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 against apartheid and, being white, he has chosen a fate that he might have evaded. We are right to honor him for this. Unfortunately, some of his behavior prompts embarrassment as much as praise, and so does some of his poetry. His predicament, however, is part of something larger. The kind of poet whose work involves politics is on the increase. And poetry of this kind, it seems to me, is coming to count more and more. We might therefore wish to consider Breytenbach's heroism, if that is what it is, and sort it out.
In the United States we have pretty much agreed that poetry and politics do not mix. Between poetry and life, at least the political aspect of life, no commerce is expected or called for. The New Criticism cemented this separation of powers, and some of our best critics, Helen Vendler for example, continue to uphold the older view. But holding poetry and politics separate cannot mean much to a poet whose native tongue is Afrikaans, and in Breytenbach's case it is less a matter of mixing than of having been violently yoked, historically, culturally, to a condition of language. Both English and Afrikaans, in South Africa, are authorized languages. (Afrikaans comes first politically.) The British won the Boer War, but that has mattered little in the disposition of power, which remains largely in the hands of the Afrikaners, the descendants of seventeenth-century Dutch colonizers. Apartheid is their rule and likewise their word. It means, in Afrikaans, apartness. It means 87% of the land given over to whites exclusively, with mass deportation of blacks, 3.5 million so far, 2 million still to go. Under provision of the Terrorism Act, apartheid means a state security apparatus that detains whom it pleases, tortures whom it pleases, conducts interrogations in such a way that black men fall to their deaths from high windows. It also means that domination is rooted in a local tongue evolved from Dutch, a language little more than two centuries old, empty of tradition, its historical function to keep a small people, the Boers, the Afrikaners, united and on top. Like any colonial language, Afrikaans isn't innocent, and this is bound to cause trouble for poets, especially a poet like...
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Breytenbach who has stationed himself against his own identity—white, privileged, tribal—as a native Afrikaner.
Almost by definition this poet's plight seems exemplary, but is it? In the long run, maybe, though not without a degree of objection; and because my own view of Breytenbach is critical, I want to avoid unfair irony by stating at once the larger case. Breytenbach has indeed deployed his art against the inhumanity of his country, a land he clearly hates and loves. He has paid, in the flesh, for the principles he holds. He has recently been released from prison (December, 1982) and has gone back to his place of exile in Paris where he aims to take up the double flag of poetry and politics once more—only this time, as he said in the Times interview, with stricter care for art. Breytenbach is 44, he is possessed of talent, his career isn't over. At this point neither his literary nor his political import can be judged. He deserves attention and, from people like myself, benefit of the doubt.
The heroism remains to be seen, but thinking of Breytenbach in heroic terms reveals an interesting development within the American literary community. Politics has begun to matter in art, and while some among us see this as stark disaster, others are expecting great things, perhaps the first serious challenge to American poetic practice since the revolt of the modernists. If excellence should thus be compromised, or literary standards relaxed to accommodate some other urgency, then certainly politics in art needs condemning. But that does not have to happen, neither reproof nor tolerance for slack work. Our poetry at the moment is slack in any case, and not forgetting some wonderful exceptions we behold a state of affairs that can hardly be blamed on politics. Or perhaps it can. Lack of political sense may in fact be the problem—the dilemma of poets who cannot bring their art to touch upon that which touches upon them in grave and unnerving ways….
The circumstances leading up to his arrest need looking into, but my first concern is with his kind of poetry and with the nearly hysterical regard his work has won, not least in South Africa itself. The cardinal question is this: In what manner has Breytenbach's art established his literary identity as a "political poet" and made him a candidate for heroism? The answer, in Breytenbach's case, comes like a shout. His poetry in the main revolts against things as they are, life in general, South Africa in particular, and it proceeds in a surrealist mode that from poem to poem is more or less savage, more or less shrill and enraged. There is little calm or tenderness, and this goes deeper than moral revulsion merely. Writing in Afrikaans means, for this poet, that he writes against himself. He is trapped in radical ambiguity and the problem is language itself. In consequence, there is much guilt and self-doubt and hyperbolic attempt at resolution. Exceptions occur—moments of peace, of absolving rather than hostile humor—when he is able to identify with the black condition or when he manages to become one with the land itself apart from those who have defiled it. I have seen some of Breytenbach's ink drawings (in Sinking Ship Blues, Toronto, 1977), which are remarkably consonant with the larger spirit of his poetry and which offer further evidence that Breytenbach's vision is notable for three things: surrealist dismemberment, especially of biological forms; humor and a kind of raucous play that is deep-seated and usually quite dark; and, finally, a prevailing sense of woundedness, sometimes muted, sometimes grimly festering.
A country that keeps its flies happy is a place, as Hamlet might say, far gone with rot. And more than a little, Breytenbach reminds me of Hamlet, vexed and melancholic, darkly playful and given to antic fits. In "Goodbye, Cape Town," a poem from And Death White as Words, the poet is on his way back into exile, and he addresses the city of his departure this way:
if someone would grant it me I'd search beyond your walls for a Jonah tree if you were a woman I'd elaborate on the smells of your pocked skin and gurgling glands lovely arch-whore slut flirt hell-cat bitch but you're not even a mother you're an abortive suicide gushing wounds of water between the quay and the flanks of this boat my cape, man's cape, capelove, heart's cape I wanted to breathe you into a full blown rose but you stayed just a mouth and a tongue[.]
Mere name-calling, we might say; and it is, although not merely. Breytenbach is not a namer in Whitman's manner, but rather a compulsive giver of names, a re-namer, in surges of metonymic flow. This is a standard surrealist device, part of the poet's stock in trade. But in Breytenbach's usage it is an odd device, because while everything stays in motion nothing really moves. We see the metamorphic vigor of his vision, but also its stuckness—an imagination steadily inventive but unable to surmount its occasion. The poet's ambiguous relation to his subject—in this case outright love and hate—is also visible, and perhaps likewise a certain unwillingness to accept his ties to the world. In an early section of A Season in Paradise, Breytenbach introduces his wife through five different names, none of them her name. At best this is a mode of playful blessing, but metonymy is also, as we see above, the rhetorical basis of cursing. Incantation, curse, a language of infliction, these are tools of Breytenbach's art. We might wonder upon whom the injury falls.
Breytenbach's attitude toward things female is seldom as abusive as the Cape Town poem suggests. His sexual chauvinism is rampant, but usually in a manner quieter, more naive and taken for granted, and I suspect that it stems from another, deeper chauvinism, the Boer-ish kind, not entirely cast out despite the fact that this poet has set himself against that nation and all its ways. Some of its ways are still with him. That Breytenbach has not escaped his roots is surely partial cause of his furious bursting forth. There is an obsessional character to such poetry; and metonymy, the need to re-name, is one way obsession asserts itself. The love-hate relation to South Africa runs in alternating current through Breytenbach's work, shifting on the instant from plaint to endearment, as in the lines above. The passage also suggests that we are with a poet for whom peace, if it comes at all, is momentary in the image of an isolated tree. Trees with their small zones of saving shade appear often in these poems, and the reference to Jonah is especially revealing: this poet's prophetic appointment remains unsure. His mission is urgent but its success is doubtful—success in this case being the poet's capacity to breathe rich life into a language that, as he receives it, seems no more than a mouth.
Much of Breytenbach's harshness, his fitful intensity, arises from his fight with the language in which he finds himself trapped. The political hegemony of Afrikaans must somehow be subverted, its authority over the soul subdued. But in what manner and at what cost? The task is formidable, it provokes distrust toward poetry itself, and often the outcome is devalued by a willful margin of discount. There are moments, I suspect, when writing in Afrikaans feels like going over to the enemy—in which case, what is poetry? In a poem called "Constipation," Breytenbach offers one of his several answers:
Not that Coleridge doesn't belong to the school of damned poets he says the outcasts capable of ejecting at a given moment a waxy fart of hideous pain through the tunnel and turnstile of blood and there I agree for what is a poem other than a black wind?
The image is not felicitous, but, for a poet stuck in the role of poète maudit, not inaccurate either. That Breytenbach aims to insult seems clear, and if—to use Bakhtin's distinction—an "official" Afrikaans exists, strict in decorum, then the poet's "unofficial" imagery and diction constitutes an attack. We are again in the presence of a curse, and the sad thing about Breytenbach is that for all his desire to bless and to pray, the curse too often prevails. The poem just quoted begins: "For all true poetry is cruel." That we may doubt, although the governing spirit in this case is Artaud, from whom Breytenbach takes the poem's epigraph: "No one has ever written or painted, sculpted, modelled, built, invented except to get out of Hell." We can doubt that too, but as a commentary on Breytenbach's work it goes a long way. Hell, for this particular poet, is the moral torment of being white in South Africa. And hell is language itself, which belongs to the oppressors and does not afford, as for example English does, the alternative support of an adversary tradition—Swift's savage indignation—as part of the poet's inherited power. He writes, then, to escape an infernal predicament that his poetry keeps him locked into, and Breytenbach has come to see this himself. In the Times interview he told Donald Woods that henceforth he would write no more in Afrikaans: "I've long felt there was hope for it only if it were used in resistance to apartheid, but I think it is now too late."
That decision may cost him more than he thinks. Too late it might be for the white supremacists of South Africa to stop a racist Götterdämmerung. But dispossessed poets tend to stick to their mother tongue no matter what. Joseph Brodsky, for example, can feel that his poetry is Russian but not Soviet. That is a valid distinction, but Breytenbach does not have a similar option. Even so, critics who know Afrikaans point to his command of Afrikaner idioms as one of his especial strengths. And from the poetry available in translation we can see that Breytenbach further undermines his parent tongue by stabbing it with lines from languages of the oppressed—Swahili in particular. He also uses placenames, Dimbaza, Limehill, Stinkwater, which dramatize the particular evil of apartheid, places not unlike concentration camps to which the black population is being deported to rid the Afrikaner paradise of its "black spots."
Breytenbach's situation, in other words, has not been without some resources, but not without agony either, and in any case a hard ambiguity remains. By ambiguity I do not mean the American kind that plays hide and seek and declines to take a stand, but the white African search for a purchase nowhere in sight. The cost, as I have suggested, is guilt and frustration. There are the fathers, whom Breytenbach rejects. And then there are the brothers, with whom, he knows, he is not one. His dislocation is extreme, and perhaps he is right to feel that in his earlier poetry he reached a dead end. He did not always feel that way, however, and that he began by appealing his case to the high court of French surrealism seems, in retrospect, inevitable.
"Reality," he says in one poem, is "just a boundary a rumour." But having conferred that sort of potency upon his art, he goes on, in another poem, to take it back: his "poems are just day trips." Searching for bedrock, Breytenbach's imagery settles at the biological level, and while there is much stench and rot, there are also moments when life is sweet, a mothering plenitude that blesses and protects. In "Fiesta for an eye" he defines his place of reprieve:
you know no other fig tree which stands as this one stands cleaved by the butchering sun bleeding over its litter of coolness stuffing its figs full of palates so that later it can taunt the sun no tree rivals this mother of coolness where wedlock is celebrated where the firm root is fitted to the red-mouthed orifice in the ground flesh rouses flesh and the figs are full of milk[.]
That is life under the aspect of the Mother, fruitful, erotic, a good in itself. Under the aspect of the Father, on the other hand, life is empty, caged, at best a shabby affair or even a kind of death. The following lines are from a poem called "I will die and go to my father":
friends, fellow mortals, don't tremble; life still hangs like flesh from our bodies but death has no shame— we come and we go like water from a tap like sounds from the mouth like our comings and goings: it's our bones which will know freedom come with me bound in my death, to my father in Wellington where the angels use worms to fish fat stars from heaven; let us die and decompose and be merry: my father has a large boarding-house[.]
Blasphemy and biblical parody are constants in Breytenbach's work, and his easy reference to both the Old and the New Testaments, in the lines just quoted, suggests that he might have had a fairly stern religious upbringing. In any case he presumes that Afrikaners take their Christian National Education seriously. Their version of Christian belief has provided a patriarchal discourse useful to white supremacy, and Breytenbach attacks it as false doctrine and as an especially repugnant kind of hypocrisy. His assault is sometimes dancing, sometimes heavy-handed, and when he unmasks the virtues of the fathers by putting himself within the Afrikaner voice, his irony verges on straight hatred. The following stanza is from a poem called "The struggle for the Taal," Taal being a local name for the Afrikaner language itself:
From the structure of our conscience from the stores of our charity we had black contraptions built for you, you bastards— schools, clinics, post-offices, police-stations— and now the plumes blow black smoke throbbing and flowing like a heart.
So much for righteousness and love-thy-neighbor sentiment. So much, too, for Breytenbach's attempt to attack from within. Not that poetry can't handle such tactics. Brecht was a master at just this sort of satire, but he had giants to back him up, Marx and Luther among them, and could feel that his Nazi adversaries were the destroyers rather than the guardians of the German he deployed with such sting. Breytenbach, on the other hand, must fall back on his heart and its furies, and cannot afford to move too close to a target that, in some vestigial sense, is himself. His saving grace is humor, humor as a liberation, as an irreverent aside that keeps him safely to the side, or as a playfulness turning grimness to whimsy. Breytenbach's zaniness is one of his strengths and it is almost always active. But often he allows his sense of political urgency to hobble what might otherwise impress us as true wit. We are left to guess how much is laughter, how much grimace. In a poem called "icon" he surveys the gory world depicted in a Bosch-like painting and then concludes:
above all this a spiky jesus stands out on a cross with no more hope of decomposing than a butcher bird's prey on a barbed wire fence, with a sneer along his beard; further behind for ever out of reach (like marilyn monroe) rises an empty cool grave[.]
Much of Breytenbach's verse reads like that, and at first it struck me as arbitrary, in search of scandal, not unlike a good deal of surrealist poetry in general. Too often this poet seems fierce in his focus and yet reckless in his connections, slapdash, in some sense callow. To get beyond these first impressions has been my task, and I would now suggest that the passage quoted above contains much that is Breytenbach's hallmark and the ground of genuine poetic authority. Of those six lines, each in turn surprises; none could be predicted, yet they add up to a complex image of considerable power. Who is this sneering Jesus if not the poet himself, a savior who cannot save nor remove himself from the horror he beholds. And seen through the barbed wire of apartheid, who is Monroe but the white goddess promising a bliss not to be had, neither in life nor in death nor in art, certainly not in South Africa. We might still wonder at the exact balance of humor and pain, but the passage itself is a strong emblem of impotence, of anger venting itself in bitter play. And the religious reference counts. In this land, the poet says, redemption does not come.
I want to go on to the larger implications of Breytenbach's art, but having looked mainly at the difficulties of his poetry I have perhaps given the idea that this poet always writes with clenched fist and curled lip, a black wind of rage and disgust. There is no denying his hyperbolic tendency, his deliberate unpleasantness, his penchant for insult. But this basic disposition arrives at different temperatures, hot and cold, warm and cool, the barometer sometimes dropping toward storm, sometimes rising to a wispy sky. By way of a last look at Breytenbach's poetry I would therefore like to cite one of my favorites, a small poem that—possibly because it is small—comes to us quietly, with kindness and unusual lyricism, a poem I quote entire for the craft it reveals and for the political vision it embodies. It is called "First prayer for the hottentotsgod," and we need to know two items of background information: first, that the Afrikaans word hottentotsgot means praying mantis; next, that in Bushman or Hottentot myth, this small insect is thought to be a god. Here is Breytenbach's prayer:
they say, little beast, little creator, the elders say that the fields of stars, the earth-dwellers and all things that turn and rise up and sigh and crumble were brought forth by you, that you planted an ostrich-feather in the darkness and behold! the moon! o most ancient one, you who fired by love consume your lover, what led you to forsake the children of those—the human stuff— remember? summoned by you from the mud? there are fires in the sky, mother, and the moon cold as a shoe, and a black cry like smoke mixed with dust—for your black people, people maker, work like the dust of knives in the earth that the money might pile up elsewhere for others— grassyyellow lady of prayer, hear our smoke and our dust— chastise those who debased your people to slavery[.]
Empowered by prayer and a myth not his own, Breytenbach transforms an Afrikaner saying ("plant a feather and a chicken will sprout up"), goes on with humor to make serious use of rhetorical stuttering, then moves from myth into history, from the high sorrow of The Human Condition to a particular plight, in the course of which a second diction intrudes, to end where a poem of this kind must end, not with the consolations of lacrimae rerum, but with the black cry rising from its definite pain. Breytenbach's surrealist tilt, in this instance, rests lightly in his appeal for an insect's intervention in human affairs, a joke not altogether joke when we consider the likely efficacy of any black appeal to any South African deity, be it God or god or little beast. The poem successfully identifies with the voice of the victims, and the interdictions of the white fathers give way to the wisdom of the black elders. As befits a creation myth in Breytenbach's erotic cosmology, we are here within the governance of the Mother, she who in her ardor devours the Father. In every way but one—the prayer won't be answered—the poem works to appease and absolve the poet's own sources of torment. He does not expect peace, but guilt dissolves and rage no longer consumes him.
Especially cunning is Breytenbach's use of repetition. Midway the poem starts renaming itself. The first half culminates in the stammer of its big question, and then the poem goes on in a way that demystifies myth and allows history to show through—a fall, if you prefer, from eternity into the specific anguish of time. The little creator becomes a people-maker, the starry fields turn to fire. The magical moon, now a cold shoe, loses its consoling splendor. And life rising, sighting, falling, becomes a particular people being worked, as we might say, to death, ground down like the blade of a knife after hard use. Humankind's muddy genesis ends up concretely with blacks enslaved. And a second diction intrudes upon the first, clashes, takes over. The result is a minor infraction of poetic statute, not unlike the marriage of white and "non-white" which, in some places, is deemed unlawful.
My metaphor may seem indecorous, but I use it to suggest the way this poem, by permitting the language of politics to intervene, becomes itself a little allegory of political intrusion—life broken and debased by injustice politically imposed. The poem's subject is not only the spectacle of Creation and the Fall, but also the reality behind the myth, in this case the millions of human beings enslaved and brutalized, working in the diamond mines, the asbestos mines, working for the more than 1,000 American corporations using these people and using them up; and plainly, through this kind of labor the money does pile up elsewhere, for example in the endowments of American universities. I do not mean to indict American ways and means, but only to open our connection to Breytenbach's world. No doubt, though, remarks like these will meet with the same objections as the poem's last lines—neither, it might be argued, belongs to true poetry or correct criticism. The test of the poem's last lines, however, is not received taste or purity of diction. The test is how false and trivial the poem would be without those lines. If the political references were absent, or veiled in metaphor, no doubt the poem would be more pleasant, but it would also be inconsequent, a snippet of doubtful comfort got by retreat into myth. History would then appear as we prefer it to appear, under the aspect of eternity—in other words necessary, as if slavery were in the nature of things, which it isn't.
