Breytenbach, Breyten

views updated May 29 2018

Breyten Breytenbach

BORN: 1939, Bonnievale, South Africa

NATIONALITY: French, South African

GENRE: Poetry

Season in Paradise (1980)
The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (1985)
Return to Paradise (1993)


Breyten Breytenbach is one of the major postwar poets writing in Afrikaans, the language derived from Dutch and spoken by the first white settlers in South Africa. In his works he alternates between outrage at South Africa's governmental policies of economic and political repression of nonwhites, and, on the other hand, love for his country and its landscape.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Growing Up an Afrikaner Breyten Breytenbach was born September 16, 1939, in Bonnievale, South Africa, to Johannes Stephanus and Catherina Johanna Cloete. The Breytenbach family was among the early European settlers of the seventeenth century who called themselves Afrikaners—the group that would rule South Africa from 1948 until the early 1990s under a system known as apartheid, which is Afrikaans for “separateness.” This government-sponsored system involved designating

certain buildings, areas, and services for use only by certain races and forbade people of different races from marrying. It also led to the segregation of living areas within South Africa, with black citizens of different cultural groups kept separate from each other; this allowed the white Afrikaners, who made up a small percentage of the population, to remain in control of the large nonwhite population. Though Breytenbach was a member of the ruling Afrikaners, witnessing the unfairness of apartheid firsthand helped to shape much of his later work.

Life in Paris and Early Works After high school, Breytenbach attended the University of Cape Town, leaving school at age twenty and then traveling to Europe. In 1961, Breytenbach settled in Paris, where he painted, wrote, and taught English, and where he married Yolande Ngo Thi Hoang Lien, who was born in Vietnam. His unusual paintings and drawings, often of self-referential figures with bodies of distorted proportions, are always featured on his book covers or are used as illustrations in his books. The integration of the pictorial and verbal in his work is part of his attempt to transcend genre boundaries.

In 1964, Breytenbach published Die Ysterkoei Moet Sweet (The Iron Cow Must Sweat), his first book of poems. The title comes from a Zen proverb indicating that the miraculous must happen before nothingness can be destroyed. This was followed by Die Huis van die Dowe (House of the Deaf, 1967) and Kouevuur (Gangrene, 1969), which contains the first indications of a serious concern with South African politics. Two non-political volumes of poetry followed Kouevuur: Lotus (1970), under the name Jan Blom, and Met Andere Woorde: Vrugte van die Droom van Stilte (In Other Words: Fruit from the Dream of Silence, 1973). Both were extensively influenced by Zen Buddhism.

In 1972, Breytenbach's most outspokenly political poetry at that point was published, Skryt: Om 'n sinkende skip blou te verf (Scryer: To Paint a Sinking Ship Blue). One of the editions of the book was banned in South Africa in 1975, apparently because of a poem to the prime minister, which is followed by a list of names of detainees who had died in detention. The ban on the book was not lifted until 1985.

Return to South Africa Breytenbach wanted to return to South Africa to collect poetry awards he had won in 1967 and 1969, but his wife was refused an entry visa as a “nonwhite” and Breytenbach was told he could face arrest under the Immorality Act, which made inter-racial marriage a crime. But in 1973, when Met Ander Woorde was published, the Breytenbachs were both issued three-month visas to visit South Africa. That journey back to his homeland after twelve years of exile in Paris both rekindled warm childhood memories and reinforced his anger at the violence and injustice of apartheid. Breytenbach recorded his homecoming impressions in a

book of poetry and prose, published in a censored version in South Africa in 1976 as ‘N seisoen in die Paradys and in English translation in 1980 as A Season in Paradise.

By the end of his stay, Breytenbach had so exasperated the authorities with his scathing public criticism of the Afrikaner nationalist government that they told him not to come back. Upon his return to Paris with his wife, however, he renewed his ties with antiapartheid groups. Ultimately he founded—with other white South Africans in exile—an antiapartheid organization called Okhela (“ignite the flame” in Zulu). They decided that Breyten-bach should travel undercover to South Africa to make contacts to channel money from European church groups to black trade unionists in South Africa.

Fight Against Apartheid and Imprisonment In August 1975, Breytenbach flew to Johannesburg under an assumed name with a false passport. The South African security police shadowed and then arrested him, charging him under the Terrorist Act. He was sentenced to nine years in prison for the intent with which he had entered the country. The court took the view that trade union campaigns against apartheid constituted a threat to the safety of the state. In November 1975, Breytenbach began solitary confinement in Pretoria's maximum security section.

