaking world in 1977. At that time, he had been imprisoned in his native South Africa for some two years. A further legal proceeding, based on charges of terrorist activity while in prison, brought him to the attention of the liberal and Left communities of Britain and the U.S. In 1982, thanks to efforts by French president François Mitterrand, Breytenbach was released. The True Confessions is a semi-poetic account of his trials and imprisonment. It has been widely reviewed here, with Joseph Lelyveld, in the New York Times Book Review, typically comparing Breytenbach's martyrdom with that of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, who was imprisoned and eventually consigned to an anonymous death in the Siberian labor camps for writing a poem attacking Stalin. The South African poet has even made it onto the American talk-show circuit.
Let us begin with Breytenbach himself, his origins and his literary work. Breyten Breytenbach was born in 1937 in the heart of...
(The entire section is 2014 words.)
Show us the love and view this for free! Use the facebook like button, or any other share button on this page, and get this content free!free!
SOURCE: "Breyten Breytenbach's Prison Literature," in The Centennial Review, Vol. 30, No. 2, Spring 1986, pp. 304-13.
[In the following essay, Roberts discusses Mouroir and The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, both of which Breytenbach wrote during his prison term in South Africa.]
It has been said that each of us can remain mentally faithful to only one landscape, usually that of our childhood and youth. This fidelity is strongly evident in writers-in-exile, many of whom seem compelled to recreate endlessly the lost loved land—however hostile their feelings might be to the regimes of their native countries. We think immediately of Joyce, Solsenitzyn, or Milan Kundera, and of South Africans like Dan Jacobson and Breyten Breytenbach.
Breytenbach has experienced several kinds or degrees of exile. He left South Africa voluntarily in 1961 and established himself in Paris as a painter and poet with his Vietnamese-born wife Yolande. Under the racial classification then in force in South Africa, Yolande was not regarded as white and Breytenbach's marriage to her was therefore considered illegal. However, they were allowed visas to enter South Africa in 1973 to attend a writers' conference. For the duration of their stay they were dogged by reporters and cameramen, treated partly like prodigal children but mostly like celebrities. In my opinion the experience was...
(The entire section is 3181 words.)
SOURCE: Review of Lewendood, in World Literature Today, Vol. 60, No. 3, Summer 1986, p. 511.
[In the following review, Toerien calls Breytenbach's Lewendood both "rich and generous" in its poetic intentions.]
Breytenbach's fourth published volume of poems written while he was held in South African prisons bears the cryptic title [Lewendood] Life and Death, which can also be read as "Living Death." It is the first part of the overall prison series The Undanced Dance and consists of poems written shortly after his incarceration and while in solitary confinement in the Pretoria jail. Surprisingly, the poems are in no way sad or despondent; on the contrary, they pulsate with vitality and an inner joy. There is a dispassionate look at his condition, a Dantesque descent into lower circles as he makes poems of graffiti found on the prison walls, of prison routines, the warders' activities, the rare sight of the moon, and so on. The writing of poetry is a way of keeping sane, and quite a few poems deal with the art of writing poetry. The man is so full of ideas and insights and "visions" that they spill wastefully out and over the bounds of his verse at times.
In a few longer poems Breytenbach converses with his alter ego, "Don Espejuelo." These are more prosy letters in which he is able to talk forthrightly about his situation and the world in general. The most...
(The entire section is 486 words.)
SOURCE: Review of End Papers, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 17, 1986, pp. 1, 9.
[In the following review, Crapanzano finds End Papers disturbing and somewhat indulgent of Breytenbach's rage against South African apartheid but otherwise worthy of praise.]