Breytenbach's debt to surrealism is fundamental. It defines his art as much as his problematic relation to Afrikaans. We might suppose that the psychic rending his language forced upon him predisposed him to surrealist solutions, but timing is also a factor. The young poet-painter arrived in Paris in 1961, just as the surrealist upsurge of the Sixties was getting underway; and that was a time of zany politics and tactics truly bizarre. Surrealism itself, as the brainchild of Breton and his friends, was still much in evidence, indeed established and respectable, almost, in fact, a tradition. That is an irony I leave to others, but in any case exhibitions and journals devoted to surrealist art and poetry had become part of the literary environment, and the movement's basic techniques—summed up by Picasso as "a horde of destructions"—had become the property of poets everywhere. The principle of radical freedom in the arts had been legitimized and any poet, nowadays, will employ surrealist techniques now and then, if not centrally then as one resource among many.
But on the evidence of his work I would judge that for a poet like Breytenbach back in the Sixties, angry at the world and newly arrived in art's sacred city, surrealism meant more than taking liberties. The movement's originating impulse—antisocial, politically wild, bent on cultural ruin—seems very much alive in Breytenbach's usage. No doubt the attention early surrealists paid to revolution in Russia, their respect for Trotsky and their Mexican connection, endorsed Breytenbach's need to oppose and dismantle official versions of reality. And no doubt the weapons of ridicule and dark humor appealed to a poet whose job was to condemn much in himself. Humor is essential to the surrealist spirit; its ludic energies are central to its character. At the same time, we should not allow surrealism's playfulness, its light-hearted delight in causing cultural havoc, to obscure its more ferocious intent. To fire a pistol randomly into the crowd was the surrealist program expressed metaphorically. The surrealist game of chaotic sentence construction produced, in its first and most famous session, le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau—new wine to be drunk by an exquisite corpse. The image of the slashed eye in Un Chien Andalou means more now than it did in 1928 when Buñuel haphazardly made the film. In retrospect the surrealist assault on the human image seems clear, and in his recent memoir Buñuel says of himself and the band of exterminating angels to which he belonged: "… we all felt a certain destructive impulse, a feeling that for me has been even stronger than the creative urge." Much of this can be written off as épater les bourgeois, but not all. The logic of assault, once let loose, cannot easily be reined in. And the distance between the pen and the gun, we have come to see, isn't far. Camus had this in mind when he warned us that, in our time, to create is to create dangerously.
It may be that all art harbors delight in destruction: that the motive for metaphor is as much transgression as transformation; that visionary faith in a new world is fuelled by a fury of disgust for what is—and certainly the guardians of the status quo do their best to keep things disgusting. Taking their lead from Lautréamont and especially Rimbaud, the French surrealists were the first poets and painters of our time to proceed as a group, with manifestos and programs and tribal rites, into the soul's darker energies. These they hoped to put at art's disposal—and in some cases, notably for Eluard and Aragon, at the disposal of the Communist party. Breytenbach himself hasn't a Marxist bone in his body, nor does ideology in general interest him. The situation in South Africa hardly calls for dialectical analysis. But the spirit of surrealist attack, its hard-bitten political mode in particular, must surely have spoken to Breytenbach's need. The surrealist archive holds plenty of examples that sound straight from Breytenbach's pen, for example (and keeping in mind that Monsieur Thiers was the man whose military forces slaughtered the Communards of 1871), here is Benjamin Perét's Pour que M. Thiers ne crève pas tout à fait, written in 1929, from which I quote a translation of the first and last lines:
Belly full of shit pigs feet poisonous head it's me Monsieur Thiers. I freed our country planted onions in Versailles and combed Paris with my machine gun…. and if my belly swells it's because I've danced with the ants in the breadbasket of the Republic[.]
That something of this spirit lodged itself in Breytenbach's art is clear at first glance. And that he has seen his own identity in this fracturing light is apparent from his private myth of Rimbaud. In A Season in Paradise he rewrites Rimbaud's Season in Hell and at the heart of it locates Rimbaud as his especial precursor. In this version of the Rimbaud myth, the earlier poet dies several deaths (much as Breytenbach claims he himself died more than once—accident, dismemberment, funeral—in his childhood), and then returns a second time to Africa. "What is clear," Breytenbach says, "is that the track of his single foot was later noticed in the desert. He vanished without trace, gloriously, like a white line on a sheet of white paper. Africa is reality. And in Africa you cannot die." From there the mythical Rimbaud begins "to migrate southward," turning up in Namibia, in the mines of Kimberley, a hunter, a bartender, a mercenary. In one of these appearances Rimbaud causes the death of Eugene Marais, the poet often called the father of serious poetry in Afrikaans. And if, as Breytenbach observes, "there's arms smuggling again these days off the Skeleton Coast," this too is Rimbaud's doing. The point of Breytenbach's sketch of Rimbaud, as I read it, is that the true history of the surrealist spirit began in France and passed to Africa where it now continues in South Africa's back of beyond. Its foremost carrier, we may guess, is Breytenbach.
Every writer constructs his or her own prehistory, and for an Afrikaner the task is doubly pressing. With no illustrious tradition to take in and cast out, the bearers of Afrikaans must look elsewhere. Escape from parochial constraint becomes paramount, and the regard South Africans have for Breytenbach's achievement has much to do with the measure of international fame he managed to bestow upon his nation's poetry—never mind how. He went to Paris, received the confirmation of Rimbaud, created a voice. This, as much as the poetry itself, is the source of his heroism. It has been his strength, and it has been his downfall. For like the mythical Rimbaud, Breytenbach travelled from France to Africa with revolutionary intentions. "Everyone," he wrote in Season, "should be an arms-smuggler at least once in his life." And so it was, in 1975, when Breytenbach returned to make contact with underground elements, that he got himself arrested and slapped into jail.
If this is heroism it is also a sad story. Nowhere can I find a straightforward account of Breytenbach's activities while on his revolutionary errand. "It would seem," says André Brink, "that his aim was to contact some of the people he had met on his previous visit, in order to evaluate the situation and to devise a programme of future action." That sounds innocent enough. Donald Woods is a bit more specific. Breytenbach's mission, as Woods sees it, was "to contact anti-apartheid white and some black spokesmen, such as Steve Biko, in order to channel money from European church groups to the black trade unionists in South Africa," the hoped-for outcome being to "develop a political infrastructure among anti-apartheid whites." That sounds laudable and at least makes sense. Other views have been less positive. Writing for London Magazine, Christopher Hope derides Breytenbach for being foolish and perhaps disingenuous: "He crept about the country in a manner most likely to attract attention, visiting friends, arranging secret meetings on the rooftops of blocks of flats, passing messages to his fellow conspirators in hollowed-out books and gathering in his wake a motley assembly of the credulous, the earnest, the well-meaning and the lost and lonely." That sounds more than a little like surrealist theater, a point to keep in mind. In any case, Denis Hirson (translator of the volume under review) tells us that Breytenbach was "charged under the Terrorism Act with being instrumental in the formation of Okhela (Zulu for 'spark'), a white wing of the African National Congress. The aim of the organization was allegedly to bring about revolutionary change in South Africa under leadership of the black liberation movement by various means, including armed struggle." What that might entail isn't said, nor exactly why Breytenbach pleaded guilty at his trial. It seems possible, however, that Breytenbach was clumsy, even stupid, about what he was doing. And the Bureau of State Security—known as the BOSS—swept him up like a fly.
Paradise passed into hell, and a literary conceit became grimly real. Breytenbach thereby emerges as a dramatic example of the literary revolutionary. I do not mean the writer who puts forth radical ideas in his work only, but one who like Byron begins to take his own literary identity seriously and comes to believe that what he is in his poems he must also be in the world. Breytenbach's deliberate misreading of Rimbaud's life—abandonment of poetry for African gunrunning—suggests the logic of his own career as he must have envisioned it himself. And the style of his return, if it was as silly as Christopher Hope claims, is the surrealist style—impulsive, bizarre, a sort of childlike earnest play. Except that whereas the French surrealists had been satisfied to barge into halls and theaters to cause scandal and break up cultural events. Breytenbach aimed to crack the BOSS, one of the most efficient organs of government terror in the world. What followed could only be a debacle. At best, we can say that at least this poet took poetry seriously. But then, we might also say that he did not take it seriously enough.
The situation suggests that Breytenbach had grown dissatisfied with the kind of power to be had from words alone. He was sick of his impotence as mere writer, and wanted literary commitment to be more, or different, than it can be. During his 1973 visit he joined a symposium at the University of Cape Town and there delivered what can only be called a diatribe, aimed point-blank at himself and his South African colleagues. His remarks, and even more the tone of his address, throw light on his poetry and reveal the state of mind that would shortly land him in prison. He began by saying that "all talk in this sad bitter motley-funeral-land is politics—whether it is whispered talk, talking shit, spitting into the wind or speaking in his master's voice." His categories are telling, especially the agony implicit in "speaking in his master's voice." Presumably, Breytenbach's own category would be "spitting into the wind." He went on to ask: "Are we nothing, then, as writers, but the shock-absorbers of this white establishment, its watchdogs?" He attacked not only apartheid but also American policy in Vietnam, and he advocated "taking a stand." By way of conclusion he put the problem of his art this way: "I want to come as close as I can in my work to the temporal—not the infinite; that has always been around. And infinity says nothing. What hurts is the ephemeral, the local."
Breytenbach's Cape Town manifesto is not without point, but it brims with pain and recrimination and what it tells us, finally, is that this poet's burden had gotten to be more than he could bear. Art and life crossed, poetry and politics collided, and the larger truth of Breytenbach's predicament is that politics drags eternity down into time. What hurts is indeed the temporal—conditions which do not have to exist but do, to the detriment of many and the benefit of some few, so long as men and women support or do not seek to change the status quo. The BOSS exists to keep things as they are, and the response of someone like Breytenbach suggests that the situation in South Africa maims not only bodies but also the spirit. For those who think that poetry's proper realm is the human condition minus its political torment, Breytenbach's run-in with politics might seem to prove their point. But for those in search of a poetry strong enough to confront the worst we do behold and can imagine, his example is valuable for the chances he has taken and the mistakes he has made.
Impossible to say what will happen to his art if Breytenbach gives up writing in Afrikaans. Almost by accident he has created, in his native tongue, the precedent he needed but could not find when he began. Perhaps his despair is premature. Perhaps even now there are others for whom his achievement and his excesses have opened a way. Breytenbach has been lucky in that his brief flare as a literary revolutionary cost no terminal damage. In the long run, the harm might be less than the gain. In the Times profile, Donald Woods reports that imprisonment, for Breytenbach, "helped him to square accounts with himself as a part of what he regards as a necessary process for white South Africans opposed to apartheid—the need to pay an expiative price for it." That is extreme, like something out of Dostoevsky, except of course that it happened. The man was there, he suffered, and he now views his ordeal as a kind of redemption. The old rage is gone, and with it, we may hope, the violence of a voice grounded in guilt. What happens next will be worth attending. The question of heroism, meanwhile, can stay in solution.
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.
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 Afrikaner society. His two brothers are, today, active supporters of the South African establishment, with one serving as a commanding officer in the South African forces in Namibia, the other affiliated with the state security agencies. Breytenbach became a prominent member of the group of nonconformist Afrikaans writers known as the sestigers, or 60's generation, a group which also includes the novelist André Brink.
Breytenbach's poetic style is a distinctively affecting mixture of surrealism and philosophical pessimism: his wit, and his austere figures, come across rather invitingly in English translation. He is also a talented painter, and when he left South Africa in the mid-1960's he went to live in Paris. There he met a Vietnamese artist, Yolande Ngo Thi Hoang Lien, and married her. Yolande became the central subject of his creative work, which developed into an extended erotic meditation drawing on Buddhist and other Asian sources. Unfortunately, Yolande's Asian ethnicity also barred Breytenbach from returning to South Africa in her company: their case clearly contravened the country's then-standing laws concerning racially mixed marriages.
The conflict between Breytenbach's love for his wife and his identification both with the South African landscape and with the Afrikaans language drove him, in the years that followed, into an extreme position on the apartheid regime. By 1975 he had formed an organization at first called Atlas and then Okhela ("Spark" in Zulu), made up of South African whites living in European exile and collaborating with the black-led African National Congress (ANC). Like the ANC, Okhela saw its future in armed struggle.
In the mid-70's Breytenbach chose to return to South Africa, utilizing a false passport in the name of Christian Galaska, a French citizen. His mission was to set up a network of Okhela supporters and black activists, including the ill-fated leader Steve Biko (who died in detention in 1978); the practical aim was support for black trade unions. As The True Confessions hauntingly recounts, in South Africa Breytenbach was tracked down and arrested as he was preparing to fly back to Europe.
At this point the story becomes complicated. When he appeared in court Breytenbach presented himself as a contrite, erring son of the Afrikaner nation, pleading for forgiveness. Even more curiously, the Left, in South Africa and elsewhere, which had done little enough to help him after his arrest, altogether backed off from any further association, denouncing him as a virtual renegade and stool pigeon. He was sentenced to nine years' imprisonment, and had served two (entirely in solitary confinement) when the charge of terrorism from within prison walls returned him to court in 1977.
During the second trial, while the pro-ANC Left continued to hold him at arm's length, an informal network of artists in Europe and North America began working to organize and express some form of solidarity with him. It was then that I myself became involved. I had been active in a related matter concerning Argentina, and through a literary acquaintance in Holland was asked to participate in the Breytenbach effort. I did so, becoming the head of the Committee on the Breytenbach Case, based in San Francisco but circulating materials throughout the United States. Until the middle of 1978 I received a continuous flow of documentation on the affair from Europe. We published bulletins describing the poet's progress through the second trial, which ended in a minor fine; we then concentrated on demands for his release.
In May 1978, a new item was introduced into the mosaic. I received from my European contact a clipping from a South African newspaper, reporting the assassination in Paris of Henri Curiel, an Egyptian Jew who had been a close acquaintance of Breytenbach during the latter's European exile. Curiel had been identified in the French press as a "mastermind of terrorism," and was described by the South Africans as "the mystery man who sent Breytenbach to South Africa clandestinely." An accompanying note from my European correspondent stated that Curiel had indeed maintained an "underground organization for training [in] guerrilla warfare, counterfeiting passports, instructing in coded information methods." Furthermore, that the passport given by Curiel to Breytenbach before the latter's flight to South Africa "probably was in fact a trap," and that Breytenbach had been "set up by some Stalinists (or, say, Moscow-oriented … activists), who … subsequently tipped off the … South African secret police."
It would be hard for someone not in my situation at that moment to imagine the impact this letter had on me. My European friend was unchallengeable as a source of information. The very possibility that a man of Breytenbach's talent as a writer and painter could have been so offhandedly sacrificed by Soviet political agents called to mind the queasiest moments of Stalin's own reign. Too, the idea was not reassuring that our little group of pro-Breytenbach activists might have been simply victims of our own enthusiasm. We had committed resources and time, attracting a certain degree of harassment from defenders of South Africa while also working in a kind of moral quarantine, regarded with ill-concealed hostility by the rest of the anti-apartheid movement in the U.S. We had thought the coolness of our pro-ANC contacts was a product of racial suspicion that could be overcome considering the human-rights aspects of the case and its potential for embarrassing the Pretoria regime. We were wrong. The Breytenbach affair was, and is, much more of a potential scandal for the South African Left than for the country's political rulers.
For the plain truth, as Breytenbach's book confirms at numerous points, is that he was betrayed. "I was betrayed even before I arrived [in South Africa]," he declares flatly. "It was not my idea to go down there but I had to submit myself to the majority decision…. Stupidly vain, when told there were certain things which only I could do, it touched me, and I fell for it." And who, then, was responsible for this? "My dear, ineffective, fat, institutionalized friends in the liberation movement … those professional diplomats, those living off the fat of the suffering of our people back home and who've done so for years and will do so until they die." And why did this sleazy drama transpire? Because Breytenbach had begun to question the Stalinist tendencies dominating the South African Left. "To my shame as a South African I have to admit" that the Communist party of South Africa "was among the first organizations lauding the Soviet Union for its invasion of Hungary and again later of Czechoslovakia." As for Curiel, that he "was a KGB operative had crossed" Breytenbach's mind. "It's really not so farfetched … some of his oldest friends quit … because, they say, he was using [them] as a vehicle to serve the Soviets…. He never made any bones about his total commitment to orthodox Soviet Communism, call it Stalinism."
The full betrayal involved in the Breytenbach case is only comprehensible through a further digression on the Curiel case, a strange matter in its own right. Although I dropped out of touch with the Breytenbach enthusiasts in Europe soon after receiving the clipping and letter on Curiel's assassination—I was simply too demoralized to continue—I remained interested in learning more about Curiel. In 1981, Claire Sterling devoted a full chapter of her book The Terror Network to Curiel, in which she claims that the process ending in the latter's assassination in Paris had begun when Breytenbach, disillusioned and abandoned in prison, divulged information on the Curiel network to the South African secret police. She notes that, presumably on the basis of Breytenbach's information, Curiel's terrorist support network had been exposed in the French magazine Le Point in 1976. In a highly interesting tidbit she also points out that Curiel was the cousin of the famous British subordinate of Kim Philby, George (Bihar) Blake, who has been described as the most effective of all Soviet spies.
Late last year Jean-François Revel became involved in the Curiel controversy when, writing in Encounter, he defended Le Point, for which he now writes, against a pro-Communist French author, Gilles Perrault, who had produced a massive apologia for Curiel titled Un Homme à Part ("A Man Apart"). Perrault's opus, an incredibly prolix exercise in revolutionary "hagiography" (to use Revel's term), depicts Curiel as a hero of Third World solidarity and peace, more concerned with arranging meetings between Israelis and moderate Palestinians than with his admittedly "fanatical" attachment to the Soviet Union. Perrault fails to address the charges in Claire Sterling's book, which appeared three years before his, or to deal with the association between Curiel and Blake. He does, however, directly state that those who sent Breytenbach to South Africa knew he was headed for disaster.
During the Breytenbach solidarity campaign of 1977, we tried to portray him as a victim of a kind of treason on the part of his Afrikaner parents and brothers. But as his memoirs show, his Afrikaner family stood by him with greater loyalty than was shown by his adopted "family of the revolution." This brings us to the real tragedy of Breyten Breytenbach. It is not that a talented artist was temporarily locked up by a repressive regime against which he had plotted violent resistance, but rather that such an individual should accept his betrayal, as he seems to do in his memoirs, and place the blame on his own "weaknesses" as an intellectual. Breytenbach has as yet done virtually nothing to subject his leftist mentors and betrayers to the kind of searching moral inquiry one takes for granted must be addressed to his Afrikaner compatriots, including his own relatives. In this he resembles no one so much as the character Rubashov in Arthur Koestler's great novel about Stalinist betrayal, Darkness at Noon.
By now it should be obvious to all that the world is a curious and cruel place, in which the sentiments of a poet and painter are easily perverted by such paradoxes as the need to find a new family relationship where one's own has been unsatisfying. Breytenbach seems to have learned a bitter lesson from this experience: he has declared that from now on he will concentrate only on his poetry and painting. Yet this, I believe, is the wrong lesson. Breytenbach is no Mandelstam, and the comparison is specious: Mandelstam lost his life for writing a single poem, whereas Breytenbach, after participating in a revolutionary conspiracy, came out of prison safely. But neither should Breytenbach allow himself to become a Rubashov, one who accepts his degradation at the hands of his putative comrades. At least the person on whom the fictional Rubashov was based, Nikolai Bukharin, attempted to subvert the 1938 Moscow trial in which he was judged and condemned. In this respect Breyten Breytenbach still has much to learn; one can be thankful that now he has the opportunity to learn it.