He wrote many poems while in prison. He produced Voetskrif (Foot Script, 1976) while he was in detention and awaiting trial. Once Breytenbach was sentenced, no new writing of his was allowed to appear. This led to the publication of old unpublished material, anthologies, and translations of his work, including Sinking Ship Blues (1977) and And Death as White as Words (1978), which was banned in South Africa on publication.

Imprisonment brought international attention to Breytenbach. The French government brought diplomatic pressure to bear on Pretoria, South Africa's capital, which intensified when the socialist government of François Mitterand came to power. In December 1982, the South African government changed Breytenbach's sentence from nine years to seven. He returned to Paris and became a French citizen in 1983.

Prison Poetry In 1983, the first volume in a series conceived as a cycle appeared, titled Eklips (Eclipse). This volume was followed in 1983 by Yk, Buffalo Bill: Panem et Circenses (Buffalo Bill: Bread and Circuses, 1984), and Lewendood (Life and Death, 1985). Most of the titles in the prison cycle refer to living on the brink of death, or to a living death.

Translations in English of Breytenbach's prison poems appeared in Judas Eye (1988). These poems were translated mostly by Breytenbach himself. In many of the poems, he expresses the end of his relationship with Afrikaans and announces it is a dead language.

Prison Novels While he was in prison, Breytenbach also wrote the semifictional pieces subsequently published and translated under the title Mouroir: Mirrornotes of a Novel (1984). The book is a series of loosely connected stories or sketches that present an imagistic, surreal portrait of Breytenbach's psyche as a prisoner. Its complexity relates to the fact that the manuscript had to be handed over to the prison guards on a daily basis.

On his release from prison, Breytenbach felt compelled to publish a more direct account of his experiences. The result was The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (1985), which describes his years of physical and psychological deprivation, and outlines the prospects for South Africa's future.

Later Work Memory of Snow and of Dust (1989), the first book with material written after Breytenbach's release, is more fictional than the works based on his prison experience. Breytenbach's 1993 memoir Return to Paradise chronicles a 1991 return visit to his home-land. According to the author, this title, along with A Season in Paradise and The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, is meant to be read as a series.


Breytenbach's famous contemporaries include:

Stephen Biko (1946–1977): South African antiapartheid activist and founder of the Black Consciousness Movement; died of massive head injuries while in police custody.

Rosa Parks (1913–2005): Called “the mother of the American civil rights movement,” in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, Parks refused to move to the “colored” section of a bus so a white passenger could have her seat. Her subsequent arrest sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Helen Suzman (1917–): South African politician and member of Parliament for thirty-six years; from 1962 to 1974, was the only member of Parliament completely opposed to apartheid.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925–2006): leading Indonesian novelist and writer; spent extensive time in prison and under house arrest for political activity.

Desmond Tutu (1931–): The first black Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa; received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his work to end apartheid.

In 1998, Breytenbach scandalized Afrikaner audiences with his three-hour-long play Boklied: 'n Vermaaklikheid in Drie Bedrywe (Goat Song: An Entertainment in Three Acts), which contained some graphic sexual scenes. In 1998 Dog Heart: A Travel Memoir was published, which marks a return to the world and the legends of Breytenbach's youth, with short prose texts interspersed with poetry.

Breytenbach currently divides his time between South Africa and Europe while regularly traveling to other parts of the world.

Works in Literary Context

In a contemporary review in Die Burger, the prominent poet W. E. G. Louw referred to Breytenbach as an “Afrikaans [Dutch Golden Age poet Gerbrand] Bredero or [French Symbolist poet Paul] Verlaine.” Breytenbach was a major figure in the generation of authors known in Afrikaans as the “Sestigers” (literally, “Sixties'ers,” referring to authors who came to the forefront during the 1960s). They were especially influential in changing the political perceptions of young intellectual Afrikaners who identified with their vocal criticism of apartheid.

Love and Hate for South Africa Breytenbach's texts are marked by a love-hate relationship with the country of South Africa and the language of Afrikaans. Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer commented: “If Breytenbach's imagery is to be compared with anyone's it is that of Czeslaw Milosz, with whom he shares an intense response to nature and a way of interpreting politically determined events and their human consequences through the subtleties of the physical world.”

Works in Critical Context

The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist Joseph Lelyveld, writing in the New York Times Book Review, speculated that Breytenbach's “confessions” are “an important contribution to a corpus of South African prison literature that has been steadily, painfully accumulating over the last quarter-century; and they are especially important since his is the first such memoir to have been written by an Afrikaner.” Rob Nixon, writing in American Book Review, came to a similar conclusion. In the confessions themselves, he says, Breytenbach “meticulously recreates his spell in prison, interrogating with undiminished insight, not only his own shifting selves but also his jailmates and the motley flunkeys of apartheid whose job it was to ensure that he remained solitary but not private.” Like Lelyveld, Nixon viewed The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist as an important document in South Africa's rich “traditions of prison literature … partly because Breyten Breytenbach is firstly an established writer and only secondarily a political activist … and partly because he is a rare and important defector from Afrikanerdom.”