Breyten Breytenbach is a South African poet, painter and political activist. An Afrikaner by birth (though he refuses to be identified with the Afrikaners because of the political implications of such an identification). Breytenbach committed, in his people's eyes, the unpardonable crime. He sought to overthrow, violently if necessary, the South African government and the monstrous edifice of apartheid it had constructed. Breytenbach was arrested, tried, and imprisoned for seven years—two in solitary confinement—before he was released in 1982. (He has described these years of imprisonment in two books, Mouroir and The Confessions of an Albino Terrorist.) The miscellaneous writings collected in End Papers were written before and after his imprisonment. They address dissidence, exile, imprisonment, the responsibility of the writer, political commitment, the artifice of culture, and above all South Africa and its apartheid. Although some essays are about travel (Palermo, Los Angeles and Berlin), and others about writers (Jorge Luis Borges) and cultural events (Pina Bausch's Wuppertal Tanztheater),...
(The entire section is 936 words.)
SOURCE: "Learning to Walk by Walking," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4355, September 19, 1986, p. 1028.
[In the following review, Campbell praises Mouroir and The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist but finds End Papers somewhat self-satisfied and unworthy of publication.]
Seven years' imprisonment in South African gaols split the Afrikaner writer Breyten Breytenbach into three. He first avenged himself on his captors with the almost impenetrable prose of Mouroir: Mirrornotes of a Novel, the basis of which he wrote in confinement. This was followed by the pained lucidity of The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, composed immediately after his release. And now comes End Papers, a collection of speeches, letters, pseudo-interviews, poems and other bits and pieces, full of good intentions but also well stocked with banality and platitude, dating from immediately before and after his period of incarceration.
As is now well known. Breytenbach was arrested at Jan Smuts Airport in 1975 while attempting to leave South Africa to return to France, where he had lived since 1961. Under a false name, he entered the country on an underground mission on behalf of the ANC-affiliated group, Okhela, to which he belonged. He was tried and sentenced to nine years' imprisonment, of which he served seven, much of it in solitary confinement. Once...
(The entire section is 1376 words.)
SOURCE: "Conspicuous Exile," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. XCI, No. 48, November 30, 1986, p. 21.
[In the following review, Robbins finds End Papers interesting from the point of view of literary and political history but less compelling than Breytenbach's earlier works.]
In 1975, after more than a decade of exile in Paris, the "whitish" (his term) Afrikaans-speaking poet and painter Breyten Breytenbach returned to South Africa incognito in order to help organize white resistance to apartheid. Arrested and convicted, he spent seven years in prison, two of them in solitary confinement. It is probably thanks to this involuntary sojourn—a story told with freshness and modesty in The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (1985)—that we now have End Papers, a collection of 50-odd addresses, analyses, poetico-political fragments and essays by Mr. Breytenbach, together with extensive notes on their occasions.
International publicity helped get the author out of prison, and since his release and return to France in December 1982 he has stayed in the spotlight. For obvious reasons, he has been a fixture at PEN, Unesco and anti-apartheid conferences around the world, where on the evidence of this book he has acquitted himself stylishly, and with more political acumen that one might have predicted from his verse.
Even the most legitimate outrage...
(The entire section is 766 words.)
SOURCE: Review of End Papers, in World Literature Today, Vol. 61, No. 3, Summer 1987, pp. 482-83.
[In the following review, Kratz offers high praise for End Papers.]
Breyten Breytenbach spent seven years (1975–82) in a South African prison, two of them in solitary confinement, for "treason" because of his outspoken criticism of the apartheid government. He is best known here for his account of this incarceration, The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (1984), but in South Africa he is regarded as one of their foremost poets (he writes his verse in Afrikaans) and even won the prestigious Hertzog Prize in 1984, although he felt compelled to refuse it. On top of that, he is a painter of some distinction (in fact, the dust jacket of End Papers bears his own illustration). Breytenbach resides in Paris, having become a naturalized French citizen.
End Papers consists of miscellaneous "essays, letters, articles of faith, workbook notes," and even some poetry, written at various times between 1968 and 1985. The materials are presented in chronological order following a preface called "Pretext" and fall naturally into two groups: those written before his incarceration ("Blind Bird") and those written afterward ("Burnt Bird"), with an appendix giving background and supplementary information on the individual items. Many of the articles were written originally in...