Die ysterkoei moet sweet (poetry) 1964A Season in Paradise (nonfiction) 1976Sinking Ship Blues (poetry) 1977And Death as White as Words (poetry) 1978In Africa Even the Flies are Happy: Selected Poems, 1964–1977 (poetry) 1978Mouroir: Mirrornotes of a Novel (fiction) 1984Lewendood (poetry) 1985The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (nonfiction) 1985End Papers: Essays, Letters, Articles of Faith, Workbook Notes (nonfiction) 1986Memory of Snow and of Dust (novel) 1989All One Horse: Fictions and Images (short stories and paintings) 1990Soos die so (poetry) 1990Hart-Lam (speeches) 1991Return to Paradise (nonfiction) 1993Memory of Birds in Times of Revolution (nonfiction) 1996
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 disastrous for a long-abroad and homesick Breytenbach. The fawning and attention he had received had been in such large doses that he became an addict, one who had to contrive a return; not any return, however, but one with some attendant glamor and panache. My theory explains for me the inexplicable elements of his subsequent behavior.
Breytenbach joined Okhela, a splinter group of the South African Communist Party, and accepted an assignment to enter South Africa clandestinely for the purpose of recruiting membership. The following year, 1975, he returned to South Africa under a false name, with a French passport, his appearance very thinly disguised. Breytenbach, a poet and a painter, was an ill-trained secret agent. In an article in The London Magazine, Christopher Hope describes his activities:
… He crept about the country in a manner most likely to attract attention, visiting friends, arranging secret meetings on the rooftops of blocks of flats, passing messages to his fellow conspirators in hollowed-out books, and gathering in his wake a motley assembly of the credulous, the earnest, the well-meaning and the lost and lonely. There were as well several shrewd, hard-bitten activists who should have known better, all drawn to Breytenbach's self-inflated and noisy passage like fluff to a demented vacuum cleaner. To say he left a trail does not do him justice: he positively blazed one. The police let him run and arrested him as he was about to leave the country. (January 1981)
Breytenbach served seven years of a nine-year sentence for treason. He was released in 1982 and immediately returned to France. Within two years his Johannesburg publisher had released four volumes of poetry in Afrikaans, a work of fiction in both English and Afrikaans titled Mouroir, and an autobiographic work, The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, written only in English.1 According to published interviews, Breytenbach now completely rejects his Afrikaner heritage and declares his intention of never again writing in Afrikaans.2
Imprisonment is a kind of exile, one that locks the prisoner away from and yet holds him trapped at the center or core of his country. For Breytenbach the experience had this extra dimension of cruelty: he was locked in the "heart" of the only landscape he could be mentally loyal to while everything in his conscious mind called out for him to reject the country and its structures. Also, while in police custody he experienced, as he says, "the terrible destruction" of his love for his brother Jan, a Brigadier-general in the South African equivalent of the Green Berets, then later the death of his mother (whose funeral he was not allowed to attend), and the news that his father had suffered a stroke.
Since this second, prison-exile, Breytenbach has created for himself two further kinds of exile—a mental one in that he has allowed the South African landscape to die for him, and a verbal one in that he has discarded Afrikaans as a medium, refusing to use the language in which most of his earlier memories must reside and in which his dreams must play themselves out. But thus he has felt the need to pare himself down.
While the "essence" of Breytenbach's novel Mouroir (a title that conflates the two French words mourir and mirroir) "is the prison and thus the prison experience of the author,"3 it is also essentially a portrayal of the South African earth. Many of the thirty-eight sections that make up Mouroir seem to me to arise out of not unpleasant waking dreams. Causality, linearity, and the identifiability of character, as in rational narrative, are flouted, and yet not all of the tones and moods, the lights that move over the surface of the pieces, are despairing or even gloomy. For instance, "Wiederholen" opens with a carefully considered and realistically detailed celebration of the Cape dune landscape; "The Double Dying of an Ordinary Criminal" begins with an evocative and brilliantly recognizable depiction of the Natal South Coast; and "The Self-Death" has a description of Cape Town on a hot summer's night. For me it is as if, wide-awake and remembering, Breytenbach recorded with deep intimacy areas of South Africa. Then, the pleasure of that specific and perhaps (for him) easy creation dissipating (and sometimes the pleasure begins to dissipate before the end of the description), his awareness of his incarceration with all its complexities of guilt, shame, and terror would overwhelm him. His mind would then construct surreal and nightmarish events—always interpretable in terms of the author's own condition—and spin them out against the realistic backdrop of vibrant memory and desire.
Derek Cohen has pointed out that "Mouroir … is a work which powerfully and uniquely challenges assumptions about the nature of fiction."4 It can be seen as a post-modernist work, one that Nadine Gordimer praises for bypassing the useless and overused vehicle of narrative and plot.5 I should like to come back to a consideration of these aspects of the novel, but for the moment add that for me the book presents the random movement of consciousness as well as the force of the appalled imagination of the prisoner captured not only in time but in space, brooding on the hidden presence of the landscape surrounding him and tortured by recollections of his absurd and cowardly behavior. In solitary confinement, Breytenbach had a great deal of time to recollect (hardly in tranquility) that immediately on his arrest he dropped his bravura pose as secret agent and confessed all, having no hesitation in implicating all those he had contacted. During his trial he was abject: he apologized to the judge, to Prime Minister Vorster, and even to the policemen who had arrested him. Mouroir is at times dense with shame and guilt as well as with the author's conviction that all those on the "outside" had rejected him. For instance, in "The Other Ship" the narrator comes upon people seated at table aboard ship. He is horribly uneasy,
… he does not sit down with the others, he is not correctly dressed, his heart is fluttering too painfully in his throat, and judging by the way they are looking or not looking at him, it is evident that his presence is unwelcome. He was absent already. People are raising crooked smiles at him. People have mouths full of toothlike reflections.6
That the South African landscape was a crucial part of Breytenbach's inner life at that time is made touchingly clear in his account of his great joy when the authorities transferred him from prison in Pretoria to one in the Cape, the province of his birth. He writes, addressing his reader as Mr. Investigator:
Light caught us somewhere in the Karoo…. The expanse of the land all around, Mr. Investigator. The beauty of it, Mr. Investigator, the glory, yes. It was building up in me. We were going South. I was going to see the mountains, sir, and I now saw the Karoo unfolding…. I was singing anything that came into my head, Mr. Investigator: it was pouring out of me, all the broken filth of Pretoria. I sang of rock and hill and bush and lizard and moon…. Of the breathtaking prehistoric beauty of the desert: and of the madness of conquerors and the humiliation of the oppressed…. It was home—a home that would never be home again, which I had become alienated from forever—but the alienation was not from the earth that I still recognized, with which I still felt at peace.7
Breytenbach had come from an old respected Cape Afrikaner family. During his trial his father drove north to be with him, even though it made the old man physically ill to cross the Vaal River and enter the Transvaal. Breytenbach's father, affectionately called "Oubaas"—the Old Boss—by his wife and children, "used to be among the audience, day after day, sitting halfway towards the back, very straight, his face entirely closed. How he must have suffered", so Breytenbach muses.8 This figure of the suffering closed-faced father appears and reappears in Mouroir, sometimes specifically named "Oubaas", as does the figure of the dying mother, and the robust army officer, mockingly renamed "John Wayne". Other images that repeat themselves are those of (predictably) birds, trapped butterflies and moths, ships at sea, the moon, and slaughtered horses; images suggesting freedom, wildness, magnificence—sometimes roaming at large and sometimes destroyed.
Breytenbach was initially jailed in Pretoria, in the significantly named Pretoria Central Prison. He was housed in solitary, close to the death cells which were themselves close enough to the gallows to tremble and resound when an execution took place. Breytenbach found himself "in the heart of the labyrinth",9 in the heart of the heart of the heart of a country that had many times already been referred to by others as a vast prison camp but whose landscapes he was compulsively loyal to, whether he liked it or not. "The Double Dying of an Ordinary Criminal", to a certain extent the central piece of Mouroir, records with starkly realistic details, stylistically incongruous perhaps in a work like Mouroir, the process and legislated rituals of a hanging. Thus a piece which begins with an evocative physical landscape goes on to embody a violently contrived legal killing.
Mouroir was composed in prison. The manuscript was examined minutely by detectives as it was in progress, and the entire work stored away by the authorities until Breytenbach's release. I cannot help but feel that his strong impulse to record the complex emotional truth of his prison experiences was modified, distorted perhaps, by a desire to confuse this initial police readership and their threatened censorship. The fragmentariness of the novel can also partly be explained by the day-to-day removal of the sections, a condition that led to "Writing" taking on "its pure shape, since it had no echo, no feedback, no evaluation, and perhaps ultimately no existence."10
The psychologically central section of Mouroir is the realistically detailed death by hanging. These details are repeated in The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, Breytenbach's autobiographic work prepared after his release in 1982. The details are more poignant and terrifying now because Breytenbach presents them in a very direct yet personal manner, there being no narrator or persona—no distance—between author and reader. Of hanging, he writes:
It must be like a wall. Very often—no, all the time, really—I relive those years of horror and corruption, and try to imagine, as I did then with the heart an impediment to breathing, what it must be like to be executed. What it must be like to be. Executed. Hanged by the passage of breath and of words … the indecency of man to man of handcuff and hood and rope and trapdoor—the earth falling for ever away; we are the wind and we are the birds, and the singing, singing of the weighted ropes….11
He adds, again addressing Mr. Investigator, the representative of his captors, his critics, his readers, and all who judge him, "You have made of my mind a misery of images which I shall never be able to express."
I am convinced that because he was writing Mouroir in prison, Breytenbach availed himself of greater subterfuges of form and style than he might have found congenial had he been a free man, "anomaly and mental leapfrog" being the self-conscious devices in construction of the text.12 Breytenbach obscured the real-life identities of some of his characters, sending critics on a "spot-the-symbol" hunt in their reviews. He also disguised his own identity, or rather, the onionlike layers of his own as author/narrator/personae/prisoners. He spells his name in several different ways, and at times refers to himself as Jan Blom or Don Espejuelo. At the end of the book he signs himself off as Juan T. Bird, Jaunty (Jail)bird?
Yet if it would seem to the reader of Mouroir that all the named entities refer to aspects of the author's own shifting identity, Breytenbach takes pains to dispel this impression in The True Confessions while still insisting on the unfixed nature of the human character. In The True Confessions he reveals the real-life characters behind such strange names as Galgenvogel, Nefesj, and Tuchverderber. The author now out of prison, the narrative spoken into a tape-recorder in safety, The True Confessions has no need to treat delicately or metaphorically with Breytenbach's captors, from the lowliest prison warden to the judge who ignored pleas for clemency (even from the prosecution itself) and gave Breytenbach nine years. Now Breytenbach lashes out at these people, sometimes by name, sometimes by means of insulting, invented names such as Jiems Kont (James Cunt, for a detective), Judge Silly, Colonel Witnerf (Colonel Whitenerves), and Warrant-officer Donkey. He mocks their faces and bodies, their moustaches and haircuts, their vanities, their vulgarity, stupidity, and puritanically perverted obsessions with the sex-lives of their prisoners. Breytenbach takes revenge in the only way he can.
Breytenbach's revulsion with secret policemen and the work they do comes out in certain poems. For instance, in "La Pucelle" he writes:
the little streets dark and wet and empty except for the vast metal turd a motor-in-state full of Secret Police fat and gleaming like sterile semen in the tiny barren tunnels of a wound— and there in the powerful motor, in the heart of the cancer the almighty Leader has on his arsehole calluses from hemorrhoids full of secrets and a telephone cupshaped in his mouth
What the various works arising from Breytenbach's prison experiences all do is evoke strongly, at times with a visceral immediacy, the daily horrors of life in prison. However, many of the poems take time off, as it were, to celebrate the wondrousness of life on the outside, the joy the poet derived from being with his wife Yolande, and the firmly-established warmth of childhood memories. The prose works repeatedly emphasize the mutability of the human personality. For example, The True Confessions opens with the insistence that
… if there is one thing that has become amply clear to me over the years, it is exactly that there is no one person that can be named and in the process of naming be fixed for all eternity.14
This idea of the unfixed personality, an interesting philosophic stance, did not originate with Breytenbach, but is understandably crucial to a man with his experiences. One man named Breytenbach found himself in the position of being charged with and admitting to treason. Now, another Breytenbach invents or reinvents his confessions for us and, that done, a new Breytenbach goes forward into life like a creature that has sloughed off a couple of skins.
In The True Confessions he burns the last bridges linking him to South Africa. He records the final destruction in him of the power of the South African landscape, its death as an imaginative source. He writes that on the day of his release
… that same afternoon we left Cape Town in the Alfa Romeo of [Professor Kharon's] son. This was the start of the death journey. I was a mummy sitting there looking at the horrendously beautiful country rushing at us.15
The landscape no longer has the ability to uplift and delight him: this time he does not sing. He is insulated against it and will in time peel off that layer of himself forever.
In this autobiography he spits out his hatred and derision of almost everyone he has ever known in South Africa, not only secret policemen. He harshly criticizes his own brothers, his fellow writers, friends and academics, and also people like Christian Barnard (who visited him in prison) who live and work within the South African system. He states flatly that one should never trust any South African because "the 'system' is historically defined and conditioned, and the people come like words from the belly of the system."16 He claims that Afrikaans is a creole language (while at the same time, in very Breytenbach-like fashion producing four volumes of intricate, dense poetry in that very language). He sees those who are trying to preserve Afrikaans as "objectively strengthening the ideology of the White rulers" and declares that it is of very little importance to him "whether the language dies of shame."17
Breytenbach's rejection of Afrikaans as a medium of expression for his future work is, again, a sloughing off of an identity, this time a cultural one. Thus he throws out various aspects of himself, those that are attached to landscape, language, family, and history. We will have to await the new Breytenbach, expressing himself in French or English or Italian. Unless he is about to discard the poet in himself as well and rely only on the painter to express a perception of the world that must for some time to come be colored with bitterness.
1. The volumes of poetry are titled Driftpoint, Eklips, Yk, and Buffalo Bill. All Breytenbach's work initially brought out by Taurus, Box 85218, Emmarentia, Johannesburg 2029, before being released to European and American publishers.
2. Index on Censorship. London, 3/83.
3. Derek Cohen, "Radical Dislocations: Mouroir and the 'Prison of Fiction'," a paper delivered at the African Studies Association Conference, Los Angeles, October 1984.
4. Derek Cohen, op. cit.
5. Review in The Atlantic Monthly, April 1984, pp. 114-116. It is a little surprising to find an author like Gordimer, who always avails herself of the vehicle of narrative and plot, praising its absence in Breytenbach's work.
6. Mouroir. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1984, p. 46.
7. The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist. Johannesburg: Taurus, 1984, p. 232.
8. The True Confessions, op. cit., p. 53.
9. The True Confessions, op. cit., p. 55.
10. The True Confessions, op. cit., p. 142.
11. The True Confessions, op. cit., pp. 194-5.
12. Derek Cohen, op. cit.
13. Buffalo Bill. Johannesburg: Taurus, 1984, p. 96.
14. Op. cit., p. 3.
15. Op. cit., p. 297.
16. Op. cit., p. 216.
17. Op. cit., pp. 321-322.
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 constant presence in the volume, however, is that of his Vietnamese wife Yolande, waiting for him in Paris. Other poets are also present, as he quotes or twists their words: many older Afrikaans poets, but also Sylvia Plath. Descartes, Saint Paul, and doubtless quite a few more.
It must be stated that some of the selections are dull and flat, much too voluble and without the inner tension that one expects (wrongly?) in a poem. Not that this detracts from the book as a whole; it is too rich and generous for that. Breytenbach is only too fully aware of the qualities of poetry. In a remarkable piece which has only the numeral 3.13 as its title (all the poems are arranged numerically) and is tightly constructed of long lines with hidden and unobtrusive rhymes, he ponders on the art of poetry in an extended metaphor, finishing as follows (vers means "verse" but also "heifer"):
… for the verse must be able to calve, even if it's often a messy and noisy abortion—the angel leads— when the day's tolling yet clappers like bird seed but the vanguard of stars each already swelling a squash in the garden of night, when blood besmears the grass and shadows long and limp and blue lie waiting for the stirring of the water— you by the hand through the orchard to the sweet uncertainty of a specific moment where something sooner or later must happen, and you can hold your breath for joy, forgetfulness or for fright.
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), they are also confined by Breytenbach's experience of South Africa. "For the White man," he tells us, "apartheid is a distance of mind, a state of being, the state of apartness."
"South Africa is a symbol. South Africa is a reality," Breytenbach writes. "These two truths are intimately linked, as are the mirror and memory, and both operate simultaneously." Like other white South Africans, those who think, at any rate, Breytenbach is caught between the symbol and reality, between the mirror and memory. Writing is a form of combat, he says. He is morally outraged. He decries the inhumanity of apartheid. He demands real change—majority rule—and envisions, sometimes naively, especially in his pre-prison writings, some sort of socialist society. But these positions do not give him a secure vantage point. His vision is fractured. "Can any of us see South Africa whole?," he asks, and he answers no. "We are institutionally (historically?) incapacitated. And we have to accept the maiming, the limitation." He refuses the easy—the European—vantage point, adopted, despite their anguish, by such writers as Nadine Gordimer and John Coetzee. He writes letters to, and converses with, figures who seem to be his critical alter ego. He asks: What happens if the Other—the Odder—is the I?
This question cannot be answered—certainly not in a society as divided as South Africa. Given the existential and political separation legislated by apartheid, the self's other remains always wooden, opaque, mechanical, of mythological proportion. In such a world, Breytenbach never tires of telling us, there can be no real cultural creativity. "Nearly all South African writing reflects varying stages of exile and alienation." (Breytenbach's own exile in France becomes a metaphor for the South African writer's condition.) Exile cuts the writer from that close and continuous contact with his people that keeps him alert and his language alive.
The real language of the writer consists of two components: the sounds that disturb him from within, that push from in- side—and the people who speak his language. Language is people. When you are deprived of one of these it is as if you have only one leg, which keeps getting weaker because you use it too much.
Such a position is particularly painful for a writer like Breytenbach who considers the distance we create between the writer and his public an artifact of Western culture.
The exile is marginal. He is lonely and awkward. Like the prisoner, he has to depend upon his own resources, and he risks inventing a self which can have no contact with those with whom he wishes to communicate.
In the slammer you invented a you in order to make life bearable, to breastplate yourself with a certain dignity. Outside you will invent yourself as a re-creation, a reincarnation. The invention will no longer be a go-between but an aperture, a cycle of hope, a verse embodied with stresses.
Transitions are particularly difficult.
