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.