(The entire section is 547 words.)
SOURCE: "A Poet's Obsession with Apartheid," in New York Times Book Review, November 4, 1989, p. 15.
[In the following review, Mitgang finds universal relevance in the themes relating to injustice in Memory of Snow and of Dust.]
In Memory of Snow and of Dust, a follow-up to his searing memoir of his seven years in a South African prison on a trumped-up charge of terrorism, The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, Breyten Breytenbach continues his campaign of conscience against apartheid. This time Mr. Breytenbach puts a novelistic stamp on his work. Using the freedom made possible by fiction, the self-exiled Afrikaner poet, painter and translator reaches still deeper into his past, recalling aspects of his torture, trial and imprisonment. And he reminds the reader that apartness can be a fact of life even in Paris, that city of light and enlightenment where he now makes his home.
In Memory of Snow and of Dust, Mr. Breytenbach writes in a meditative manner that eventually builds to reveal the raw reality of apartheid. The author uses a variety of weapons—poetry, drama, biography, philosophical dialogue, fragments of plays and films, letters and vignettes and midnight recollections. Sections of the novel are set in the future, enabling him to develop symbols and to project hopes onto unborn generations.
Mr. Breytenbach assumes that we know a...
(The entire section is 845 words.)
SOURCE: "Breytenbach and the Censor," in Raritan, Vol. X. No. 4, Spring 1991, pp. 58-84.
[In the following essay, Coetzee examines Breytenbach's notions of self and other in his writings during and after his prison sentence.]
One of the major poems in Breyten Breytenbach's collection Skryt is entitled "Brief uit die vreemde aan slagter" ("Letter from Foreign Parts to Butcher"), subtitled "for Balthazar." Skryt did not appear in South Africa. First published in the Netherlands in 1972, it was banned for distribution in South Africa by the Publications Control Board. In banning it, the responsible committee singled out "Brief uit die vreemde" and the list of the names of dead persons following it, reading the poem in terms of "very strict reference" to then Prime Minister Balthazar John Vorster and interpreting its ending as an accusation against the white man and particularly the Afrikaner. Numerous poems from Skryt were incorporated into the 1977 collection Blomskryf, but "Brief uit die vreemde" was not one of them. It is this poem for which Breytenbach apologized at his trial in 1975: "I would specifically like to apologize to the Prime Minister for a crass and insulting poem addressed to him. There was no justification for it. I am sorry."
Since the first half of the poem is obscure to the point of being cryptic, it is likely that the committee came to its...
(The entire section is 8524 words.)
SOURCE: Review of Soos die so and All One Horse: Fictions and Images, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 4, Autumn 1991, p. 756.
[In the following review, Toerien offers a generally positive assessment of Soos die so and finds the writing in All One Horse luminous and reminiscent of South American magical realism.]
Breyten Breytenbach's new collection of poems with the enigmatic title Such As or As Is marks his return to the Afrikaans language after a series of prose works in English. In the foreword, written in Paris as a 1974 New Year's resolution, he undertakes to write a poem each day for the rest of the year. This he manages to do for more than half a year before faltering; but in September 1988 he takes up the project again and finishes off the year. His incarceration in jail intervened, of course, and what is remarkable is that the later entries do not differ much in style from those of 1974, presumably because they are all diary jottings, spontaneous and free of fixed meter or rhyme. It must be kept in mind that the writer's prison volumes such as Eklips, (yk), Lewendood, and Buffalo Bill were carefully wrought poems, mostly in standard forms, a fact perhaps attributable to the time available and to the lack of distractions?
Breytenbach has lost none of his poetic mastery, and he ranges widely with effortless ease....
(The entire section is 759 words.)
SOURCE: Review of Memory of Snow and of Dust, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 1, Winter 1991, pp. 175-76.
[In the following review, Berner calls Memory of Snow and of Dust a "remarkable development" in Breytenbach's literary canon.]