After seven years in prison, Breytenbach finds the world he returns to "becoming greyer, smoother, less textured." All over the world, he observes in a grand cliche, you can stay in identical, air-conditioned rooms, eating the same "continental" breakfast and finding on the same concave screen "not a glimmer of difference between the ad and assassination." All is image. You have to go to the Third World, he says, forgetting that the same hotels exist there (or are longed for) "to meet stench and crying and colour and the laughter of people laughing in the pre-air-conditioned-period way."
With bodyshakes. To experience the deadline and the death of your adaptation. The deafness of your glib skin. Also the vague unease, the raspy breath and the guilty gut.
Would not such a visit be tourism for the alienated?
There is something deeply troubling about Breytenbach's writing. There is a bit too much of him in it all. One is tempted to read End Papers as symptom rather than as message. Maimed by his people, by his imprisonment, his exile, by all the injustices he sees around him, he indulges his pain. He gives way to an intolerance, an impatience, a rebelliousness, a violence, that lacks humanity. He reminds us: "There is a broken mirror, the wooden object with shards of sun-spewing and image-scattering glass, used to lure larks down to earth, to kill them." Such is one use of the mirror, but need it be the South Africans?
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 arrested, he seemed to lose his stomach for the struggle, and while he did not betray his comrades, Breytenbach admits that the experience of interrogation, trial and imprisonment broke him—an admission which contributes to the impression of reliability and authenticity emanating from The True Confessions.
It is unusual, though not unknown, for a white man to go to prison for his political beliefs in South Africa, and since his release coincided with the increasing volume of lowkey civil war in that country, Breytenbach found himself, in 1982, a celebrity. From having been just a writer, not a very prominent one, he was now a "prison writer"—and, what's more, one who had served his time in the world's most conspicuous trouble spot. Publishers like this sort of thing: Breytenbach's predict that The True Confessions "will rank among the classic writings from prison": a claim that I am not about to argue with. The True Confessions is a monumental work; one which gives full expression to a man's moment by moment struggle to rescue himself from hell. But Breytenbach seems to have taken his achievement as a licence to publish, now, whatever he writes, in the faith that it will be edified by his distinctive experience. End Papers is touted as completing "the publication of Breytenbach's prison writings", which is altogether misleading unless one accepts that everything an ex-convict writes constitutes "prison writings".
For all his having sought, and discovered, a verbal equivalent for pain, for all his intelligent alertness to the twists and turns of morality in an immoral State, Breytenbach is frequently an untidy writer, addicted to diversions, unable to resist puerile jokes and puns. "It is bad manners to talk with your mouth full of words", he remarks, and one is often tempted to use his witticism against him. All three books of "prison writings" would have benefited from firmer editing. The original draft of The True Confessions was typed up from tape-recordings ("talk talk talk") and although it was conscientiously worked over later, the finished product retains a good deal of the speaker's natural loquaciousness.
The tale of Breytenbach's arrest and imprisonment is told in the form of a confession to "Mr Investigator", the cruel incarcerator, with whom the prisoner forms a perverse intimacy, and in the face of whom he experiences not only terror and hatred but respect and even a horrified liking. Mr Investigator, after all, knows more about the wretch behind this account than anyone else does. Mr Investigator specializes in destroying personality, and Breytenbach is quick to admit to him that he has succeeded in destroying his. Some pictures of him taken during his interrogation later appeared in the press:
And then, maybe they weren't of me. Those were the pictures taken of the hulk that they were excavating at that point, or of that man who was alive in that web at that time.
What The True Confessions does so brilliantly is relate how a character disappears under multiple layers of exile in prison: exiled from society at large, from his family, from his former life in Paris where he was already an exile, exiled in solitary confinement from his fellow inmates, and even exiled, like a pariah, from the Afrikaners, his own people, who are holding him. In addition, though, the tale provides a chart, as it were, of the process of reconstruction. In this, the act of writing itself is paramount. "It is by walking that you learn to walk." The True Confessions is the story of the search for the identity of its own narrator.
After much bargaining, with the help of pleas lodged by the Afrikaner literary establishment, Breytenbach was finally allowed to write in prison (his other request, that he be permitted to paint, was refused), on condition that he hand in the fruits of his labours at the end of each day and keep no notes. In return, the "Greys" promised that his pages would be given back on release, and the promise was kept.
This placed the writer in a bizarre situation, having to practise his essentially private activity "knowing that the enemy is reading over your shoulder … knowing also that you are laying bare the most intimate and the most personal nerves and pulsebeats in yourself to the barbarians". The result of this endeavour was Mouroir, a collection of stories written in a prose deliberately refracted in order to elude the philistine scrutiny of Mr Investigator and his cohorts (who, incidentally, included Breytenbach's brothers).
Every prisoner, in whatever society—even those who have to cope only with letter censors—learns the art of literary evasion, some becoming expert in making themselves understood only by those they wish to understand them. The thought of a novel whose form and content are determined by such constraints is an intriguing one, but perhaps Breytenbach has succeeded too well in being elusive. While parts of the intensely lyrical Mouroir are pleasing when read sentence by sentence, a collection of these sentences yields little. In The True Confessions he describes writing in the dark, suggesting that this "wording" is perhaps "akin to the experiments that the surrealists used to make in earlier years", and Breytenbach's kaleidescopic prose does have a similarly random feel about it. Obsessed on the one hand by the necessity to confess, and, on the other, by the omniscience of his totalitarian captors (experts in "washing brains"), Breytenbach has produced in Mouroir a poetic muddle.
One backs away from these "mirrornotes" relieved, at first, to find the solid, recognizable prose of End Papers. The earliest of its thirty-eight items dates from 1967; the latest from June of this year. That Breytenbach treats them most earnestly is attested by the fact that they are furnished with forty pages of "End Notes". But for the most part they are remarkably ordinary: "Dear David", for example, solemnly dated like all the others, is a letter to a passing acquaintance in New York; it includes its own false starts, plus simple observations on Parisian life and American women, with the announcement that the author is a happy male chauvinist ("Never rape a lady against her wishes" is one of his earlier jokes).
There are intelligent responses to South Africa's unique "conscious banalization of humanity", to the call for a cultural boycott, and to the axiom that "time … is Black", but the most striking impression End Papers gives is that Breytenbach now supposes the world is keen to hang on his every word. What he has to say on the nature of the South African State, on apartheid, on repression, on the role of the writer faced by one or more of these, he said to much greater effect in the context of the particularity forced on him by the subject matter of The True Confessions. At this best, he is an explorer of both self and form (and frequently claims that they are inseparable); at worst, he is unable to recognize a jotting when he makes one.
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 has its ruts, but Mr. Breytenbach avoids most of them. He is drawn to uncomfortable topics: the likelihood that "reform" measures will only reinforce apartheid, and the relations between black and white resistance writers (white writers must choose "absolute solidarity with their Black colleagues, even without any recognition from the latter").
In his reports on the conference circuit, Mr. Breytenbach drops some names (he describes to the blind Borges the latter's new medal, eats spaghetti with Sophia Loren and Ugo Tognazzi, shares prison anecdotes with Lev Kopelev, the original of Solzhenitsyn's character Rubin in The First Circle). And his excursions into travel writing, which go with the same territory, are not always worth the detour ("Berlin the scarred … Rome eternally seductive"). To his credit, however, Mr. Breytenbach tends to be self-conscious about such lapses, as about the other ironies of being a prison-produced celebrity whose least word on sundry matters is suddenly publishable.
One of these ironies is that although he became newsworthy by virtue of having physically "been there," his chosen subject is often the meaning of not being there, of feeling displaced from the revolutionary center as a white, and even more as an exile and an artist. Mr. Breytenbach strikes the same chord again and again, making the book resound with his ambivalence. Fearing that his location and vocation make him irrelevant to, or even a betrayer of, the South African blacks who are "chucking the stones they cannot eat," he makes an eloquent appeal for solidarity.
Less explicitly, however, he also glorifies that same treacherous irrelevance as a precondition of poetic lucidity and an antidote to tyrannies old and new. For a poet to be in exile, he says, is to be cast off from his people and language; an Afrikaans-speaking writer in an English-speaking world knows the disadvantages of being cut adrift. Yet he also has special reasons for arguing that literature demands detachment from the language (and values) of the tribe. Thus certain questions remain, vexing the prose into nervous animation. Is his marginality a sign of artistic sterility or vitality? Is it a model of proper, permanent opposition to authority or a mark of political impotence?
Mr. Breytenbach's problem may be simply his definition of art, or rather the (conference-induced?) urge to define it. In sections like "Poetry Is" and "I Write," he scrolls slowly through mutually contradictory concepts: communication, silence, memory, forgetting, propaganda, pollution, survival, rape. The listing is a subversive act, for it suggests that all answers to Sartre's question "What is literature?" have become equally possible and equally meaningless—even if Sartre's call to engagement remains. At any rate, what is most interesting in Mr. Breytenbach's own writing is not the familiar celebration of art as a bastion of individual autonomy against the state, but his timely experiments with cultural interaction, bastardization, mutation. The mixing of cultures answers apartheid in its own terms.
Breyten Breytenbach recently returned to South Africa on the occasion of an award for YK, one of the volumes of poetry he wrote while in prison. It is tempting but premature to interpret this gesture as a judgment on his own attraction to the esthetics of exile. In any event, his act can only add to the interest of End Papers, whose drama lies in literature's scramble after history at its most dramatic.
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 French, Afrikaans, or Dutch, and most were published before in some form.
The malevolent nature of apartheid is the major theme of the volume's writings. Perhaps the most sweeping indictment is contained in the essay "Vulture Culture," written in 1971: "Apartheid is … the artificially created distance necessary to attenuate, for the practitioners, the very raw reality of racial, economic, social and cultural discrimination and exploitation…. Apartheid is the White man's night, the darkness which blurs his consciousness and his conscience…. Apartheid is at the same time the implement of exploitation and the implementation thereof…. It is Fascist…. It is totalitarian…. It is paranoic." "Believe me," he says at another point, "South Africa is a fine example of how Apartheid … has corrupted masters and oppressed ones equally."
Many of the essays are devoted to the role of the writer in society. The author points out that in Third World countries the writer "is practically without exception a member of the so-called élite," so that he is often an "outsider to his own people." He believes that the writer has the responsibility "to resist by all means the foisting on society of clichés and lies;… to be technician of the conscience—not in a moralist way, but to the extent that the only 'sin' is that of ignorance."
Breytenbach, though convinced that ultimate majority rule in South Africa is inevitable, sees little hope for much progress in the immediate future. The Botha regime, he contends, while making a few minor concessions to give the impression of increased liberalization, is actually doing its best to strengthen the bastion of majority rule. Breytenbach severely criticizes Britain, West Germany, and the United States for their support of the South African government.
A collection such as End Papers does not lend itself well to a summary review. There is much more of interest between the covers than I have indicated. The talented, dedicated, and courageous author gives us many insights and much to ruminate over. It is a book that everyone should read.
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 good deal about the diamond-cold heart of South Africa. In fact, readers have long been aware of Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country and, more recently, the novels of Nadine Gordimer, André Brink and J. M. Coetzee; in theater, the plays of Athol Fugard; in journalism, the books and lectures of Donald Woods, the banned South African newspaper editor now living in London, whose personal story about his friendship with Steve Biko, the murdered black leader, was made into the film Cry Freedom.
A reader who pays close attention to Memory of Snow and of Dust is rewarded with opinionated interior monologues that supplement the daily flow of information about the conflict between the races. Scenes and time frames shift as if they were in a kaleidoscope. As one of his country's leading white commentators—who has experienced the meaning of life in solitary confinement—Mr. Breytenbach has knowledge that comes from the inside. One of the impressions his novel leaves is that apartheid is a two-edged weapon: not only does it keep the black majority apart, but it also separates the white minority from contact with black life.
The novel is divided into two unequal sections. The longer first part, which is set in Europe and different parts of Africa, is called Utéropia—meaning the innocent, idealized world of the unborn. It chronicles the lives of Meheret, an Ethiopian journalist, and her lover, Mano, a South African writer of mixed blood who can pass for white. Meheret discloses the history of her family and sends fantasy messages to their unborn child. Mano, meanwhile, has formed a film production company and returns to his country to research a movie about the life of an exiled writer. What begins almost as a meditation soon develops into a nightmare.
In the second part, "On the Noble Art of Walking in No Man's Land," reality comes down hard on Mano. He is lured back to South Africa, trapped by men with concealed weapons, arrested and sentenced to death for a purported murder. Here, the author expands his True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist.
Memory of Snow and of Dust is a poetic novel. Here is how the author describes the arrest of Mano after a betrayal within the ranks of the anti-apartheid underground: "Two other men stepped forward from the shadows of the hall—the one with the raincoat must have been waiting on the stairs, the other near the street exit. They didn't say a word but their eyes never left my face. The butterfly in my stomach had become a stone. It is miraculous the way flight can turn into dead falling. It all went very quickly and yet as if in slow motion, with each action precisely defined and senseless, dislocated."
There are light touches in the novel as well. Mr. Breytenbach has fun ridiculing "an international congress of writers." "The meeting turns out to be a crashing non-event," he writes. "Delegates with angry cheeks debate heatedly behind closed doors on policies which cannot in any way impinge upon the real world…. It is probably good for such a congregation to exist. The fuddled-minded ones, the charitable hearts, the never-never authors also need their own whacky club."
Mr. Breytenbach's characters do not confine themselves to observations about South Africa. "What could be said about Paris at present?" Mano asks himself, and answers that it is a city "accessible only to stressed joggers and their feminist spouses. That the poor are railroaded out to the suburbs where they will give birth to marginals and the permanently unemployable."
In Memory of Snow and of Dust, Mr. Breytenbach has written a novel that is obsessed with injustice anywhere, whether it is called apartheid or another name.
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 decision on the basis of the second half of the poem alone, where the torture and killing of detainees by the Security Police is referred to in unmistakable terms and B. J. Vorster is directly addressed as the butcher/obstetrician presiding over their deaths (the list appended to the poem of detainees who had by that date died at the hands of the Security Police is an extra-poetic gesture whose significance will emerge below). However, we should not for that reason ignore the first half of the poem: it is one of Breytenbach's most intensely worked out treatments of death and resurrection and belongs intimately with the accusations of the second half.
Since his first verse collection, the figure of Lazarus has been part of Breytenbach's poetic mythology. The first half of the butcher poem, without naming Lazarus, is an account of a resurrection from the grave/cell. In thus making the speaker a transworldly traveler, it seeks to entitle him to a knowledge of dying (in this case under torture) and death and so to a right to accuse Vorster in the name of "the rearisen prisoners of Africa." By its own power, but also by gathering about it the context of Breytenbach's earlier figuration of the Lazarus-poet, it attempts to establish poetic authority to speak in the name of the martyred/tortured gemarteldes of John Vorster Square (Security Police headquarters), who (as the appended list makes clear) did not at the time include a white. In its I-address the poem therefore implies two different readers: a reader directly addressed, "jy" (you), Balthazar, butcher, but also an invisible third person, a reader over the shoulder, a "prisoner" ready to question Breytenbach's authority to speak as I for him.
As I have mentioned, the word-play, imagery, and symbolism of the first half of the poem make it difficult of access, whereas the language of the second half, without being simple, is plain in its meaning. This is not only because the poem is designed to grow more and more naked as it builds up towards an historic accusation (the poet in the person of a history yet to be written pointing a finger at the oppressor) but because it takes over the language of the Security Police at its most shameless and cynical when it presents lies as lies in the arrogant certainty that, while no one will believe them, no one dare repudiate them. (I refer, of course, to official accounts of detainees jumping out of windows in fits of remorse, slipping on bars of soap and killing themselves, hanging themselves by their own clothing, and so forth.)
I stand on bricks before my fellow-man I am the statue of liberation who with electrodes on the balls tries to scream light in the dusk I write slogans in a crimson urine over my skin and over the floor I stay awake suffocating on the ropes of my entrails slip on soap and break my skeleton murder myself with the evening newspaper tumble out of the tenth floor of heaven to salvation on a street among people
When the police explain a prisoner's death by saying that he slipped on a bar of soap, the unstated continuation is: and we defy any court in the land to reject that explanation. It is one of the linguistic practices of totalitarianism to send out coded messages whose meaning is known to all parties, but to enforce (by censorship) a literal interpretation of them, at least in the public arena. Thus "slipped on a bar of soap" is known by all parties to mean "died under torture," but its public interpretation is nevertheless forced to remain "slipped on a bar of soap." When Breytenbach parodies the codes, as here, his unstated continuation is: here I create an arena in which the codes are unmasked and denounced. His challenge therefore takes place on the grounds of power itself: on the one hand, police power protected from denunciation and reprisal; on the other hand, the power of a rhetoric (a skill with words) employed for the purpose of mockery on a public stage. It goes without saying that the motive for banning the poem was, by denying it a public stage, by reasserting control over public staging, to deny it the power of its superior rhetoric to unmask the codes.
But this is where the position of a speaker speaking "uit die vreemde" raises difficulties of a moral as well as of a practical order. Both the speaker and the poem (publishable and indeed published abroad) are operating outside the jurisdiction of the rival power (the police, the censors), as they are operating outside the speech community and political community they address. Is the challenge therefore not morally empty? The question is not answered by, for example, André Brink when he explains "die vreemde" as "a space or experience strange to the butcher. In brief: all that is foreign to the butcher…. [Thus] nothing that the one [i.e., butcher or prisoner] says can make sense to the other." It is not far-fetched to understand Breytenbach's return to South Africa in 1975 as an existential response to the question, that is, as placing himself on the same footing as the enemy, as acting out the myth of humiliation, incarceration, and rebirth into the authority of the reborn—a myth not solely Christian in its currency—on which the poem draws.
The attack on B. J. Vorster himself is twofold. On the one hand Vorster is attacked as the chief of the security forces and hence as the one who will ultimately stand on the dock of history:
say it to me now, butcher before the thing becomes a curse before it is left to you to plead only by mouth of graves before the rearisen prisoners of Africa
Insofar as the Lazarus-prophet-poet writes his prophetic-apocalyptic history of the future here, he is prophesying again the reversal of jurisdiction, the inevitability of the judge-executioner becoming the accused. But insofar as the poem itself places Vorster on the dock, it attempts to bring that future about. Thus the claim Breytenbach makes is a claim of power (the power to make the future happen) which Vorster even as self-claimed steersman of the state lacks.
The second prong of the attack is more interesting and in a way more radical. Picturing the scream of pain issuing from the dying prisoner as a bloody birth in the hands of the butcher-obstetrician, Breytenbach asks:
does your heart also tighten in the throat when you grasp the extinguished limbs with the same hands that will stroke your wife's secrets?
Secrets: Breytenbach might as well have written secret parts. The exposure to public gaze is not just of the forbidden secrets of the torture chamber, not just of the (putative) private revulsions of B. J. Vorster himself (the irony is complex here: Breytenbach asserts that Vorster has a conscience and challenges him to deny it), but of the mysteries (forbidden to the public gaze by decency itself) of the Vorster marriage bed. The poem is a low blow, a dig at the private parts not of the man but of his defenseless wife, an insult to male honor, more rather than less offensive when one considers the age of its targets (Balthazar and Tini were in their midfifties in 1972). The excess of the poem is an excess of intimacy.
