Breyten Breytenbach Breytenbach, Breyten (Vol. 23) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Breyten Breytenbach 1939–

South African poet and painter.

Breytenbach, an important Afrikaans poet and an avowed opponent of apartheid and colonialism, is currently serving a nine-year prison term in South Africa. Breytenbach left South African in 1959; he eventually settled in Paris and married a Vietnamese woman. The South African government refused to grant his wife a visa until 1972 when the Breytenbachs were allowed to come to South Africa for a three-month visit. A Season in Paradise recounts, in a hectic mixture of prose and poetry, his emotions during this trip. A subsequent journey in 1975 under an assumed identity led to his imprisonment under the Terrorist Act.

A compatriot writer, André Brink, has concerned himself with the affair and writes, "It is a wry comment on the literary world that it should require a nine-year prison sentence to bring the work of the major Afrikaans poet, Breyten Breytenbach, the attention of a larger public."

Barend J. Toerien

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The sensational background of the writing of these poems [Voetskrif]—the self-exiled poet's return to South Africa on a subsequently confessed subversive (and amateurishly bundled) mission and pre-trial imprisonment—is apt to prejudice the reader….

But poetry has a way of existing on its own terms and can gloriously soar above circumstance or its creator—as is manifest here or in the Pisan Cantos, to name another example. There is more than a circumstantial resemblance to Pound (to whom a canto is addressed): the versification is at times strikingly similar—the fractured sentences, the isolated images, the poem-endings in mid-sentence—but there is also the same urgent direct speech that retains a sonority and dignity, and alas, sometimes the trivia as well. Breyten also invokes some other poet bunglers who ran afoul of the system (Mandelstam, Villon, Lorca); and somehow one does not feel that he overreaches himself, for his self-inspection is dispassionate and sometimes has a touch of humor.

He continuously explores the need to write poetry ("Your lips atremble / all down your body / right up to the fingers on paper—/ for the fingers are lips / praying for a tongue …"), the need to "cram the grave with words" and the nature of words themselves…. All in all this is Breyten at his best. The mood is subdued, but the book radiates a celebration of life and the triumph of poetry, for better or for worse.

Barend J. Toerien, "Africa & the West Indies: 'Voetskrif'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 2, Spring, 1977, p. 322.

André P. Brink

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Linked to the realities of exile and of Africa, [the poems in Feu froid] are stimulated by sources as divergent as Senghor and Lorca and Neruda, the meditations of St. John of the Cross and the strident songs of Black Consciousness; above all, by the poet's long immersion in Buddhism, both Tantric and Zen. It is a poetry of paradoxes, resolving the tensions between birth and death, growth and decay, Africa and Europe, love and terror, tenderness and destruction.

Feu froid (which, in the original Afrikaans, signifies both "gangrene" and "cold fire") offers a glimpse of both the variety and the unity of Breytenbach's work: ranging from the tantric meditations of the volume Lotus (in which the act of love and the act of creating poetry mingle, mirroring one another, to reflect the interaction between man and world, heaven and earth, mind and universe, the All and the Void) to the fierce condemnation of oppression in "Lettre de l'étranger au boucher"; from the elegiac or playful tone of his love poems to the sustained passion of a "Testament d'un rebelle"; from the agony of "L'exilé: porte-parole" to both the ecstasy and the terror of rediscovering Africa….

André P. Brink, "Africa & the West Indies: 'Feu froid'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1978 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 52, No. 1, Winter, 1978, p. 167.

Barend J. Toerien

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The poems [in Blomskryf: Uit die gedigte van Breyten Breytenbach en Jan Blom] are arranged in two sections: the "how" of poetry—its nature, its necessity, its ultimate uselessness—and the "so," consisting of poems addressed to his wife.

Breytenbach is a truly creative poet, who at will plays with language, turns words upside down or mimics other poets or the Bible, whether seriously or at times in a playful e. e. cummings vein, as in "Something to Nibble on in My Igloo." Here he exploits the Afrikaans predilection for diminutives: "My winterwife is a small small bird—/ ie ie ie / who conjures with dreams / In autumn I caught it / in the dead wood / nervous / because of the way it hanged white delights / in the empty tree." His poetry has an urgent intensity, a resonance. It makes an immediate impact, which partly explains why he is one of the very few Afrikaans poets with an English and Dutch readership, even though his work is full of colloquialisms and linguistic obscurities.