Since his release from prison, Breyten Breytenbach has returned to Paris, resumed his career as a distinguished Afrikaans poet, and begun to write in English. An introductory poem in Memory of Snow and Dust says that "the biography I am … writing is always [a] book of myself." We are tempted, therefore, to look for autobiographical analogies in the novel, which deals with a South African in Paris who is arrested when he returns to South Africa on behalf of his political party and also with a South African writer who has exiled himself to Paris after serving a prison term. Such an approach, however, does not begin to take account of the novel's extraordinary richness.
In the first of two sections Meheret, an Ethiopian journalist in Paris, meets Mano, a "Cape Coloured" actor, and is pregnant when he returns to South Africa, where he is arrested, charged with a murder he did not commit, and condemned to death. Her story, addressed to her unborn child and telling of her life in Ethiopia, her parents and ancestry, and her affair with Mano, is often interrupted by Barnum, who is called "the ghost writer," and this section seems to be...
(The entire section is 552 words.)
SOURCE: "Breyten Breytenbach: True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist and Mouroir," in Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews, 1992, pp. 375-81.
[In the following essay, Coetzee provides overviews of True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist and Mouroir.]
South of the city of Cape Town lies a tranquil, almost rural, suburb named (after the wine) Tokai, and zoned for white occupation only. Driving through Tokai you pass, on your right, forest and vineyard, on your left comfortable houses with spacious lawns and gardens. Then at a certain point the suburban idyll ends, giving way to a monotonous gray wall ten feet high, behind which you can glimpse watchtowers and blank-faced buildings. This is Pollsmoor, a maximum-security prison, the home at one time of Breyten Breytenbach, poet, painter, and convicted "terrorist." The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist is the story of how Breytenbach came to be in Pollsmoor, what he did there, and how he departed.1
Breyten Breytenbach was born in 1939 into an ordinary small-town Afrikaner family. One of his brothers became an officer in the South African armed forces, another a well-known journalist. Breytenbach's comments on his brothers give an idea of how far he has moved from his origins. The first he calls "a trained (and enthusiastic) killer," the other "a fellow traveller of the [security police], with...
(The entire section is 2692 words.)
SOURCE: Review of Hart-lam, in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 4, Autumn 1992, pp. 763-64.
[In the following review, van Vuuren finds Hart-lam valuable to an understanding of Breytenbach's political and artistic vision.]
Breyten Breytenbach is a complex phenomenon: painter, poet, prose writer, exile, ex-convict, and "terrorist," as well as public figure in the South African political and literary arena. He publishes creative work both in Afrikaans and in English, and these works span many genres. Between 1964 and 1991 he produced fourteen collections of poetry—all of them in Afrikaans, with English translations of some of his prison poetry (of which there are five collections) published in Judas Eye, and Self Portrait/Deathwatch. Apart from three books containing short prose pieces, he has also published two novels in Afrikaans, one in English (Memory of Snow and of Dust, 1988), a poetic manifesto, a travel journal (A Season in Paradise, 1976), and a collection of political pieces (End Papers, 1986), as well as the seminal South African prison autobiography, The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (1984).
Breytenbach's most recent publication is Hart-Lam, a slim volume of collected speeches (one in Afrikaans and three in English), given at various occasions in Stellenbosch, Cape Town, New York, and...
(The entire section is 570 words.)
SOURCE: "Beloved Bloody Country," in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XXIII, No. 48, November 28, 1993, p. 4.
[In the following review, Freed praises Breytenbach's ability in Return to Paradise to be both evocative and satiric of South Africa and its people.]
This wonderful book [Return to Paradise], the third in Breyten Breytenbach's trilogy of exile, incarceration and return, centers around a three-month visit he made to South Africa in 1991. The book is written with a wild heart and an unrelenting eye, and is fueled by the sort of rage that produces great literature.