What does it mean to say that "Brief uit die vreemde" is "crass and insulting"? Insultingness is not a property internal to the poetic text. An insult is an act, a speech act. After insult, what happens next? What does the transgressive act set in train?
Without implying that "Brief uit die vreemdè" gave rise to the animosity against Breytenbach that led to a nine-year (rather than a seven-year or a five-year) sentence, one can say that, as an insult to Vorster, to the security police, to the community whose interests they protected, the poem had its consequences. But it was not Breytenbach's first transgression. In the poems before "Brief uit die vreemde" and the subsequent apology for "Brief uit die vreemde" (which provides one kind of answer to the question: what happens next?), Breytenbach had made one attempt after another to turn transgressive speech into transgressive act.
In Breytenbach's first collection, which appeared in 1964, the poem that comes closest to naming the forbidden is "Breyten Prays for Himself." But the strategy of this poem is one of irony: the poet pretends to identify himself with the white bourgeois who wants no more than to slide through life without trouble:
So that others may bear it May be arrested, Shattered Stoned Hanged Scourged Used Tortured Crucified Interrogated Placed under house arrest .......................................... Banned to dim islands to the end of their days Languish in dank holes .......................................... But not Me But us never give Pain or lament
In the 1969 Cold Fire the insulted figure of authority is the emperor Tiberius, who retreats from the summer heat into "halls chopped out of the mountain" while outside his subjects "sit and stink / small and brown like turds." Breytenbach's Tiberius casts an eye (an "imprisoned" eye) over his aquaria and, beyond them, over the seas where his ships sail "an ordered world,"
so that in the evenings—when the red god behind the headland leaves a red toga in the breakers— in company and pretension of fat-arse senators he could blessedly wade the volumes of his white body in the standing fresh water of his marble swimming pool
The whiteness of Tiberius alerts us that we are reading an allegory of South African overlordship. But the poem settles for a mixture of tepid fascination with and revulsion for the stillness of imperial power. If the poem intends a barb, it is hard to see where the point of the barb lies, except in the demotic "vetgat" (fat-arse).
"Evening People" prophesies the inheriting of the earth by the poor. Its terms are not specific to South Africa, but since the epigraph is taken from the Afrikaans poet Totius, South Africa must be taken as its implied referent. "Die wêreld is ons woning nie" ("The world is not our dwelling-place"), says Totius; but from its first line the poem sets out to contradict this father-figure of Afrikaans letters: "The world is not God's … / The world belongs to mankind."
listen Richman Possessor Investor Fascist listen Church and State rotten Politician listen to mankind sick to death with hope one of these days you will drown in your piss for the world is no God's nor does the world belong to the Devil look the world has grown fast to Man and each will get his hole full of earth
The poem strikes at Totius. Is one fanciful to feel that, in its lack of specificity—a specificity displaced onto its cloacal imagery—it hesitates to finger its living targets?
To Fly, Breytenbach's first extended prose piece, published in 1971, is surrealistic in the manner of his artwork of the period. Therefore, as if to make its denunciatory intent clear, it concludes by explaining itself.
Although this essay does not wish to be symbolic, it is to me a representation of our specific cancer and leprosy, our highly civilized refinement and putrefaction that can motivate and explain away murder and mass murder, imprisonment and torture procedures. Daily we passed Auschwitz by train but we did not see the smoke, we looked across the bay at Robben Island but thought it was a leper colony.
In the allegory of To Fly white South Africa is a huge institution for the mentally ill, of whom the narrator is one. The garden is patrolled by a "park official,… caretaker in … butcher's jacket," who shoots patients for misbehaving. An obsessive, murderous regime of law and order is set in an apocalyptic landscape of mass extinction.
This vision is presented not through the eyes of a prophetic outsider but of a narrator confined inside his blind "white" vision. "God is on the side of prison guards, butchers and male nurses," he tells himself piously. His greatest pleasure is a private one, defecating. But even that has dangers: using old papers to wipe his backside, he has to be careful not to read them, for they may be "forbidden fruit … subversive propaganda … books of poetry and other declarations of superfluous freedoms." As trouble mounts in the world outside him, he cuts off his penis, cuts out his tongue, puts out his eyes with irons. "Now I can hide away undisturbed in my blind body…. All I have left to get to grips with is my brain (organization) and my ego (commissioner)."
Thus the repudiation of the South African order is achieved by splitting and casting off a self-confessing, storytelling self who is at home in it. The potential for ambivalence in this ironistic procedure (who/what is the real target, the regime of mutilation and death or the self who is at home in it?) seems to be felt all too keenly by Breytenbach. In his own person—that is, as a new I—he addresses the narrator-I:
That is why I am so grateful to you … because I could kick you and I could spit on you, I could get rid of my bad temper. Because I am a moralist. White is dead. That is the one level.
This concluding authorial statement subverts the transgressive force of the work by in effect repudiating the narrator, denying him an identity, and then gesturing vaguely toward a "level" on which he can be recuperated.
In the companion piece The Ant-Nest Swells Up, the concluding move is again to claim to cast off all masks:
It ought to be crystal clear that I am asking you for Rebellion. The duty of the artist is to overthrow his government…. Can't you see that the poem is a curse of protest, that it must reflect the smell of spilled blood, of inhumanity, the bestiality of suppression; that it cannot and may not be an aesthetic cocoon, a watered-down and scented European-derived dribble of piss!
Besides "Brief uit die vreemde," Skryt contains several poems of straightforward denunciatory content. One is "The Promised Land."
[Johannesburg] a glittering image: hell with God God the Bureau of State Security God wearing his helmet, in one hand an attaché case full of shares and gold in the other a whip, God erect in all His shining majesty on the shoulders of blacks buried to the waist in the earth's kingdom
The problem that poetry like this raises for Breytenbach is the same that is raised by the Totius poem: it is transgressive, but all that it transgresses in the end is a certain decorum of address. It cannot be said to be an act as the poem on Vorster is. Relying solely on a rhetoric of abjuration, it remains within the rhetorical realm and so is always vulnerable to being trumped by a yet more violent rhetoric.
The alternative to frontal rhetorical assault is an ironistic manoeuvre of identifying with, parodying, and mocking the enemy. It is not too much of a generalization to say that, as transgressor, Breytenbach shuttles between these two manoeuvres, as, for example, in "Life in the Earth."
blessed are the children of Dimbaza, of Welcome Valley, Limehill and Stinkwater dead of sicknesses, undernourishment, poverty— for they make clean the baas's field of vision, for they escape hell, for they vacate the territory of the Boer —the Boer and his God— —the hand of the God—… ........................................... twice-blessed and holy are the moles and the worms and the ants in the land of sunshine in the land of the Boer in the land that the Lord gave him.
In ironic manoeuvres such as this, conventional critical wisdom has it, the less visible the line of difference between speaker and enemy, the more potentially powerful the effect. On the other hand, if the line of difference becomes too nearly invisible, the reader may be left bewildered (the early history of the reception of Swift's "Modest Proposal" provides a case in point). Plotting one's distance from the enemy seems to be merely a technical matter. Yet, in the end, seeming to identify with the enemy, to speak the enemy's language, raises an unsettling ethical question: is the ironic poem merely a second-best substitute for the private diaries of the tyrant (who ought then to be able to trump anything the poet can come up with) or does the tyrant truly not know what he intends as well as the poet does? If the latter, how does the secret sympathy of poet for tyrant arise? It is in the face of this latter question, perhaps, that Breytenbach takes the defensive steps he does at the conclusions of To Fly and The Ant-Nest Swells Up.
The dilemma can be restated in the form of two questions. If the passion behind my denunciation is not the passion of a pure (idealistic) moralism, whose target may as well be universal tyranny, Roman or South African, what does it stem from? And if there is any risk I take in denouncing tyranny, what is it? The answer to the first question is: my passion stems from the fact that I am implicated (historically, emotionally) in South Africa; insofar as the present-day South African order is, and rests upon, a crime, that crime is part of me and I wish to purge myself of it. The answer to the second question is: I take the risk of reidentifying myself with what I could leave behind. I risk the European identity I have half-adopted by resuming a white South African identity I detest. Thus the paradox clarifies itself: to repudiate white South Africa I have to be a white South African; or: to repudiate evil I have to embody evil.
The paradox is lived out by Breytenbach in the act of writing in Afrikaans, "a bastard language" or, to be more specific, the language of a split self. "Brief uit die vreemde" has to be written in the language of the tyrant, spoken nowhere but in the land of the tyrant, but also in the mother-language:
I write poetry in afrikaans language of bodyspasms: brew- smell of my first milk, grain of my father's fingertips
The movement back holds terrible regressive perils. Lewendood (Life-and-death, Living-death) is the title of one of Breytenbach's prison volumes. But the paradox of that title is already announced in the first poem of the first volume, with its instructions for the funeral of one Breyten Breytenbach. Poetry and death, love and death:
my heart is in the Boland and nothing can desecrate it it is stored in a little coffin in white Wellington
Exile and death too. Looking out on Paris through the rainstreaked windowpane of his apartment, the poet sees "forbidden death's-herald water-images" of his parents and of the Boland where he was born. There is no doubt that the paradox of being and not being an Afrikaner has been lived out personally by Breytenbach in the most intense terms.
A Season in Paradise dates, in censored form, from 1976. Before the book could appear in Afrikaans, Breytenbach had to accept the excision of passages that alarmed or offended the publisher. Bowing to that veto, he thereby entered the realm of the enemy's discourse and power. Thus when denunciation of the enemy comes, Breytenbach is able to implicate himself in it as both subject and object:
We South Africans, we will go on haunting the world forever. We are, all of us, slightly nuts, there is a bleeding crack running through each of us…. We are mad, all of us, with rigid faces…. We are maimed, we are only half human, but we know it, we are mad and realize that we are mad.
Do we notice the Cretan liar lurking here? Even if what we hear is supposed to be mad speech, the words with which the address ends are clearly intended to cast aside the cloak of madness: "By taking cognizance of the nature of the struggle we are involved in and share … we expand our humanity and our language." The madness is not really Breytenbach's: it belongs to other people. What runs through Breytenbach may be a scar (like a birthmark) left by a mad formation and a scar (like a whiplash) left by the mad behavior around him ("I too … have … been placed in the humiliating position of being subjected to the discriminating system I despise"), but not madness itself. If Breytenbach is seeking the nature of his own implication, it continues to elude him.
Hence his resort to a deus ex machina, a savior who will end the reign of madness and institute a new age. Messianic thinking is all too common and all too understandable in South Africa; but the savior Breytenbach announces allows the poet a special role as visionary John the Baptist:
I say unto you, from the heart of the country he will come to you, one of you, strung on blood he will be of your making and where he goes a way will be paved and women will drop their stitches and fire will emerge barking from the barrels of guns houses will grow black fig trees will wither he will command armies he will avenge injustice and settle old scores for all those years of existing without a decent living wage when you [sic] laborers had to sleep on cement, content with porridge some of you will of course—it's in a man's nature— lie down on your stomachs like bloated worms … offering … anything, "anything, master Kaffir, no matter what, anything but death, oh, my own mashter Kaffir" and he will be wearing a gorgeous smile and a halo and a Sten and he will not harm the sparrows of the veld neither will he rip up the choppers from the locusts
I have pointed earlier to a movement (a shuttling? a lurching?) between poems of rhetorical denunciation with a certain emptiness at their heart, and poems of ironic identification with the enemy. The poem I have quoted, loose and occasional though it is, responds to the unsettled position of a poet to whom both speaking from outside and speaking from inside are sources of unease. It is essentially a poem of settling scores. The slave becomes master, the arrogant master embraces the self-abasing, sickening language of the powerless, a language beneath language, babyspeech (the translation above is Breytenbach's own). It envisions and revels in apocalypse, salvation, the end of all division. Invoking a magical violence so overwhelming that it does not even entail force, it is a poem that by its nature belongs to an epoch, the end of an age: settling scores, it seeks by its own excess to close the book on the restlessness and division running through the earlier poetry.
"Imagine a dialogue of two persons," writes Mikhail Bakhtin,
in which the statements of the second speaker are omitted, but in such a way that the general sense is not at all violated. The second speaker is present invisibly, his words are not there, but deep traces left by these words have a determining influence on all the present and visible words of the first speaker. We sense that this … is a conversation of the most intense kind, for each present, uttered word responds and reacts with its every fibre to the invisible speaker, points to something outside itself, beyond its own limits, to the unspoken words of another person…. The other's discourse … is merely implied, but the entire structure of speech would be completely different if there were not this reaction to another person's implied words.
Such hidden polemic and hidden dialogue Bakhtin identifies in all Dostoevski's mature novels. He goes on:
By no means all historical situations permit the ultimate semantic authority of the creator to be expressed without mediation in direct, unrefracted, unconditional authorial discourse. When there is no access to one's own personal "ultimate" word, then every thought, feeling, experience must be refracted through the medium of someone else's discourse, someone else's style, someone else's manner.
It would be as naive in Dostoevski's case as in Breytenbach's to argue that a change in "historical situation," specifically the removal of external censorship, would have resulted in "direct, unrefracted, unconditional authorial discourse" from which hidden dialogue would have been absent. Censorship, or at least the office of the censor, is not the sole "semantic authority" at which Bakhtin hints. But the work Breytenbach did in the period from 1975 to 1982 was written under extraordinarily restricted circumstances, and, even though there was opportunity afterwards for revision, it bears traces, not always in the most obvious way, of a censored origin. As the concept of hidden contestatory dialogue opens up hidden areas of Dostoevskian discourse, it also alerts us to the possibility of a hidden contestation in Breytenbach. In the following discussion of Breytenbach's prison writings. I will be concentrating on hidden voices against which Breytenbach speaks.
Even in detention, before his trial, Breytenbach was allowed to write. The poems that emerged were published as Voetskrif (Footwriting), dedicated to his principal interrogator, Colonel Broodryk, at the latter's insistence: "You dedicate this to me and I allow you to have it published," as Breytenbach reported it. One poem had to be omitted.
In prison, writing was permitted on four conditions: that it would be shown to no other prisoner or warder, that it would not be smuggled out, that each piece would be handed in for safekeeping when completed, that all notes would be destroyed. Four volumes of poetry from the prison period, making up Parts I-IV of The Undanced Dance, were eventually published.
In True Confessions Breytenbach addresses his position as a prisoner vis-à-vis the censor: "A bizarre situation … when you write knowing that the enemy is reading over your shoulder …, knowing also that you are laying bare the most intimate and the most personal nerves and pulsebeats in yourself to the barbarians, to the cynical ones who will gloat over this." Besides this testimony, there is textual evidence that at least some of the poems of The Undanced Dance, even as published, are, in the most obvious sense, censored. For instance, an untitled poem in Lewendood, a rather inconsequential two-stanza lullaby, appears in translation in Judas Eye in what one must conclude was the originally intended form: with a third stanza in which a litany of South African relocation camps and razed settlements ("nighthooded names / I'm not yet allowed to say") is added to the litanies of sacked cities and death camps in the earlier stanzas.
Before turning to poems in which a hidden dialogue can be read, I would like to point to the contrasting phenomenon of the monologic poem. The most extreme example is the poem entitled "Place of Refuge," from which I quote at length.
there were insects in your beards a slipperiness around the supple kernels of your eyes and soft saliva threads plaited about the red tongue but the soft laughter and taunting were worse than a dog barking high priests of prejudice the further you persecute us the more brutal you become unthinking retrogression to more primitive, archetypal behavior a joint grubbing for psycho-amnesia buried beneath mud is the pigs' god-idea … and on our trail your sniggers degenerated with battle-axes bringing light and smoldering torches the dim sign of your heads with bruises for features and the mouths slackened in an idiot babble and you have no knowledge any more of who you were no laws any more to join freedom to responsibility no conscience any more belonging to a field of reference— just that we must be exterminated
With its catalogue of images from horror films, this poem carries out a demonization, a bestialization of the enemy; perhaps also an exorcism, an anathematization. Insofar as the speech of the enemy is "an idiot babble," insofar as he is without self-awareness or conscience, no dialogue, open or hidden, is possible with him. The poem is itself, in fact, not only monologue but the most violent repudiation of dialogue.
"(Language Struggle)" exemplifies an intermediate form. It speaks in the tired, lifeless voice of a "grey reservist of over a hundred years" addressing "you" who are young, black, and rebellious:
we will recite the ABC to you from the beginning we will tell you what's what with the guidelines of our Christian National Education … You will learn to be obedient, obedient and subservient. And you will learn to use the Language [Afri kaans], you will use it subserviently
In Bakhtin's system, this is "double-voiced discourse," not yet truly dialogic, in which the writer takes possession of another's discourse for his own purpose—in this case, one presumes, a satiric one. I have already pointed to the ambivalence of this procedure, an ambivalence of which Breytenbach seems to be aware: "taking possession of" always raises the question, who is taking possession of whom?
Side by side with this poem we can set "The Conquerors":
because we would not acknowledge them as human beings everything human in us dried up and we cannot grieve over our dying because we wanted nothing more than fear and hatred we did not recognize the human uprising of humanity and tried to find rough solutions but too late the flowers in the fire no one is interested in our solutions— we are past understanding we are of another kind we are the children of Cain
Again the voice is lifeless. Though it shifts from past to present tense, it speaks from beyond the grave, epitaph more than elegy. But this time a dialogue of sorts is occurring, carried on more by the voice of the past (which uses the language of the living, of menslikheid, humanity) rather than the voice of the present. "(Language Struggle)" and "The Conquerors" speak for two moments in the history of white domination: a moment of self-ignorance and a moment of fatalistic self-knowledge. The voice is the same in both cases: the voice of a sleepwalker in the corridors of history, the voice of unregenerate, doomed colonialism.
The obvious question is: why does Breytenbach say "we" in both poems when he means "you"? What is achieved in disguising accusation as self-accusation, or in assuming the voice of someone one repudiates? Can these people not speak for themselves in their own voices, issue their own grim ukases, their own despairing epitaphs? Why must Breytenbach speak for both sides? Why surrogate monologue, but also, why hidden dialogue, why even a hidden polemic with an enemy who belongs to the realm of the dead?
The answer is as obvious as the question. As a matter of brute fact, the speech of the enemy against which Breytenbach directs himself is never as open, naked, brutal as he would wish it to be. It is, on the contrary, evasive, circuitous, self-censored. Locating the murderous and/or self-destructive heart of Afrikaner nationalism is like grappling with Proteus. Or, to put it in another way, the Afrikaner puts up a more expert case for himself in the dock of history than Breytenbach's two speakers do. What Breytenbach performs in these poems is ventriloquism in two different forms; but it is also in both cases a preemption of the enemy's speech, and, to that extent, censorship: a presentation of the enemy's case in heightened or parodic but finally self-damaging form in a medium to which the enemy does not have access (for in the reality of present-day politics, white South African nationalism has access to the reader's ear only as accused, never as prosecutor).