But the main reason for his popularity is probably due to his political commitment, his fearless stand against the apartheid regime. This type of poetry can easily be mere demagoguery and a calling of names, but not with Breytenbach. This is most likely his best work because of its sincerity, involvement, sense of outrage. The new poems included here are mostly in this committed category, e.g., "Books Are Bombs," where he commemorates the death of Tiro, an anti-apartheid fighter killed by a letter bomb. It also reminds one of his attraction to violent themes and to Artaud.

Barend J. Toerien, "Africa & the West Indies: 'Blomskryf: Uit die gedigte van Breyten Breytenbach en Jan Blom'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1978 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 52, No. 3, Summer, 1978, p. 510.

Barend J. Toerien

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Sinking Ship Blues is a collection of Breytenbach's poems and drawings.] The title is somewhat misleading, since these forceful poems cannot be called "blues" as such (and yet they do have something of an anguished keening), and is derived from the subtitle of the volume Skryt, "To Paint a Sinking Ship Blue"—presumably the ship of state. Even so, this collection does give an idea of Breytenbach's sweep, authority and mastery. He is something of a surrealist, with the freshness and childlike vision of an original. The quiet and intimate love poetry full of wordplay and sleights of hand is not represented here, but we do have the fine political poems ringing with indignation against injustices, such as "Letter to Butcher from Abroad."…

Barend J. Toerien, "Africa & the West Indies: 'Sinking Ship Blues'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1978 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 52, No. 4, Autumn, 1978, p. 683.

Desmond Graham

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Love poems [and poems about politics each] comprise about half the work in the two new translations of the Afrikaans poet Breyten Breytenbach [and death white as words and In Africa Even The Flies Are Happy]…. The same quality of imagination is present in each half but it is in the political poems that this finds its most significant (and pressingly needed) vision…. [The] political poems bear a witness we must hear as political evidence and not deflect back into our sense of his work as a whole.

As a love poet Breytenbach writes with a daring extravagance of imagination which recalls the early Neruda. There is wit and tender pathos but these are held within a sustained rhetorical sweep, a cumulative mixing of metaphors, which convey the imagination's endeavour to keep up with the riches and force of the body's discoveries. For it is in bodily responses that Breytenbach locates feeling. Writing of a love which is in its own terms generally fulfilled, the desire is for touch, smell, taste; the re-ordering of the mind is through sexual arousal; dream-like and trance-like shifts in perception are generated by eroticism; sadness is post-coital. It is this understanding of the body's knowledge which brings the power and insight of the political poems.

Breytenbach writes from exile…. This exile he feels as a physical deprivation: the absence of the sunlight, sea, landscapes, the spoken language and known...

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André Brink

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


In all [Breytenbach's] work the most constant source of inspiration has been Zen Buddhism. As such, it is a dazzling marriage of the real, the ordered, the rigorously disciplined world of the senses on the one hand, and the mystical and imaginary on the other. Essentially, Breytenbach's is an imagination prodded and prompted by the visual—one is never allowed to forget that this is a painter at work—while, in its turn, the visual is infused and informed by fantasy, much in the same way as it occurs in the paintings of that astounding medieval modernist, Hieronymus Bosch, another pervading influence in the work of Breytenbach. In a more modern context, one may find exciting links...

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Paul Theroux

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Using the framework of his return to South Africa after 13 years' absence, Mr. Breytenbach fashions a reminiscence of his childhood with a meditation on the present. ["A Season in Paradise"] is a teeming narrative, because no idea and hardly a sentence is uttered before it is overtaken by a new thought or impression. This is a technique favored by painters (I have not seen Mr. Breytenbach's paintings, but I would guess they are big and bright), but it nearly always brings a prose writer to grief. Joyousness is hard to describe in whimsically deranged language, and so much of this book is personal that one feels more like an eavesdropper than a reader. (pp. 8-9)

At times Mr. Breytenbach seems to typify one definition of a pessimist: that is, an optimist in full possession of the facts. And he is never more innocent or naïvely grave than when he uses the words "neocapitalist" or "bourgeois"—or more despairing than when he tries to work out the South African racial paradox….

Mr. Breytenbach's love of the African landscape and his own roots is undisguised and unfeigned, and he has a sharp eye for the grotesque. When he hits on a favorite subject, such as Chinese poetry or the life of Rimbaud (the book's title is a deliberate evocation of Rimbaud's "A Season in Hell") or his own family, or when he includes one of his stark poems, he is very good indeed. But the whole effect is a careening into South Africa's fortress wall, of a simple soul in a state of nerves reduced to fragments of blood and brain; for among other things, it is a record of a state of near-panic. (p. 9)

Paul Theroux, "Afrikaners," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 30, 1980, pp. 8-9.