After more than half a lifetime spent in exile—with the exception of a few visits home, and seven years in a South African prison for "terrorism"—Breytenbach opens Return to Paradise with the statement of statements for South African exiles and expatriates: "There is such a thing as an incurable nostalgia." And yet, so saying, he goes on to examine, to expose, to deride—sometimes gently, often savagely—the root and branch of the nostalgia, the nature of "the beloved bloody country."
"To my mind," he writes in the preface, "only a fool would pretend to understand comprehensively what South Africa is really about, or be objective and farsighted enough to glimpse its future course … It has been my pleasure to disagree with the living and the dead."
(The entire section is 868 words.)
SOURCE: "Resisters," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XL, No. 20, December 2, 1993, pp. 3-6.
[In the following review, Coetzee offers praise for Return to Paradise.]
In 1960 Breyten Breytenbach left his native South Africa to live in Paris, where he wrote poetry and painted. There he fell in love with and married a woman of Vietnamese descent. Interracial marriages being illegal in the South Africa of those days, he could not return home with his wife; he refused to return without her.
In 1972, in a gesture of conciliation toward the Afrikaans intellectual community, which was troubled by such treatment of a man who had in the meantime become widely acknowledged as the leading poet of his generation, the South African government granted Breytenbach and his wife visas for a brief visit. During this visit Breytenbach gave an uncompromising address at a writers' conference: it is because Afrikaners are a bastard people, he said, that they are obsessed with racial purity; apartheid is the law of the bastard. As for the future of South Africa, that lay in the hands of black South Africans: the task of white intellectuals could only be to work for the transformation of their own community.
In furtherance of this goal, Breytenbach returned to South Africa on a forged French passport to recruit sympathizers to an organization dedicated to sabotaging military and industrial...
(The entire section is 2137 words.)
SOURCE: "Maltreated Angel," in Times Literary Supplement, December 24, 1993, p. 22.
[In the following review, Kruper finds the political writing in Return to Paradise somewhat heavy-handed and incoherent but admires Breytenbach's descriptive abilities when he does not discuss politics.]
For a long time during his Parisian exile, Breyten Breytenbach was better known as an artist than as a poet or revolutionary; and he painted the picture reproduced on the cover of this book [Return to Paradise] himself. It depicts a tall blond prisoner, with wings, followed by his saturnine, small captor. Both figures are wearing red shoes. Red shoes feature from time to time in his text as well, and seem to have some special meaning for Breytenbach. Since I do not know what their meaning is, I cannot be at all sure that I understand the artist's intention, but Breytenbach seems to see himself as a misunderstood and maltreated angel, brought back to Paradise under constraint; and that, indeed, is pretty much the message contained in the book under review.
"I'm aware of the superficiality", Breytenbach admits when his wife reads his notes for this book; he then sums up, very fairly, its plot: "from airport to dinner table to lecture room". It is, moreover, his third return to Paradise. Perhaps the outstanding Afrikaans poet of his generation, he left South Africa as a young man in 1960,...
(The entire section is 922 words.)
SOURCE: "An Afrikaner Trapped in No Man's Land," in Manchester Guardian Weekly, Vol. 150, No. 2, January 9, 1994, p. 28.
[In the following review, Wood and Breytenbach discuss major themes in Return to Paradise.]
In 1975, the South African poet and painter Breyten Breytenbach was arrested at the airport at Johannesburg, on his way back to his home in France. Working under a false identity, he had been recruiting agents for an underground movement in exile called Okhela. For an hour he attempted to convince his captors that, far from understanding Afrikaans, he was in fact an Italian professor. But he had been trailing secret policeman behind him like a shoelace since his arrival. They knew exactly who he was: he was the famous Afrikaner poet Breyten Breytenbach, and brother of the even more famous war hero and patriot, Jan. They had probably read his poetry.