Therefore, although there is indeed a dialogue, or a dialogization, relating to these two poems and others like them, it is not a dialogue in them so much as a dialogue around them, a dialogue "in the air," so to speak, concerning the right and the power to speak. It is a dialogue in which Breytenbach has the enemy in a double bind. As long as you speak the language of naked colonial domination, he says, no one will listen to you. They will listen only to those who speak of you, or to whose who, like myself, pretending to speak for you from within you, speak a message that confirms what everyone already knows about you. And as long as we speak for you, we will give you the voice of naked colonial domination. Thus speaks Breytenbach in what we can think of as the frame around the poems.
Perhaps because the confrontations they play out are so onesided, it is hard to detect in these two poems any real engagement of energy. In contrast, consider "—'n Spieëlvars—":
you! you! you! it's you I want to talk to cunt you ride around without saddle or driver's license in the gutters and yards of my verses my death you dig around with your lance in the white acres where I wanted to multiply for nation and fatherland (but soon there will be nothing left of either) my death ........................................... you with your yellow eyes you with the left hand you with the missing beard you with the sand over the tongue with your nine-year sentence like a pregnancy I'll make you a widower chop-chop for you make me shiver you make plaints of pleasure you lay the cold caress of your lips here upon my life and here and here come kiss me in my mouth you hand-picked dog come and draw lines through my young thoughts and pack stones over my slack wings must I wait still longer? o my snow-white shadow Death my own secret police I will be yours forever and you are mine mine mine
The imprint of Sylvia Plath lies heavily on this poem, not least in its jagged rhythms and wild swings of mood. But from Plath Breytenbach has learned something deeper too: that I and You need not stand for fixed positions. The I here is the vindictive, death-ridden jailer and killer, but he is also the self that longs for liberation despite seeing no other form of liberation looming but death (his own death, not that of others, one hastens to add). You is clearly Breytenbach the prisoner, in comic form; but he is also the persecuting figure of the oppressed slave, the lover death whose perverse embrace ("here and here") he craves, the ever-watchful other in the mirror, and, finally, a figure with wings that answer to his own (unused?) wings. In fact, many of the avatars of the I—censor, secret policeman, winged guardian-persecutor—are shared by the You. What we have is a true mirror-poem, spieëlvers, in which it is not clear what is self, what image. The end of the poem thus looks (eagerly) forward to a moment not only when the self is possessed by death but when death is possessed by the self. It is a poem of accelerating dialogical frenzy in which it is no longer possible to say what the position of the self is: the interchange between self and other is, in effect, continuous. Insofar as the poem reflects on the process of gathering frenzy, it is a poem about the process of imitative violence, a poem that reveals that violence by enacting it.
Looking into South Africa is like looking into the mirror at midnight when one has pulled a face and a train blew its whistle and one's image stayed there, fixed for all eternity. A horrible face, but one's own.
So wrote Breytenbach in 1971. This figure of a man looking into a mirror dominates Breytenbach's retrospective postprison writings. Out of the transaction between the watcher and the figure in the mirror, spy and persecutor watching him back, come glimpses of the truth of himself. The surface of the mirror and the surface of the blank page touched by the pen become indistinguishable: moving the pen, the self both creates and calls up on that surface a sardonic counterself mocking his effort to see himself transparently, telling him to try again. The figure in the mirror behaves, in fact, just like the security policemen who, at the time of Breytenbach's first interrogation, put two blank pages in front of him and told him to write down the story of his life; then, when he was finished, read them, tore them up, and told him to try again.
What has changed in the decade since 1971 is the attitude to the face in the mirror. In 1971 Breytenbach was still reacting with horrified fascination, disgust, and a certain dark glee: a complex but essentially reactive response. After prison, in True Confessions, Mouroir, and Book: Part One, the relationship has become more purposeful, as though, realizing that he is manacled/married to the mirror-self for life, Breytenbach has settled down to make the most of the relationship.
Breytenbach drafted True Confessions by talking into a microphone, a process that he calls "this jumbletalk, this trial." What truth will emerge from the trial? Whatever it is, it cannot be predicted: only in the process of dialogue between self and mirror/page will it reveal itself. If there were to be a new interrogation, a new trial, the truth would come out differently: "I'd be somebody else—as sincere, as keen to help, as obsessed by the necessity to confess." Thus the posture of the writer before the mirror/page is assimilated with the attitude of the cooperative prisoner under interrogation. And who is the interrogator? In a sense, the reader who wants to read what Breytenbach has to say; but also the self that writes itself. "Mr. Investigator[:] you know that we're always inventing our lives…. You and I entwined and related, parasite and prey[,] image and image-mirror."
Thus far we have only another ingenious poststructuralist figure of textual self-production, writing as a looking in a mirror and construction of the self, without any particularity. But the African connection has not been elided. Coming to the end of his long confession, Breytenbach can write:
Mr. Investigator…. I see you now as my dark mirror-brother. We need to talk, brother I. I must tell you what it was like to be an albino in a white land. We are forever united by the intimate knowledge of the depravity man will stoop to. Son of Africa. Azanians.
Who is the interrogator here? Not (or not only) the persecuting white brother who polices the psyche but a black mirror-brother, just as haunting and persecutory, an accomplice in a crime (an historical crime?) in which there have been two parties, not one. Simone Weil is helpful. In every act of destruction, she writes, the I leaves behind its trace. "A hurtful act is the transference to others of the degradation which we bear in ourselves." Since the victim is no longer single, but shares the degradation of the oppressor, the I becomes double, multiply double: interrogator and revolutionary, criminal and victim, colonizer and colonized, even censor and writer. The black in the mirror is not Other but other/self, "brother I."
The long talking in the empty room with which True Confessions began thus culminates not in dialogue with the dark brother but in the discovery that for true knowledge to come about, dialogue must take place with the mirror. So when Breytenbach writes, in retrospect, that he does not regret having gone through the "underground" experience, the word is rich in significance, referring not only to his history as a secret agent and a prisoner but to a history of blind burrowing that has led not to the light but instead to the illumination, the insight that light-seeking is a process of blind burrowing. "What one has gone through becomes a new corridor outlining the innards of the labyrinth; it is a continuation of the looking for the Minotaur, that dark centre which is the I (eye), that Mister I [mystery]."
The white policeman, the black revolutionary, enemies brought together in the mirror. Is the mirror the place, then, where history is transcended? Does the dialogue with the mirror-self extend to dialogue between the selves in the mirror? Can dialogue with the mirror be trusted to proceed peaceably, or will it degenerate into hysterical confrontation such as we saw in "Place of Refuge" and see again in the 1986 "Pretext" to End Papers, where control of dialogue is allowed to break down (in a controlled experiment) and an exhibition is given of hysterical self-accusation, a spiraling descent into "the bottomless pit of deprecation and disgust"? Can the twins be reconciled?
These questions are beyond the scope of True Confessions. It is in Mouroir that Breytenbach tries to put into practice—the practice of writing—the theory outlined in True Confessions. Mouroir is an assemblage of stories, parables, meditations, and fragments linked by the coupled symbolisms of mirror and labyrinth. The text is a kind of Ariadne's thread that Breytenbach spins behind himself as he advances through the labyrinth of his fictionalizing toward a meeting with something that is both the self beckoning from the mirror—Mister I—and the monstrous other who will not be recuperated into amity: Death.
Of course a merging of self with mirror-self is not achieved, the surface of the mirror/page does not melt away, the heart of the labyrinth is not attained. Instead, a new surface recurs at every turn, becoming a point of entry into yet another branch of the labyrinth. The text moves forward by a process of metamorphosis of images, as in dreams. Text becomes coextensive with life: text will not end till writing ends; writing will not end till breath ends.
What has Breytenbach done? By seeing or claiming to see through the hostile identity in the mirror, by making the surface of the mirror something that one goes through, that is merely an opening to an infinite progress, he has deferred the confrontation with his twin, and further has turned this deferring into a model of textual production. On the basis of the moment of genesis he describes in True Confessions—the moment when the police interrogator returns his life-story to him with the comment "Try again"—he has constructed a program of writing which is indistinguishable from the theoretical justification for that program.
But the moment of "Try again" is not the only moment that the writing again and again rehearses. Out of the repertoire of memory, the writing repeats even more crucially the moment of Breytenbach's confession to the court when pride had to be swallowed and humiliating apologies uttered—when the role of a child repenting its naughtiness had to be embraced—and when this self-humbling was refused as not good enough to deflect a punitive sentence.
How does Breytenbach account for that calamitous turn of events? "Without being political it was an attempt to explain how I got to be standing where I was, without rejecting my convictions," he writes of the statement he made in his defense. "Read it—you will also hear the insidious voice of the [security police] controller in it. It was in [his] hands a week before the trial commenced, and Vorster himself had it on his desk before it was read in court."
It is hard to know quite how to read this account. Nowhere does Breytenbach accuse the police, or B. J. Vorster, of trying to influence the trial magistrate. Nevertheless, the implication seems to be that a deal was made (apologies, self-abasement, public acceptance of the authority of the father in return for a lighter sentence) and that the deal was reneged on. Cryptically, Breytenbach writes: "It [is] not my intention [in this book] to take revenge on a system or on certain people—at least, I don't think it [is]." And he goes on: "We are too closely linked for that."
We are too closely linked for that? Have family ties ever been a barrier to revenge? The motives behind True Confessions and Mouroir—the main texts of Breytenbach's mirrorphase—are extraordinarily complex. They include, yes, a primitive desire to get back at the people who shut him up: the torrents of infantile name-calling, in which people's names are turned into, precisely, cacophony (B. J. Vorster as Chief Sitting Bull, for instance), testify to that. They also include a more cautious project—instigated, perhaps, by a realization of how infantile it is to throw excrement at those figures of power who reject his stories of himself—to incorporate the censor-figure into himself (calling it the figure in the mirror, calling it the I) and manage it in that way. How successful this incorporation is, is doubtful: the test, I have suggested, is Mouroir, and Mouroir is, finally, an inconsequential work, a doodling with Ariadne's thread rather than a search for the Minotaur. Breytenbach is not without moments of clarity about how essentially magical his plan is for mastering the voice that says No. Writing is a way of survival, he writes. "But … at the same time it becomes the exteriorization of my imprisonment,… the walls of my confinement."
The hysteria of a consciousness that encounters wherever it looks nothing but reflections of itself had already received extreme embodiment in Dostoevski's 1864 Notes from Underground. Like Dostoevski's narrator, Breytenbach shuttles between self-accusation and accusation of the reader; like him, he takes up the pen in order to get a grip on himself, to try to control a sterile multiplication of selves (Breytenbach describes Book: Part One as "the journal of an attempt to stay clear or gain clarity"). One of the fates of confession—of secular confession at least—since Rousseau has been to spin itself out endlessly in an effort to reach beyond self-reflection to truth. In both Breytenbach and Dostoevski the task of taking charge of the process of self-reflection at first seems to the narrating self no more than a preliminary task to be performed (a sentry to be passed) before the real work, the real storytelling, can begin: in Dostoevski's case, Part II of Notes, in Breytenbach's case the story of life underground. Only later does the realization dawn that getting to the real self (finding the Mystery I) is a life's task, like cleaning the Augean stables.
In his public, political person, Breytenbach expresses attitudes towards the censorship of literature typical of most cosmopolitan, progressive intellectuals. "Censorship is an act of shame. Censorship is a motion of no confidence in your fellow and in yourself. It has to do with manipulation, with power, with … repression." For the writer to give his consent to being censored is fatal. "It takes root inside you as a kind of interiorized paternalism…. You become your own castrator." There can be no compromise. "Once you submit to the thought restrictions of the power managers, enter their game,… they have already won the day."
There is no hint in these utterances that the policeman/censor of the imagination is already in place in Breytenbach as his mirror-self, or that writing, as in Mouroir, is, if not playing at the censor's game, at least playing a game with the censor.
There may be a certain appeal in thinking that, despite all the years of being tracked in the labyrinth of the self, the policeman/censor has at this crucial public moment rendered himself invisible, censored himself out of Breytenbach's awareness. But it is more fruitful to introduce here the distinction between esoteric and exoteric doctrine. No writer can without ambivalence welcome or invite censorship. Nevertheless, every writer knows that he or she writes against a manifold of internalized resistances which are in essence no different to the internalized censor. Breytenbach goes further than an acknowledgment of the fact of inner censorship, and therefore further than most writers, when he turns the confrontation with the censor into not only a subject of rumination but a textually productive dialogue. True Confessions, like the first part of Notes from Underground, is about being confronted by a self-knowledge which is also a form of blockage or deflection; Mouroir whatever its weakness, is, like the second part of Notes from Underground, a way of turning the deflections, if not the blockages, into narrative.
The reason why the mirror-couple of writer and censor must remain part of the writer's esoteric doctrine (which is by no means to say that it is secret) is that, as a theory of the vicissitudes of blockage and deflection, it is inherently incompatible with political practice. Insofar as there is a political discourse about the censor, it is a discourse of control: either of taking control of the censor or of evading his control.
In the general run of events, writers have confronted the censor in the genre of polemic, where dialogue, such as it has been, has followed a course of accelerating violence and loss of difference. Certainly in Breytenbach's writings before the mirror-phase we find violence of language and crudity of thought whenever the figure of the censor is evoked: the polemic is simply incorporated into the text. The question raised by the post-1980 poetry is: does the incorporation (at least esoterically) of the censor/persecutor/policeman into the process of composition itself provide him with a way out of the automatism of imitative violence? Can we go so far as to say that Breytenbach has found a way out of imitative violence tout court?
The answer must remain suspended. But if we consider the fate of the literature of self-reflexiveness from Rousseau's Confessions to Beckett's The Unnamable, it seems all too likely to be No. Turning the gaze from the window to the mirror has never been a way out or a way past: it has always proved to be what Breytenbach in Mouroir discovers it to be: a diversion.
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. Included here are tender love poems to his wife, irritations expressed at the agony of the writing act and the uselessness of poetry, nostalgia for South Africa mixed with scorn for his country's political doctrines, meditations on Africa ("He repulses you, pulls you closer / holds you tight, strikes you lame / with love in the magical circle / of sand and poverty / and fire that lives under the scorching: / you stand shivering, exile of Africa"), and outrage at such injustices as the killing of Tiro by a letter bomb, to name but a few of the themes. There is again, as in his earlier books, the tendency to "milk" multiple meanings from words through accentuation, hyphenation, or shifts in spelling ("manieskrifte" for "manuskripte"); this tends to be irritating. Fixed idioms are given playful twists ("I pull my dream till daybreak"), and there are willful echoes of other poets (Yeats in "When you are old and small and dressed in black"), but more so of Afrikaans poets. Time and time again the verse is lit up by sharp, evocative flashes ("at night you shrink / your shadow seeks shelter in you"; "light has a white voice").
The poems are direct, like untouched first drafts, and at times have the joyous simplicity of a Cat Stevens. It must be stated, however, that the volume as a whole would have had a greater impact if some of the chaff had been left out. Still, when good, Breytenbach is very very good, as my translation of "12 April 1974" may indicate.
he got up and raised both arms and a day fell away, a gray one that never would be repeated just that way and he revealed in his night miner's voice: I carry my pain alone it is ingrown in me quite like a toenail it is the carapaced being which is no one's fault I am the flesh, my pain the bone when a dog someday buries it in the garden I will be altogether gone.
All One Horse is a volume of twenty-seven short prose pieces and a like number of reproductions of watercolors by the poet and painter. The texts are surrealistic to the extreme, phantasmagorical even, yet based on clear, everyday realities. The title is explained in the introduction as taken from Chuang Tzu: "Heaven and earth are one finger, all things are one horse"—not that this clarifies much. The image of the horse does recur in the pieces time and again as a symbol for freedom, the imagination, for life itself.
The texts have the clear, nightmarish quality of dreams or at times of childlike visions, and though no place or character or incident can be pinned down or recognized (as with the magic realism of the South Americans), they all are recognizable only too well. Statements that occur in the text itself characterize the book very aptly: "Some dreams have the contours and cavities of skulls," and "Memory is imagination." Breytenbach has turned out to be a master of English. The language is rich, exact, and never far from exuberance, as in the line "It was his wish to be happy, like a radio playing all to itself on the beach."
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 his account of the relationship of Meheret and Mano. The second section is Mano's description of his final experiences in South Africa, which he imagines Barnum is writing but which is also, he says, his own screenplay. The result is a remarkable display of intellectual fireworks with many cross-references, a number of them autobiographical, a multivoiced work that balances the various truths about the complexities of South Africa. To cite just one example, Barnum introduces Ka'afir as a cynic who describes South Africa as a place where all the tribes, including the whites, hate one another—"How wonderful it is to be able to kill in the name of Freedom!"—and later he defends the building of prisons as a means of reducing unemployment. In a screenplay with which Barnum interrupts Meheret's story, however, a black woman is tortured to reveal the whereabouts of her terrorist brother, also named Ka'afir. Later Mano encounters another Ka'afir in an adjoining cell awaiting execution. Finally, to complicate matters further, in one of the essays in End Papers Breytenbach identifies Ka'afir as "an African poet, my friend." We are left wondering whether Ka'afir is an actual friend inserted into the novel or a fictitious character in the essay.
In another essay Breytenbach attributes to Denise Levertov a sentiment that illuminates his intentions: "In the end only language can be my home." Permanently exiled, cut off from his origins, writing in a second language or in a first for an inevitably minor audience, Breytenbach has taken refuge in the greater, if lonelier, country of language. In Memory of Snow and Dust he has produced a deeply personal work which is also a rich display of artistry. Much of it, particularly in the latter section, is so obscure as to be almost incomprehensible, but it will repay study by those who have followed Breytenbach's remarkable career, in which it is a major development.
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 decidedly fascist sympathies." Breyten, the maverick of the family, early made a name for himself in literary circles, and came to be seen as the leading poetic talent of his generation. Even after he left South Africa, took up residence in Paris, married a woman who would be called in Afrikaans anderskleurig, "of another color" (meaning of a color other than white), and involved himself in the antiapartheid movement, he remained the idol of much of the Afrikaans literary world. In 1973 he obtained official dispensation to visit his homeland. Audiences at poetry readings gave him and his wife a rapturous welcome. The word in the air was "reconciliation." The prodigal son would yet return, the breach would be healed, and all would be well.
The next time Breytenbach visited South Africa, circumstances were different. He had shaved off his beard, and he carried a passport identifying him as Christian Galaska, citizen of France. His mission was to recruit members to Okhela, a resistance organization that had already embarrassed the West German government by stealing classified documents and revealing details of military cooperation between Bonn and Pretoria. Tipped off by an informer in Europe, the South African security police kept "Galaska" under surveillance for a while, then closed in and arrested him. At the end of a trial conducted in surprisingly subdued terms, Breytenbach was given a stiff nine-year sentence. (In True Confessions he claims that the authorities reneged on a deal to let him off lightly in return for not conducting a political defense.) He spent two years in isolation in Pretoria Central Prison, a spell from which he emerged with his sanity miraculously unimpaired, followed by five years in Pollsmoor. In 1982 he was released and flown off to France.