Return to Paradise J. M. Coetzee, a fellow South African novelist writing in the New York Review of Books, decried Breytenbach's analysis of the state of South Africa in Return to Paradise as “not … original.” However, along with other reviewers, he praised Breytenbach's narrative: “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.” Adam Kuper in the Times Literary Supplement concurred: “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.” William Finnegan, in the New York Times Book Review, noted that “purposeful reporting is not Mr. Breyten-bach's forte” but declared the book to be “protean, funny, bitchy, beautifully written and searingly bleak.”


Breytenbach is a political exile, a fact that inevitably informs his work. Here are some other works that deal with the condition of being an exile.

After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives (1986), a nonfiction work by Edward W. Said and Jean Mohr. Said, a Palestinian exile, wrote the text for this book of photographic portraits of Palestinians.

Fahrenheit 451 (1953), a novel by Ray Bradbury. In this science fiction novel, a firefighter grows increasingly alienated from his society, in which his job is to burn books that are forbidden.

The Thickness of Skin of a Dead Cat (1978), a novel by Celedonio Gonzalez. This novel by the Cuban writer urges Cubans living in the United States to make the most of their lives in this country.

Thoughts Abroad (1970), a collection of poetry by Dennis Brutus. Poems by a leading black South African poet and political activist that deal with exile; published under a pseudonym, the book was banned in South Africa when its author's identity was discovered.

Women in Exile (1994), a nonfiction work by Mahnaz Afkami. Nonfiction portraits of twelve women, plus Afkami, living in political exile in the United States; their countries of origin include Sudan, Chile, China, and Argentina.

Responses to Literature

  1. Read My Life as a Traitor, a memoir by Zarah Ghahramani. Do you believe in any cause strongly enough to be jailed for it?
  2. Do you think it is easier to advocate for the rights of a minority if you are part of the majority culture because you have the protection of belonging to the majority? Or is it more difficult, because you are going against your own culture and upsetting the social order even though your own life may not be adversely affected by the wrongs being done?
  3. Recent figures indicate that one out of one hundred Americans is in prison. Using your library's resources or the Internet, research conditions in the U.S. prison system. Do you think prisoners are rehabilitated and ready to start a new life when they are released, or are they damaged by their prison experience and ready to continue a life of crime? With so many people in jail, what are the implications for our society? Which states have the highest success rates with rehabilitation, and why would that be the case in those particular states? In which countries in the world are the prisons still primitive? Why are they like that?
  4. Look up the definitions of terrorism and resistance. Research one of the following groups, designated terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department: the Tamil Tigers (Sri Lanka), the Irish Republican Army (Northern Ireland), Revolutionary United Front (Sierra Leone), or ETA (Spain). Write an essay arguing whether this group is a true terrorist group, or whether it should be considered a resistance movement. What is the difference? Use specific examples to support your argument.
  5. In the United States today, many colleges and universities are researching their role in the slave trade during the 1700s and 1800s, in order to take responsibility for their past actions. What is our responsibility in the present for the harm our ancestors caused? Does working through the past bring old issues to light so they can be resolved, or does it keep old wounds open and make a new start impossible? Write an essay developing your point of view.



Cope, Jack. “Look He Is Harmless,” in The Adversary Within: Dissident Writers in Afrikaans. Cape Town: David Philip, 1982.

Jolly, Rosemary Jane. Colonization, Violence and Narration in White South African Writing: André Brink, Breyten Breytenbach and J. M. Coetzee. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1996.


Lazarus, Neil. “Longing, Radicalism, Sentimentality: Reflections on Breyten Breytenbach's A Season in Paradise.” Journal of Southern African Studies 12 (April 1986): 158–82.

Levin, M. W. “Breytenbach's Credo Is ‘Love, Not Violence.’” Sunday Times (Johannesburg) (December 11, 1968).

Roberts, Sheila. “South African Prison Literature,” Ariel 16 (April 1985): 61–71.

Van der Merwe, P. P. “Breyten Breytenbach and the Poet Revolutionary.” Theoria 56 (May 1981): 5–172.

Walt, Vivienne. “Elbow Room in Hell.” Village Voice 30 (April 1985): 41.

Breytenbach, Breyten

views updated May 23 2018

Breyten Breytenbach

Widely recognized as South Africa's finest Afrikaner poet, Breyten Breytenbach (born 1939) wrote poems characterized by lush, evocative visuals; commanding use of metaphor; and interwoven elements such as Buddhist references, memories of South African landscapes, and Afrikaans idiomatic speech.

