In addition to his poetry, Breyten Breytenbach has written the short stories Katastrofes (1964; catastrophes) and De boom achter de maan (1974; the tree behind the moon), the biographical A Season in Paradise and The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (1983), a record of his prison experiences. This last, his best-known work, describes his decision to return to South Africa with the intention of establishing a revolutionary organization. The ideas are presented indirectly: Instead of the simple diary chronology, as might be anticipated, he devises a complex literary structure. A series of interrogations and confessions, made to an impersonal, elusive, but threatening figure, Mr. Interrogator, are interrupted by “inserts,” which act as a kind of chorus providing lyrical speculation and philosophic debate among the evidence of the persecution he was suffering. Breytenbach makes his most defiant challenge to the regime with subtle literary technique rather than blatant accusation.
Breyten Breytenbach’s distinction occurs at two levels. The fact that he writes his poetry in Afrikaans has limited his audience outside South Africa. His immense reputation within that country derives from the same fact. He was part of the so-called Sestiger movement of the 1960’s, which revolutionized Afrikaans literature. For the first time, Afrikaans was made to describe radical attitudes that horrified the Afrikaner establishment, whose puritanism and reactionary beliefs had until then controlled all literary expression. Understandably, conventional social attitudes made his work highly controversial. The old with anger, the young with excitement, saw Breytenbach as a literary iconoclast who broke the controls that had traditionally restricted both form and subject of Afrikaans poetry and who linked Afrikaner concerns with the dangerously experimental, outspoken, and often-censored writings being published in English, the language of those who had traditionally sought to extirpate the culture of the Afrikaner “volk.”
All of his work has provoked bitter attack and equally violent counterattack. For every critic who denounced the blasphemy and radicalism of his work, others praised his originality that liberated the Afrikaans language from a narrow and bigoted orthodoxy. Internationally, his poetry is known in translation, but he is far more renowned as a political figure, as a fighter against apartheid. His prison memoirs, The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, have been accepted as an important addition to the literary condemnations of the Pretoria regime.
His literary honors are many. He was awarded the A. P. B. Literary Prize for Die ysterkoei moet sweet, and the Afrikaans Press Corps Prize for Die ysterkoei moet sweet and Katastrofes, both in 1964. He won the South African Central News Agency prizes in 1967 for Die huis van die dowe, in 1969 for Kouevuur, and in 1970 for Lotus. Skryt earned him the Lucie B. and C. W. Van der Hoogt prize from the Society of Netherlands Literature in 1972, while Voetskrif earned him a prize from the Perskor newspaper group in 1976. The Pris des Sept (an international publisher’s prize to provide funding for six foreign translations of Breytenbach’s work) was won in 1977, the Hertzog Prize from South African Academy of Science and Arts in 1984, and the Rapport Prize for Literature from the Afrikaans newspaper Rapport in 1986 for YK.
He soon began to achieve some international recognition, but this publicity did not fulfill him, since it seemed totally remote from his indigenous commitment to South Africa. Success only increased his sense of painful isolation. “I’m a globe-trotter . . . as thirsty as ever” and “from a lot of travelling/ the heart grows mute and waterlogged.” No political condemnation of his country will drive away his exile’s longing. Of his own city, Cape Town, he writes, “that’s how I love you/ as I have dreamed of you . . ./ my cape, godcape, lovecape, capeheart . . . Fairest cape in all the world.”
His urge toward verse remains strong, though its effect seems constantly tainted even while he uses it to sustain his personal and ardent life. “Give me a pen/ so that I can sing/ that life is not in vain.” Perhaps he presents his own reflection in a poem he dedicated to Yousef Omar, and recognizes the same emotions and the same fate: “His heart is a clot of fear/ the man is not a hero/ he knows he’ll have to hang/ for he is stupid/ and wanted to believe.” One might hope that Breytenbach’s disillusionment is not so comprehensive, but his doubts persist in his private life. He yearns for love: “Give me a love/ like the love I want to give to you,” while suggesting that desire is equivocal.
