Breyten Breytenbach Breytenbach, Breyten (Vol. 126) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Die ysterkoei moet sweet (poetry) 1964
A Season in Paradise (nonfiction) 1976
Sinking Ship Blues (poetry) 1977
And Death as White as Words (poetry) 1978
In Africa Even the Flies are Happy: Selected Poems, 1964–1977 (poetry) 1978
Mouroir: Mirrornotes of a Novel (fiction) 1984
Lewendood (poetry) 1985
The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (nonfiction) 1985
End Papers: Essays, Letters, Articles of Faith, Workbook Notes (nonfiction) 1986
Memory of Snow and of Dust (novel) 1989
All One Horse: Fictions and Images (short stories and paintings) 1990
Soos die so (poetry) 1990
Hart-Lam (speeches) 1991
Return to Paradise (nonfiction) 1993
Memory of Birds in Times of Revolution (nonfiction) 1996

Terence Des Pres (review date Fall-Winter 1983–84)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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...

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Stephen Schwartz (review date October 1985)

(Contemporary Literary 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...

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Sheila Roberts (essay date Spring 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Barend J. Toerien (review date Summer 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Vincent Crapanzano (review date 17 August 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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James Campbell (review date 19 September 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Bruce Robbins (review date 30 November 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Henry Kratz (review date Summer 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Herbert Mitgang (review date 4 November 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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J. M. Coetzee (essay date Spring 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Barend J. Toerien (review date Autumn 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert L. Berner (review date Winter 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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J. M. Coetzee (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Helize van Vuuren (review date Autumn 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lynn Freed (review date 28 November 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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J. M. Coetzee (review date 2 December 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Adam Kruper (review date 24 December 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 922 words.)

Breyten Breytenbach with James Wood (interview date 9 January 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1601 words.)

Barend J. Toerien (review date Summer 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 582 words.)

Bruce Bawer (review date 5 May 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 582 words.)

Barend J. Toerien (review date Witner 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 384 words.)