Breytenbach was sentenced to nine years' imprisonment. He served seven of them, two in solitary confinement in a cell six by nine feet, and 13 feet high. He has written superbly about these years in his memoir, The True Confessions of An Albino Terrorist (1984). It is one of the sublime vulgarities of literature that nothing makes for literary interest—nothing is more useful technically to the writer—like the presentation of a life stripped to nothing and forced to rebuild itself.
(The entire section is 1601 words.)
SOURCE: Review of nege landskappe van ons tye bemaak aan 'n beminde, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 3, Summer 1994, pp. 622-23.
[In the following review, Toerien admires Breytenbach's breadth of scope and spontaneity in nege landskappe.]
In spite of—understandably—bitter renouncements of his people and country and the resultant switch to English for his prose works, Breyten Breytenbach, like many other exiled and transposed poets before him, seemingly finds it difficult to write poetry in a language other than his mother tongue. So we have in nege landskappe van ons tye bemaak aan 'n beminde (nine landscapes of our time dedicated to a loved one) a hefty volume containing a rich harvest of poems in Afrikaans and an exultant celebration of words and language.
Dedicated to the poet's Vietnamese wife, the collection is in nine sections (the Buddhist holy number of wholeness) and displays a richness of themes in a wealth, almost an extravagance, of words. There is a delight in language, as in the lines "to travel / through dictionaries and other scapes / where R's roll and stars jell and hisses / at times unexpectedly ripple like water over suffixes." The language is colloquial and would be hard to understand by nonspeakers of Afrikaans; Breytenbach's poetic mastery can therefore scarcely be appreciated internationally.
The poems are...
(The entire section is 582 words.)
SOURCE: "Thinking Forbidden Thoughts," in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XXVI, May 5, 1996, p. 5.
[In the following review, Bawer finds Breytenbach's search for truth and justice in The Memory of Birds in Times of Revolution admirable despite the book's flaws.]
In 1991, before the fall of the white deKlerk regime in South Africa, the Afrikaans writer and anti-apartheid revolutionary Breyten Breytenbach—who had spent seven years as a political prisoner and several more years as an exile in Paris—published an open letter to his friend Nelson Mandela, complaining that Mandela's African National Congress should "stop being the victims" and instead assume its proper role as "actors for change and construction." The letter, which appears in his new book, The Memory of Birds in Times of Revolution, was typical of Breytenbach (A Season in Paradise, The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist). Refusing to play the martyr or to idealize his fellow activists, Breytenbach has frustrated the expectations of Europeans who, bathing him in a pity that he angrily rejected, wanted from him the angels-vs.-demons clarity of politics and not the ambiguities of art.
Soon after Breytenbach released his letter, apartheid collapsed—the fulfillment of his lifelong dream. Yet he was devastated. He returned home from exile, but felt out of place. "I find myself nowhere," he wrote....
(The entire section is 582 words.)
SOURCE: Review of Die hand vol vere: 'n bloemlesing van die poësie, met twee briewe, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 1, Winter 1997, p. 210.
[In the following review, Toerien offers a positive assessment of Die hand vol vere.]
A selection of Breyten Breytenbach's poetry made by his friend and academic Ampie Coetzee has the disarming title A Hand Full of Feathers, an Afrikaans idiom for empty-handedness and one which the author has used on several occasions in earlier poems. The selection also contains some new poems as well as two letters between the two friends.
It is a generous selection, but it can never be generous enough. Breytenbach's output is so large and of such a consistently high standard, that only a complete collection of his poetry can satisfy: that will no doubt come some day. Meanwhile, here is Coetzee's choice. He has also included poems from relatively obscure Dutch literary magazines as well.
Breytenbach's poetry is difficult to define; in general "surrealistic," but at the same time grounded in the simple, natural folklore of his people and culture. With irony he hints at traces, but he also quotes from Afrikaans poets, forcing one to look anew at accepted Afrikaans tenets. These effects are lost on the overseas and non-Afrikaans reader, unfortunately, but nevertheless his poetry has an immediate universal appeal when...
(The entire section is 384 words.)