Stanley Uys

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is recurrent morbidity in A Season in Paradise. Describing his childhood, for example, Breytenbach says he fell out of a moving car in front of a farmer's plowshares, which "sliced me up all over the place on my body, but particularly through my neck, so that my head was just left lying there loose to one side. Thus my blood-soaked little body was decapitated, lifeless." Breytenbach then goes on to fantasize a stirringly beautiful funeral service.

The images of South Africa—of friends and familiar places—are vivid. He gazes upon everything with the heightened perception of the artist and leaves the reader to make what he can of it. The facts of Breytenbach's journey … are no more than a point of departure for the real voyage undertaken through landscapes of the mind and memory and fantasy, and through virtuoso flights of fancy in the realms of linguistics and literary allusion. (p. 5)

Stanley Uys, "Victims of History, Hostages of Fear," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), April 20, 1980, pp. 4-5.

Richard Hall

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A Season in Paradise is an exciting, and often amusing, travelogue, recounting the journey the poet made with his Vietnamese wife through the sunlit lands of his youth. He intersperses the narrative with verse, prose-poems, fantasy and political invective. The word-play is often dazzling….

The Afrikaners have an unashamed sentimentality about their own places and people, born of having been a lonely race clinging to the fringe of an alien continent.

In Breytenbach, this simplicity gains a new dimension from his familiarity with writers ranging, quite literally, from China to Peru. A main inspiration has been Rimbaud; like a jewel in the heart of the narrative is a brief 'life' of Rimbaud, the creation of a poet's dreams. Behind everything, a sense of impending doom. Somebody reading this book—written before Breytenbach made his fateful second journey home—should have warned him he was not cut out to cross swords instead of words. Nine years is a fearful swathe out of a rare talent.

Richard Hall, "Country of the Blind," in The Observer (reprinted by permission of The Observer Limited), September 28, 1980, p. 32.

David Caute

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Breytenbach's A Season in Paradise recounts a three-month visit to his native land, following 12 years of exile in Paris, with the elaborate self-consciousness of an avant-garde prizewinner who had become the golden boy of the Sestiger movement in Afrikaans literature….

When not wilfully obscure or impenetrable, Breytenbach … tends to carry elaborate irony to the point of overkill. (p. 20)

BB is a much better poet than prose writer. At his best when describing the famished existence of Boer farmers eking a living out of the drought-stricken veld, BB elsewhere shelters behind a series of derivative postures plucked with a vast and vulgar eclecticism from Lorca, Artaud,...

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Anthony Delius

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Much of the latter part of [A Season in Paradise] reads like a Freudian prologue to the disaster that overtook Breytenbach well after it was written, when he went back to South Africa once again and landed in Pretoria Central Prison as a convicted "terrorist"….

In spite of [his] passion for human worth and equality, the poet is not very good at presenting people. The story of his reunion with his family turns into a rather blurred procession of characters with pet names or nicknames, instead of the central strand of "human" interest that it might have been.

It is when Breytenbach moves away from people to evoke the land, seas, vegetation, skies and especially stars of...

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Richard Rathbone

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

This dense, carefully textured and very personal book [A Season in Paradise] echoes, and its title challenges, Rimbaud's Saison en enfer. For [Breyten Breytenbach,] the Afrikaner radical poet, paradise is friends, family and the breathtaking physical beauty of South Africa. That paradise is located, paradoxically, in a hell of repression and inhumanity. That apparent contradiction is the sort of dyadic opposition he delights [in] in all his work; his pleasure in discovering an Elysian valley north of Calitzdorp which is actually called Hell falls conveniently in the middle of this book.

This is not a work of fiction nor is it quite a work of fact. The green paradise of childhood loves...

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Sheila Roberts

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The full title of [Miernes, a] book of short prose pieces reads "The Antheap Is Swelling Yes the Fox-Terrier Gets a Weekend and Other Almost Forgotten Catastrophes and Fragments from Old Manuscripts of Breyten Breytenbach" (my translation), a title which conveys something of the humor, absurdity and anti-narrative techniques explored in these stories…. The collection starts off lightheartedly enough in the section "Antheap," where the poet rides through Paris on a motorcycle, meeting two funny Dutch poets and a pretty woman but also nearly colliding with a gang of convicts whose bleeding legs are chained together. Such touches of human cruelty (or selfishness or irrationality) darken the burlesque or...

(The entire section is 294 words.)