The Breytenbach case has troubled and continues to trouble Afrikaners. Breytenbach took the position from the beginning that he had gone into exile, that the reasons for his exile were political, and that only changes that would bring all political exiles home would bring him home. Afrikaner public opinion, on the other hand, particularly liberal opinion, preferred to see his defection as a family matter, a generational quarrel within the greater Afrikaner family, to be sorted out within the family. To those who hold this view it remains possible for Breytenbach to be a great Afrikaans writer while still adopting the stance of a rebel. But in True Confessions Breytenbach spells out his position anew. He is not a rebel but a revolutionary, in will if not in deed. And he is no longer one of the family:
To be an Afrikaner is a political definition. It is a blight and a provocation to humanity … I do not consider myself to be an Afrikaner. To be an Afrikaner in the way they define it is to be a living insult to whatever better instincts we human beings may possess.
Given his unequivocal rejection of his Afrikaner birthright, why should Breytenbach have received from the police and prison authorities the odd touches of indulgence, mixed in with the usual harshness and cruelty, that we find described in this book? Breytenbach suggests that Red Cross and other international observers exerted a cautionary influence on his jailers. His own deliberately unheroic attitude ("Be pliant and weak when you have to. Cry if you must") may have contributed, too.
But I think there is a deeper reason. Prisoners in South Africa are not permitted to conduct economic activities from within jail. Breytenbach is a professional painter and writer. The letter of the law would have been on the side of the authorities if they had prohibited him from painting or writing in prison. In fact he was given permission to write, though not to paint. The works he wrote in prison, Mouroir among them, were taken into custody as they were completed and returned to him on his release. The censors have allowed the publication of these works in South Africa. The public buys and reads them. They are honored with literary prizes. Why? Breytenbach writes:
People who absolutely rejected me and my ideas and what my life stood for but who, perhaps from an obscure sense of uncomfortableness, if not guilt, and also, surely, because of a true concern for my work, applied to the minister to allow me to continue writing. "For the sake of Afrikaans literature." Was it a way for some of them to establish in their own minds their evenhandedness?
Perhaps. The fact is that, by the standards of the Afrikaans literary tradition, Breytenbach is a great poet. He is a poet, moreover, whose emotional makeup includes feelings of passionate intimacy with the South African landscape that, Afrikaners like to think, can be expressed only in Afrikaans, and therefore (here comes the sinister turn in the reasoning) can be experienced only by the Afrikaner. Closeness of fit between land and language is—so the reasoning goes—proof of the Afrikaner's natural ownership of the land. (Ideas like these are not new: natural congruence between a people, a language, and an ancestral landscape is a commonplace of German Romanticism.) There is a considerable communal investment in presenting the Afrikaans literary tradition—a tradition, let it not be forgotten, that is the occasion for a vast echoing ideological discourse in classrooms and cultural organs—as speaking with a single voice on the subject of the land. There is a certain interest, even for official, establishment Afrikaans culture, in seeing Breytenbach as the bearer of a talent that he cannot, despite himself, betray; and to view his politics as an aberration that does not touch his poetic soul. There is an interest in not acknowledging that there can coexist in a single breast both a belief in a unitary democratic South Africa and a profound Afrikaans digterskap, poetness.
Hence the notion that the "terrorist" in Breytenbach can be incarcerated and punished while the poet in him can be left free. By acting as though Breytenbach must be a radically divided personality, one self a poet to be saved, the other self a traitor to be condemned, the greater Afrikaner family preserves its belief (and perhaps does so sincerely and in good faith) that the language, the mystical nation-essence, is greater than the fallible vessels who bear it.
The embrace of the Afrikaner, stony yet loving, finds its expression in the insufferable intimacy forced on Breytenbach by his security police interrogators, in which compassion and cruelty seem at times pathologically intertwined ("I am convinced that some of the people they have killed in detention probably died when the interrogator was in a paroxysm of unresolved frustrations, even that the interrogator killed in an awkward expression of love and sympathy"). The interrogators feed upon, and therefore depend upon, their prisoners. But Breytenbach extends the scope of the Hegelian master-slave dyad. What is the difference, he asks himself, between the "true confession" he utters into a microphone in Palermo in 1983 (eventually to become this book) and the "true confession" his interrogators demanded in Pretoria in 1975? Are not both of them answers to the question "What is the truth of your mission to South Africa?"? Before the interrogator, before the microphone, before the blank page, Breytenbach finds himself in the same position, staring at himself. So he develops the mirror as the master metaphor of his book; and the most interesting passages are the dialogues he conducts with the figure in the mirror, which is variously the cruel interrogator, the "true" Breytenbach, and the dark brother-African: "I see you now as my dark mirror-brother. We need to talk, brother I. I must tell you what it was like to be an albino in a white land. We are forever united by the ultimate knowledge of the depravity man will stoop to. Son of Africa. Azanians."
To his "dark mirror-brother" Breytenbach expresses his misgivings about the postrevolutionary South Africa of the future, which he foresees will fall under a no less totalitarian regime than the present one, and his bitterness against the "fat, institutionalized friends in the liberation movement" who sent him off on his fool-hardy mission in the first place. Bitterness emerges even more strongly in his judgments on white South Africa: "Let that bloated village of civil servants and barbarians [Pretoria] be erased from the face of the earth." As he observes, one of the effects of prolonged isolation is to kill off parts of you, "and these parts will never again be revived."
What will survive of Breytenbach's True Confessions, I think, is not the narrative of capture, interrogation, and imprisonment, absorbing enough though that is, nor the apologia he gives for his quixotic foray into the fortress of the enemy, valuable though that is for its analysis of the appeal of direct political action to the intellectual. A feature of Breytenbach's poetry is that it stops at nothing: there is no limit that cannot be exceeded, no obstacle that cannot be leaped, no commandment that cannot be questioned. His writing characteristically goes beyond, in more senses than one, what one had thought could be said in Afrikaans. The pages of True Confessions that stand out, that could have been written by no one else, are those in which he tries to feel his way into the experience of the condemned man, into the experience of death itself, and then into the moral world of the men who order deaths, build prisons, carry out tortures, and then into the very interior of the mad thinking of "security" itself.
Mouroir was written during Breytenbach's prison years. It is a more substantial work than True Confessions, but more difficult, and probably of less general appeal. In quality it is variable. Subtitled "Mirrornotes of a Novel," it consists of thirty-eight pieces, some short, some long. Some are no more than jottings. Others are profoundly impressive in their evocation of a terminal landscape, a landscape from beyond the war, where children go about giving birdcalls to lure the fled birds back to the earth. Though certain fragments are linked closely enough for us to follow an erratic, dreamlike narrative line through them, we would be hard put to form the pieces into the skeleton of any conceivable novel. We are better advised to read the book as an assemblage of stories, parables, meditations, and fragments, some of them centering on the themes of imprisonment, death, and freedom, others linked by the recurrent figures of the mirror and the labyrinth (the title of course plays on mourir, to die, and miroir, mirror). It is not too fanciful to conceive of the text that Breytenbach has left us as a kind of Ariadne's thread that he spins behind him as he advances through the labyrinth of his fictions (and his dreams) toward a meeting with the monstrous Other who is also both the self in the mirror and death.
But a merging with the mirror-self is not achieved, the heart of the labyrinth is not attained. Instead, as in Jean Cocteau's Orpheus films, the surface of the mirror becomes a hole of entry into another world, into yet another branch of the labyrinth. Thus we find Breytenbach's text moving forward by a continual process of metamorphosis, particularly a metamorphosis of landscape. Though the process seems dreamlike, the forward movement is purposeful, the motivations are not obscure, the connections are present on the surface or not too far beneath it. It is a form of writing that pays its respects to Kafka and Nabokov (one of Breytenbach's alter egos is called Gregor Samsa). In technique it owes much to the nouveau roman, though its focus is less on surfaces, as in Robbe-Grillet and Claude Simon, more on interiors and the properties of interiors: darkness, softness, wetness. Nevertheless, Breytenbach's voice is clearly his own.
The weakest sections are those in which Breytenbach works in the mode of the parable. When he deprives himself of the generative, metamorphosing powers of language and follows the more linear path of irony, the end results are thin. His irony gains bite only when he turns it on himself, as in his story about the radical writer who gives a press conference at the Rome airport before flying off to join the liberation struggle in South Africa: "Not in salons and ivory towers will revolutions be made. Purification in the struggle. Self-sacrifice. Freedom! (Liberté!)… Fierce fire in the pupils before the lashes are lowered."
How to write a revolutionary literature is a question to which Mouroir returns several times. One story deals with a writer who gives in to the pleas of friends and commences a conventional bourgeois tale of suburban adultery. Soon he discovers how hard it is to carry on writing when one's pants are soaked in horse blood. Nevertheless he plods on, in gathering darkness, till the fictional world he has created turns nasty, takes on a life of its own, and rends him.
The bloody horse alluded to here becomes a complex, ambivalent, and recurrent symbol in Mouroir as a whole. In the richly meaningful cover Breytenbach designed for the Afrikaans edition, a naked pink (albino?) figure (the artist?) passes by a barred window, his head covered (replaced?) by the huge eyeless severed head of a horse: stalking horse, Trojan horse; also Minotaur, mirror-taurus, figure of death from the dead center of the labyrinth; also the ludicrous counterimage of the warlike, passionate centaur.
A word must be said about the translation. There exists no Afrikaans edition of True Confessions. The edition we have must be accepted as a work written in English by Breytenbach. However, tell-tale solecisms indicate that Breytenbach is translating, and sometimes mistranslating, from an Afrikaans original. Mouroir, on the other hand, appeared in South Africa in 1983 in an edition partly in English but mainly in Afrikaans. Since no translator is named in the preliminaries to the American edition, we are justified in inferring that Breytenbach again did some or all of the translation; and the recurrence of idiosyncratic mistranslations tends to confirm this conclusion.
While the translation of parts of Mouroir is little short of masterly, in other parts it is nothing short of inept. Examples: "And then he went away with the cancer" (instead of "And then he died of cancer"); "wire obstacle" (instead of "barbedwire entanglement"); "sucking black" (instead of "pitchblack"); "a sentence of grass" (instead of "a strip of grass"). These mistranslations emerge from a cursory check of a few odd-sounding passages. A careful check would, I am sure, produce hundreds more. Should the author's response be that what I call mistranslations are in fact creative reworkings, I would have to reply that what we have been given to read remains a poor substitute for the original.
1Breyten Breytenbach, The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1985) and Mouroir (New York; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984).
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, andSelf 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 Stockholm. The first two speeches, "Fragments of a Growing Awareness" and "A Dog at Dinner," were written for South African audiences and deal with the place of cultural activity within the political arena. Of more importance for the reader of South African literature and specifically for an understanding of Breytenbach's work are the two papers dealing variously with exile and with his view of his own work, "The Long March from Hearth to Heart" (New York, 25 October 1990) and "Painting and Writing for Africa" (Stockholm, 27 January 1991). In the New York speech Breytenbach deals incisively and extensively with the phenomenon of exile, with special reference to how it manifests itself in his own oeuvre: "Exile … showed me … the mechanisms of survival. It made my mother tongue into a 'homeland', a movable feast, indeed a dancing of the bones." Because of the oppressive regime of apartheid, South African literature is characterized, as is Russian literature, by an extensive corpus of writings on and from exile. "The Long March from Hearth to Heart" is a valuable addition to the greater understanding of this human condition and to how it influences creative writers and their work.
In the Stockholm paper Breytenbach comes to terms with his role in the political arena and with public expectations of him. Since his release from prison in South Africa (where he served almost eight years under the Act on Terrorism) Breytenbach seems to have become increasingly disenchanted with politics and the struggle for liberation, seeing his role as less of a political activist and more of a committed writer. In "Painting and Writing for Africa" he describes the way that people expect him to behave:
I have the impression that people are waving their fists and shouting: "Tell us about exile! Give us, again and again, the juice extracted from your years in prison! Confirm for us that Afrikaans is a racist language and that the Boers are all fascist! Make us feel sorry for you!… Give us politics, none of your confusing and ambiguous artistic prattling!
Still, he refuses to fit into this prescribed role. Breytenbach states categorically: "I'm through with politics." Hart-Lam serves as a valuable introduction to one of the most important South African writers of today.
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."
For the reader, it is sheer pleasure to go along for the journey. Breytenbach's writing reveals the eye of a painter, the ear of a poet. There is the keenest sense of immediacy in his writing, as if one were standing just behind him, moving with him through the thicket towards what passes for truth.
En route, no one is spared, certainly not Breytenbach himself. He talks of his own "white-sight," his own failure to see. Doubling back on an ecstatic description of a garden, a landscape, a mountain, he will remind himself and his reader that "along the edges of the well-to-do estates a disorderly metropolis of poverty is gnawing its way through."
"South Africa," he says in one of his characteristic litanies, "is the photographer's paradise: undefiled desert, landscapes, cloud-towers of fancy in the electric heavens, rubbish dumps where women and children scratch for sustenance; the sombre shifting shapes of galloping buffalo … white joggers with pink fat-rolls shuffling along to burn off the excess, hungry blacks trotting to work … the upper lip and the inflamed neck veins of the suburban house-wife … the worried blind look of the writer."
And then, suddenly, in true South African style, he will roll into a textbook guide of class and race stereotypes, which, because they carry sufficient truth in them, can be hilarious. "Television presenters have weak eyes and they emit a language of their own—the Afrikaans a fulsome Germanic strain of throat-terrorism." "South African Jews have a sort of superior sympathy for the Boers." And, "it is habitual for youngish Afrikaners to wipe out their entire immediate families in one go, usually with a firearm."
Breytenbach's portraits themselves are extraordinary, resonant. Here, for instance, is Mandela. "Only the lips in repose betrayed him—severe, dark, aloof, bitter. It is the mouth which sometimes says more, and more eloquently, than the voice can; lips close over the unsayable: This cannot be spoken about, so why bother?"
And here is Jesse Jackson at an early Mandela rally "with shiny hair and shiny moustache and a camel hair coat and a nose for the television-lens like a fly for s―. Each time the camera looked his way he was on his feet with clenched fist held high and a pious tear in the combative eye …"
There are flashbacks to anti-apartheid meetings in other African countries, many of them engineered by Breytenbach himself, hilarious vignettes, diatribes against places, against people. White liberals, his friends included, "starry-eyed recent converts," white fascists, the ANC, "the new hegemony," blacks, browns, academics of course, other writers—all come under Breytenbach's passionate, furious, ironic eye. His reactions are not predictable, but they are always true, with a wonderful absence of heartfelt horror, never the shocked liberal gasp. "'Aren't you ever happy?'" asks Albie Sachs, fellow ex-exile. "'Now that we've won, can't you rejoice?"
But how can Breytenbach rejoice? He has the obstinate insight of the artist, the perspective of the philosopher, the remove of an old warrior in exile. Again and again, he returns to the subject of exile. It is, he says, "coming face to face with the self as mirror (or mirror as self?), and it strikes me that exiles often put pipes in their mouths to lift their hats jauntily to an imaginary mirror. Maybe the mirror is home." The writer himself, he says, "flies through language as wide and as unique as his wings. Like all birds he sings in French when in France, Afrikaans in Africa, English in London … It's the only way to be indigenous."
Finally, when the visit is over, this indigenous Afrikaner leaves his country with a question.
"Why did I come back?" he asks. "Nostalgia, unfinished business, loose ends, to complete the incomplete, for annihilation, death-wish. Why will I not return to stay? Too late now. Foreigner here. Painted monkey. Bitter dreams. No roots. Attachment too painful. Deathwish…."
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 targets. Because of incompetence and perhaps even treachery among his ANC associates, he was picked up by the security police, put on trial, and given a long sentence, of which he served seven years.
In 1980, while he was still in prison, his book A Season in Paradise appeared, first in the Netherlands, then in the English-speaking world—a memoir of the 1972–1973 visit interspersed with poems, reminiscences, and reflections on the South African situation (it includes the text of the address mentioned above). The title A Season in Paradise casts an ironical glance at Rimbaud's Une Saison en enfer; Breytenbach's new book, Return to Paradise, carries the echoes further ("this region of damnation," he calls the country now)—in fact, as he explains in a preface, the two Paradise books are meant to be read together with his prison memoir, The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, as an autobiographical triptych addressing a chapter of his life now closed, a chapter during which he struggled to grasp the nature of his links to the landscape and history of the continent on which he was born.
Return to Paradise is casually organized, as was the earlier book. It is a loose narrative of the journey he made in 1991, again accompanied by his wife, through F. W. De Klerk's "reformed" South Africa, intercut with horror stories from South African newspapers and with flashbacks to visits to other parts of Africa.
Breytenbach—who is now a French citizen—had visited South Africa several times in the 1980s—visits hemmed in by official obstructionism—so what he sees in 1991 does not come as a complete surprise to him. Nevertheless, as he remarks after a tour through the killing fields of Natal province, where, in a landscape of unsurpassed beauty, ANC and Inkatha adherents daily slaughter each other with gun and spear, "I am looking at the future and it chills me to the bone…. The land is awash in blood."
If the future holds not interracial harmony but interethnic and internecine warfare without end, then where did it all go wrong? At whose door does the fault lie?
In part Breytenbach blames the present state of affairs on the ANC's policy of "making the townships ingovernable," in part on the Zulu leader Gatsha Buthelezi, waging a stubborn, clandestine war for his share of the spoils; but he identifies the ultimate source of evil as elements in the white state that have decided. "If we have to be brought down we shall topple the pillars of Babylon with us." These elements, "niched within the shadowy reaches of occult structures and operations and secret funds," pull the strings that control the daily may-hem, "like mad dogs who go on biting even without orders to do so."
This is not an original analysis. Whoever it may have been who fired the first shot, the bloodletting today is being carried out by ANC-affiliated youth beyond the control of family or party leadership, by Buthelezi's irregulars battling against what they see as the marginalizing of the Aulu people, and by agents, some from ultra-right organizations, some within the state security forces, operating directly or through proxies to create as much chaos as they can. Nor can Breytenbach offer an account of what is happening on the ground any more vivid—or more appalling—than what he quotes from the daily newspapers.
If there is anything surprising about Breytenbach's views, therefore, it is that he seems to regard the spectacle of cliques of middle-aged men negotitating their slice of the cake while their followers fight it out as a betrayal of the promise of the revolution. "We are too pusillanimous to make the Revolution, to abort it, then to use the corpses as stepping-stones to the masters' table of shared power." "This is the new [South Africa] … more broadly based hegemony but [the] same mechanisms and same sadness." One is tempted to ask: What does Breytenbach expect from politicians? Is politics not about making deals?
In a preface to the English-language edition dated 1993, Breytenbach grudgingly moderates his lament that the revolution has been betrayed. "In order to sleep soundly the dream must be devoured," he concedes in a sinister metaphor, hinting that the state selects the best children, the revolutionary dreamers, to sacrifice first.
He moderates his lament but does not withdraw it: the new order he sees emerging is not the order he fought for. While he is not so naive as not to recognize that his "small whimpers for an impossible revolution" are utopian, he refuses to yield up the right of the poet to imagine a future beyond the capacity of politicians and so to have a prophetic say in the future—even the right to bite the hand that has fed him.