Breytenbach explores his anxieties further in his Kouevuur (coldfire-gangrene). Some of these poems show the beginnings of disintegration in both form and statement. Burning with an inner bitterness, he finds himself giving others the advice he should have taken to his own heart: “Above all watch out for the slimy black paw paw/ of bitterness, black child—/ he that eats of it dies on bayonets.” He might well have deliberated upon this truth. In this collection, passionate lyric poems are matched by violent expressions of self-condemnation. His political work distracts him from poetry and yet at the same time its obligations tease him with the more shocking thought that writing may no longer be considered an adequate response to South African circumstances. He is increasingly aware of how separated he has become from his country. “You ask me how it is living in exile, my friend/ What can I say?/ that I’m too young for bitter protest/ and too old for wisdom and acceptance/ of my destiny.”
Acceptance of destiny was gradually invading Breytenbach’s thoughts, but his unexpected reversal of the anticipated attitudes of youth and age display the convolutions of his present moods. Return was legally forbidden with a “non-European” wife, and therefore his marriage required that he express his gradual recognition of the permanence of exile (which he somewhat casually chose as a young man) and its painful results: “Yes, but that I now also know the rooms of loneliness/ the desecration of dreams, the remains of memories.” The “if” in the following line indicates both admission and anxiety: “I’ve been thinking if I ever come back.” He realizes that there are the outward changes, that he will appear, “wearing a top hat/ a smart suit . . . new Italian shoes for the occasion,” garb that defines his new European citizenship. He can only hope that “ma knows it’s me all the same.” He can still write lyrically of his love, of the happiness that it has brought. “I love you—you lead me through gardens/ through all the mansions of the sun . . ./ love is sweeter than figs.” Or even more tenderly, “sleep my little love/ sleep well sleep dark/ wet as sugar in coffee/ be happy in your dreams.” Love is a pleasure that provides no resolution of his confusion. Old age is seen not as a conclusion but as a period of harmony and calm. It provides comfort in allowing escape from the obligations of action that he and others had imposed, and permits abdication from oppressive responsibility: “That’s the answer, to be an old man, a naked/...
At the conclusion of The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist are thirteen poems that record his last days in jail and his liberation. He tries to write but thinks little of his efforts: “A man has made himself a poem/ for his birthday the sixteenth of the ninth—/ o, no not a fancy affair with room and rhyme/ and rhythm and iambs and stuff. . . .” He can rejoice in the memories that fill the long hours of his confinement. They are sometimes recalled with irony: “Do you remember when we were dogs/ you and I?” Other moments are recollected more poignantly, “He will remember—/ mornings before daybreak.” Memory is reinforced by the arrival of a letter, “word from outside.” He tells, “I fled to your letter, to read/ that the small orange tree is a mass of white blossoms.” This ordinary world becomes richer and more exotic when set against the one he inhabits where, “in the middle of the night/ the voice of those/ to be hanged within days/ rise up already sounding thin.”
Finally, there is the bliss of release. “I arrive on this first day already glistening bright/ among angel choirs.” Then the return to the haven of Paris, where he writes one of the few expressions of unalloyed delight to be found in his poetry: “Listen to that same wind calling/ through the old old Paris streets/ you’re the one I love and I’m feeling so good.” The final couplet has a fine ring, so positive in contrast to his earlier anxieties. He still speaks of death, but his attitude is now devil-may-care: “Burn, burn with me love—to hell with decay to live is to live, and while alive to die anyway.”
Breytenbach, Breyten. Dog Heart: A Memoir. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999. A violent yet eloquent memoir of the African National Congress activist and author that explores the fusion of violence and gentleness, turbulence and dignity.
Brink, André. Introduction to A Season in Paradise, by Breyten Breytenbach. Translated by Rike Vaughn. New York: Persea Books, 1980. Provides a useful overview of Breytenbach’s early development.
Cope, Jack. The Adversary Within: Dissident Writers in Afrikaans. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1982. A historical and critical analysis of Afrikaans literature in the twentieth century, written during apartheid.