What, besides the wasted prison years, has Breytenbach given up to the revolution? He has been dragged into the factionalism, intrigue, and backstabbing of exile polities. He has also been part of the anti-apartheid circuit, attending conferences, making speeches, giving readings. Return to Paradise allows only glimpses of what this circuit entailed: among other things, holding his tongue when he saw funds from Western philanthropists being cynically ripped off; not antagonizing venal African dictatorships' where to have the most elementary freedom of movement he had to pay off the thugs assigned to guard him.
We get a fuller picture of the poet's life on the 1991 visit to South Africa, also paid for by a foundation: readings in noisy lecture halls where the audience doesn't understand the language and comes only to inspect the oddity named Breytenbach; perplexed responses ("But aren't you ever happy? Now that we've won, can't you rejoice?" asks an ANC comrade). His hosts react with incomprehension and hostility when he asserts that his role in the future will be as it was in the past: "To be against the norm, orthodoxy, the canon, hegemony, politics, the State, power…. Man is the enemy of the machine"—sentiments which do not go down well in a country that has, as he observes dryly, slid straight from pre-humanity to post-humanity.
The message Breytenbach brings with him on his tour is that the world is losing interest in Africa the Beggar Continent. "To Europe Africa is only a mass of human matter making a mass sport of dying." South Africans, spoiled by decades in the international spotlight, will have to learn to be self-sufficient. What he does not add, but might have, is that American and European foundations are no longer going to pay for South African intellectuals to congregate in exotic locales and talk about their visions of the future. In more ways than one, Return to Paradise signals the end of a certain road, not for Breytenbach alone but for left-leaning South African intellectuals in general: unless they are able to find a role for themselves that gives them critical (and economic) independence from a government they will have helped to bring to power, they will be absorbed into an establishment, become part of an orthodoxy.
So the spirit in which Breytenbach concludes his autobiographical triptych is by no means one of tranquility. On the contrary, he uses Return to Paradise to lash out, in anguish and bitterness, in all directions: against white liberals, against the South African Communist Party and "more-doctrinaire-than-thou" bourgeois leftists, against former associates like Wole Soyinka ("whenever a head of state beckons he will comply") and Jesse Jackson ("each time the camera looked his way he was on his feet with clenched fist held high and a pious tear in the combative eye; when the camera swung away he was back to supercilious boredom"), and particularly, for its leaders' treatment of him when he was in jail, against the ANC itself:
Not only did the ANC withhold assistance from my dependants, not only did they disavow me, but the London clique of bitter exiles intervened to stop any manifestation of international or local support for my cause. They black-balled and maligned me, abetted by well-meaning "old friends" inside the country. Even Amnesty International was prevailed upon not to "adopt" me as a prisoner of conscience.
Of the ANC leadership, only Nelson Mandela is singled out for praise. To Mandela, as seen on a ceremonial visit to France, Breytenbach devotes several pages of close and even affectionate attention:
His mind seemed totally unshackled, freed from fear and small considerations, so that he could speak it directly (in contrast to Mitterrand's, which is infinitely devious, or that of De Klerk—maimed by apartheid—which has to juggle with the unsaid and the need to emit double messages)…. Only the lips in repose betrayed him—severe, dark, aloof, bitter. It is the mouth which sometimes says more, and more eloquently, than the voice can; lips close over the unsayable: This cannot be spoken about, so why bother?
But the plague that Breytenbach pronounces upon all the parties to the South African conflict—a judgment in which, despite the pungency of the language, there remains something wild and out of control—makes up the less interesting half of the book. His best pages address a more intimate and more fundamental concern: what it means to him to be rooted in a landscape, to be African-born. For though Breytenbach has spent almost all his adult life in Europe, he is not a European:
To be an African is not a choice, it is a condition…. To be [an African] is not through lack of being integrated in Europe;… neither is it from regret of the crimes perpetrated by "my people"…. No, it is simply the only opening I have for making use of all my senses and capabilities…. The [African] earth was the first to speak. I have been pronounced once and for all.
What he means by saying that Africa allows him to use his senses and his capabilities fully is revealed in page after magical page as he responds to the sights- and sounds of "the primordial continent." An immensely gifted writer, he is able to descend effortlessly into the Africa of the poetic unconscious and return with the rhythm and the words, the words in the rhythm, that give life. This faculty of his is not individual, he insists, but is inherited from his Afrikaner ancestors, "forebears with the deep eyes of injured baboons," whose lives had been spent in intimate relation with their native landscape, so that when he brings forth that landscape in words he is speaking in their voices as much as his own.
It is this very traditional, very African realization—that his deepest creative being is not his own but belongs to an ancestral consciousness—that gives rise to some of the pain and confusion of Return to Paradise. For though Breytenbach may recognize how marginal he is in what is nowadays on all sides, and with equal irony, called "the new South Africa," and may even enjoy dramatizing himself as the one without a self, the bastard, the "nomadic nobody," or, in his favorite postmodern figure, the face in the mirror, a textual shadow without substance, he knows that exile blunts feeling and that ultimately he owes his strength to the earth and the ancestors. Thus the most moving passages in the book tell of visiting his father's deathbed, renewing friendships, making peace with his brothers, taking his wife—the good angel who has watched over him through so many tribulations—to the old places of Africa.
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, emigrating to Paris where he married his Vietnamese wife. In 1973, he made his first return visit, which he wrote about in the ironically titled A Season in Paradise. In 1975, he went back again, this time in disguise, a conspirator; he was swiftly apprehended and spent seven years in prison. While imprisoned, he published a book of poems dedicated to his warder. Later, he wrote a second memoir, The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (this title is heavily ironic; he had already confessed very fully in court). Return to Paradise is the record of his most recent visit, in 1991, when he wandered, bewildered and disillusioned, through post-apartheid South Africa.
As one of the most famous Afrikaans victims of South African censorship and repression, Breytenbach spent many years on the international goodwill circuit which supported opponents of the South African regime, in particular the African National Congress (ANC). Gadaffi, Sankara and Mitterand were assiduous hosts. Accounts of these junkets are scattered throughout the book, apparently in order to establish the author's credentials as a serious political figure; there are hints of power-worship, though descriptions of the great are carefully counterpointed by accounts of meetings with impecunious poets.
Breytenbach sees himself as something of a politician—and this visit to South Africa seems to have been connected with various, vaguely defined, political meetings. And evidently he did play a part in setting up the symbolically important meeting of ANC exiles and white business and political leaders from South Africa, in Dakar, in 1987. He has, too, plans for a think-tank on African democratic reform, which is to be established on a small island off the West African coast. But he is now an ex-revolutionary, without ideological bearings; "I've run out of convictions", he claims. At times he presents himself as a disreputable but honest man, without illusions, a sort of Rick, the Humphrey Bogart character in Casablanca; but then he gets overexcited and needs his wife "to comfort me, to cool my fevered imagination and the narcissistic deathwish, to bring a modicum of equilibrium". He has not, though, got Bogart's way with women, or with ideas. In fact, Breytenbach is more of a Walter Mitty character. He is distrusted by the Afrikaners and by the ANC, and he cannot express his ideas coherently. His one-liners are limp. "It is not a revolution, and for the time being it has little to do with democracy", he remarks of the South African interregnum. (A piece of graffiti which he copies from a Cape Town wall is more interesting: "We have moved from the interregnum to the intrarectum".) Periodically, he lectures in apocalyptic vein to groups of intellectuals. "I waded in making very clear my disdain for starry-eyed recent converts in general and Stellenbosch political yuppies in particular. I said it would be disastrous to leave the past with hands poking out above ground; I warned against the new hegemony…." This may have gone down well in Stellenbosch, but it falls flat on the page. Then, too, he employs a more mystical idiom. "No, there is no dream. Revolution is a small white dog hunting a ghostly elephant. I am a gadfly." On balance, perhaps the one-liners are preferable.
The best parts of this book have nothing to do with politics. They are the occasional descriptions of landscapes, rendered with the intensity of a painter, and the portraits of his Afrikaner friends: the politician, Van Zyl Slabbert, organizing civil rights groups, managing committees—and slipping away from a meeting to watch an inter-provincial cricket game at Newlands; the poets, Uys Krige and Jan Rabie; the novelist André Brink; and his brother, who was a South African war hero in Angola and is now also a mystic concerned about elephants. These are his true points of reference.
"One day", he writes at the end, "I should write a book about exile, about what it is like to have turned in upon oneself, and give a description of the blunting caused by estrangement from the intimate and the familiar." If that book is about a South African artist in Paris, rather than a Left-Bank Parisian in South Africa, then it should be worth reading.
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.
Breytenbach's account of his struggle—nothing less than a struggle for meaning—in solitary confinement makes The True Confessions horribly gripping. Reading it is like waking up to hear an intruder in the next room: every movement, every detail is murderously important, haloed with presence. With a dry bureaucratic relish, Breytenbach tells us about every brick in his cell, every change of the seasons glimpsed through his high window, every fact about the Pretoria jail (at that time, white prisoners got more meat than black prisoners; coloureds got more bread). He was sentenced on November 25, 1975; he sees the moon again for the first time, he writes with grim pleasure, on April 19, 1976 when, "at about twenty-three minutes to four in the afternoon, I am in the largest of the three exercise yards…."
These data are compelling; but The True Confessions is also a book of beauty, for it is about the blooming of a new selfhood, strengthened, shriven, sacrificed. What Breytenbach discovers in prison is the negative rhapsody, the Biblical inversion of riches-in-poverty: "… by being forced to turn in upon yourself you discover, paradoxically, openings to the outside in yourself … You grow rich with the richness of the very poor; the smallest sign of life from outside becomes a gift from heaven to be cherished. You really see things for what they are, stripped of your own overbearing presence. A blanket really is a blanket, and though it is grey, it has a million colours in it … No king was ever as blessed as you are."
In person, Breytenbach has the terrible dignity that accompanies those who have suffered privations, but, as it were, suffered them on their own terms. Calm, controlled, quiet, he seems temperamentally lean. There is no wastage: it is as if every superfluity, every excess, has been used up in the combustion of a perfect self-knowledge. Physically, he embodies this deep equilibrium: he is wiry; his beard is severely cropped; lucid eyes stare out of a strong, deeply grooved face.
But there is a suppleness too, the slyness and internal jubilation of the psychological victor. For he is a kind of victor—it is the victory of the martyr. He says: "Prison, in some ways, strengthened what were already my deepest psychological tendencies—a desire to please and at the same time a need to lash out, to say 'dammit, I'm going to be and do exactly what I want'."
This self-division—wanting to please and needing to rebel—flows from Breytenbach's strange relationship with the Afrikaner establishment. By the time he was arrested he was the most famous Afrikaner poet, cherished for his revitalisation of the language, anthologised, read in schools. As he knows, his political fierceness against his own people flatters them. It is a kind of maternal scourging which the establishment understands even if it despises its message, for it places Afrikanerdom at the heart of the South African problem. In this sense, Breytenbach honours Afrikanerdom even as he murders it.
Over the years, he has returned again and again to his fatherland from his home in Paris, now a scourging parent and now a sulky child. And in the end, it always lets him come. This dialectic of longing and disappointment, acceptance and rejection is the deep current of his writing, and of his new book Return To Paradise (an account of a recent visit in 1990). "One had been building up to the big return to the New South Africa," he says, "and then one discovers that one is redundant after all, and perhaps this book is a rather devious way of coming to terms with my redundancy. I want to be accepted. But no one from any of the movements was coming over to me to say, 'Hey brother come in, don't sit out there in the cold, we need you.'"
The new book is a meeting with ghosts; some of them glow with a kind of sad and noble after-life, like Nelson Mandela or the courageous Harry Gwala, regional ANC leader, paralysed from the shoulders down by a government poison attempt. But most disappoint, like the priest ("a seasoned pharisee") who welcomes him back, saying: "Now there's a future for everybody", and some terrify, like Paul Gough, one of his old interrogators from prison days, whom he bumps into in a restaurant. None is family, none is home. The country is now a place of fervent lies: "Everybody who wants to be somebody in the country now lays claim to having been in the resistance movement; we are all of the ANC. Rumours of heroic feats abound." (Breytenbach is supportive of the ANC, but suspicious of its centralising tendencies.)
A sense of locatedness only comes from the land itself, rising from it like heatwaves. It glimmers: "How we love Africa! In the dark we are all Africans," he writes. And then it boils into the air and disappears: "I am of a people who are the truly mortification of Africa, a people of colonists without a metropolis, with whom nobody wants a shared history…."
On whose side am I anyway? he asks at one point. And the answer must be: on his only. Of course, he is also on the side of right, and he speaks eloquently of the engine of revolution that powered him in the late 1960s towards political action, "a longing for metamorphosis, for making the world change. Writing goes utterly with this, for writing is always rewriting the world. And writing is revolution not politics. Politics is the maintenance of power, the administration of power even when it's done by good people." (It is this he fears about the ANC and its future course.) "But", he continues, "the stench of politics tends to drive away the perfume of revolution, and we must be perpetually fighting this. Not to stand still in power, but to keep on moving in revolution, challenging existing structures."
He is on the side of right, but the model for this notion of perpetual revolution, perpetual movement, is not Marx or Mao but the self, his self. He has always questioned his right to fight on behalf of the black majority; on the contrary, he must fight because of what apartheid does also to whites, what it does to him. Behind the noble, sad, preposterous suffering of his life, behind the adventure of sacrifice, the eternal scrutiny of revolution, the familial bounce of acceptance and dismissal—behind all of this is the revolution of the self.
So Breyten Breytenbach is never truly an exile, because he always has this self, and the cunning of its survival; or if you prefer, he is the truest exile ever, lost in the endless difficulty of Afrikaner selfhood. His dilemma reminds me of the marvelous passage from Camus's The Plague, and I read it to him. The plague-ridden inhabitants of an Algerian town have been quarantined, the gates locked. "Thus too they came to know the incorrigible sorrow of all prisoners and exiles, which is to live in company with a memory that serves no purpose … Hostile to the past, impatient of the present and cheated of the future, we were much like those whom men's justice, or hatred, forces to live behind prison doors." As I read this, his eyes water a little, he rocks back and forward. "Ah, it's incredible, you know! Camus has it absolutely. That's what it's like."
Perhaps only the African landscape, for Breytenbach, is not electrified with rejection. Whenever he writes about it he rhapsodises. For the African landscape seems to him gloriously simple, free of history and time, free (rather than deprived) of memory, "The magic of Africa is its rhythm of timelessness … its clarity, its bareness, its horizons burned clean of history and time. It is so clear, so natural, that it becomes incomprehensible."
In a way, the political South Africa he longs for is this forlorn impossibility, a place burned free of history and time and memory; a place, like the endlessly renewing self, waking up each day to make itself anew. But he knows, of course, that the South Africa of politics, even the comparatively sweet stench of ANC politics, cannot forget history, will not, and perhaps, must not. And so the sadness begins all over again.
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 life-affirming, even though death is celebrated—death as the rich fulfillment of life—and are largely looser in construction than were the prison poems of the series The Undanced Dance—Voetskrif, Eklips, 'yk', Buffalo Bill, and Lewendood—probably because he then had more time on his hands. Not that the poems of nege landskappe are not sculpted or polished, but the forms are less obvious and have grown spontaneously, often enriched with unobtrusive rhyme patterns. There is also an astonishing exploration of the words themselves, revealing new and hidden meanings. The poetry has a strong visual element, often surrealistic and even bizarre, as also highlighted in the recent exhibition of Breytenbach's paintings in South Africa, works which showed an affinity with Max Ernst, Magritte, and Bruegel.
Throughout, the reader is made aware of Breytenbach's obsession with words and the act of writing poetry. There is a negative side to this, as some of the central sections seem prolix, especially when coupled with arguments that are none too easy to follow; but we are always conscious of the wholeness of the poet's vision. As one of his titles states, he "seeks refuge in words," as for instance: "chickens with rubber gloves sometimes / come to scratch after ants small like letters / that will strip all meaning / from dead words slavishly dragged into poetry"; or "to commit love together / was to climb up a tree / when first buds with eyes shut / start enticing the bees / and to chisel words / with shiny blind hands in a dark living room."
The second section or "landscape" deals with concrete actions on the poet's property in Catalonia, where he finds ease in a peaceful environment. Political poems of protest against injustices in South Africa form the third section; it fits in well with the book's overall wide and wise vision of oneness, a summing up through peaceful acceptance. The line "the true landscape is one of peace" occurs several times. Other "landscapes" deal with the concept of love, with space, with the past, immortality, time, and death. And always there is Breytenbach's amused and ironic stance, underlined by a quote from Mozart used as a colophon: "und dessentwegen / Je faisois un piccolo quodlibet."
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. Dismayed to see Mandela, now president, install "a new hegemony of mediocrity," he drafted another open letter, asking, "Did you have to include quite that many crooks and demagogues and dogmatists?" He was irked at his former comrades-in-arms who, "tonguetied by guilt or a false sense of solidarity," believed "that repeating the mumbo-jumbo of slogans constitutes revolutionary literature," and who, calling him "a bird of doom" and a "smug moral magistrate," asked him, "Why can't you be happy now we've won?"
The essays in this book seek, in large part, to answer that question. With apartheid's fall. South Africa seems to Breytenbach a place of chaos and contradiction. Moral clarity is more elusive than ever, and Breytenbach is perplexed not only about his proper relationship to the new regime but about the meaning and purpose of just about everything. Repeatedly, he asks: Can humans really learn, grow, change, improve? Is there any ultimate meaning to war, suffering, exile, peace, freedom, triumph? Each essay constitutes a new attempt to define himself, to solve the riddle of Africa, to figure out how the pieces of his world fit together, to decide what he should think and do—and what he should say to us about what we should think and do.
Ultimately, for Breytenbach, these questions all lead to a consideration of the writer's vocation. Having lost his role as an insurrectionist, he strives to recover his identity as a creative artist. Noting that Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Jung, Trotsky and Darwin were all "writers first and foremost," he perceives that though the antiapartheid struggle is over, the writer's fight for revolution (truth, fairness, humanity) against politics (selfishness, expediency, dishonesty) never ends. Even with Mandela in charge, Breytenbach and other writers who recognize that "aesthetics and ethics cannot be separated" still need to "subvert … the hegemony," to fight "for revolution against politics."
Though his solipsism can be exasperating (he seems unable to write about South Africa without focusing on himself), and though he is not above the political cliches and moral posturing for which he criticizes others. Breytenbach's passionate desire to know and serve the truth, whatever it may be and whoever it may offend, is deeply admirable.
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 translated by himself, as in Judas Eye. His range is wide, his linguistic reach unlimited.
As selected editions go, one can easily criticize Die hand vol vere. To my mind there could have been more poems from his prison volumes, his so-called Undanced Dance books, and definitely more from Voetskrif. Absent also is the direct accusation leveled at the then prime minister, calling him a butcher, which caused the banning—in South Africa—of the volume in which it appeared in the Netherlands, Skryt. But Breytenbach's full, rich range, is shown here, from the tender love poems to his Vietnamese wife through scathing denunciations of the apartheid government of South Africa. And the lasting impression left, apart from his evident zest in his wizardry with language, is one of life-affirming joy.