Staunch Opponent of Apartheid

Breytenbach was born into an eminent family of humble means on September 16, 1939, in Bonnievale, South Africa. His ancestors were among 17th-century South Africa's first white settlers who called themselves Afrikaners. The year after his birth, the Breytenbachs moved to the small town of Wellington. After graduation from high school, he developed an interest in poetry and art and enrolled in the English-language University of Cape Town's fine arts program.

Wishing to escape the increasingly repressive environment of apartheid, he withdrew from school at age 20 and left for Europe, where he held various jobs. In 1961 he moved to Paris and began painting, writing, and teaching English. Among his first African friends there were members of the banned African National Congress anti-apartheid group who were living in exile. In 1962 he married a French woman of Vietnamese descent, Yolande Ngo Thi Hoang Lien.

Breytenbach published his first book of poems Die Ysterkoei Moet Sweet (The Iron Cow Must Sweat) in 1964, the same year he published his first volume of prose, Katastrofes (Catastrophes), and had his first art exhibition, at the Galerie Espace in Amsterdam. He followed up by publishing Die Huis van die Dowe (House of the Deaf, 1967) and Kouevuur (Gangrene) in 1969. In 1970 he published Lotus under the pseudonym Jan Blom.

Breytenbach wanted to go back to South Africa to accept poetry awards he had won in 1967 and 1969, but the government refused his wife an entry visa as a "non-white" and Breytenbach faced arrest for violating the Immorality Act, apartheid legislation that made interracial marriage a crime. His poetry collection Met Ander Woorde was published in 1973, and the Breytenbachs were both able to obtain three-month visitor's visas to return to South Africa.

After 12 years of exile, his return to South Africa elicited tender childhood memories and bolstered his fury over the injustice and violence of the apartheid system. His strenuous public criticism of the Afrikaner nationalist government so annoyed authorities that at the end of his stay officials told Breytenbach not to return to South Africa. The poet's feelings about his homecoming were published in a 1976 book mixing poetry and prose that came out in a censored version in South Africa called 'N Seisoen in die Paradys. A later English translation, A Season in Paradise, appeared in 1980.

Held as Political Prisoner

Once he returned to Paris, Breytenbach quickly renewed links with anti-apartheid groups. With other exiled white South Africans he founded his own anti-apartheid organization, Okhela (Zulu for "ignite the flame") and wrote its platform. They devised a plan for Breytenbach to travel to South Africa in disguise and contact some black spokespeople and sympathetic whites to funnel money from European religious organizations to South African black trade unionists.

In 1975 a French anti-apartheid group provided a forged French passport to Breytenbach, who flew to Johannesburg under another name. The French organization had apparently been breached, however, and Breytenbach was under the surveillance of South African security police from the moment he acquired his visa. He was followed, his contacts were noted, and he was arrested and charged under the Terrorist Act. Breytonbach was sentenced to nine years in prison. The court considered anti-apartheid trade union campaigns to be a threat to state security.

A few months later, Breytenbach began a period of solitary confinement in the maximum security section of Pretoria's prison. In June 1977 he was again accused of terrorism, tried a second time, and acquitted of all charges other than smuggling letters from prison, for which he paid a fine equivalent to 50 dollars. Breytenbach was transported to Pollsmoor Prison, where he was held as a political prisoner for five years.

The French government exerted diplomatic pressure on South Africa and increased its efforts once France's socialist government came to power under Francois Mitterand. In late 1982, Pretoria finally acquiesced and commuted the poet's sentence to seven years, stipulating only that he leave the country. He was permitted a short visit with his father, then he and his wife flew back to Paris. Breytenbach became a French citizen in 1983 and alternated living in Paris and Gorée, Senegal.

During his imprisonment, Breytenbach wrote a semi-fictional account of his mental state as a prisoner Mouroir: Bespieelende notas van 'n roman (Mouroir: Mirror-notes of a Novel). The book is a group of loosely connected stories presented in a surreal, imagistic style. While critics widely praised the book, they also noted the complex fragmentation and obscurity that made it difficult to digest, though in general the challenging work was considered beautifully written and unforgettable.

Once freed from prison, Breytenbach wrote a more direct account of his incarceration, The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (1986). In his best-known work, the author describes being ensnared by his captors and subjected to years of psychological and physical deprivation and gives his vision of South Africa's future prospects. This disturbing book, with its detailed depiction of a horrifying penal system, was critically acclaimed as an important contribution to South African prison literature, as well as a work of great artistry.

Completed Four-Volume Memoir

Breytenbach, who maintained that his experiences in prison forever scarred him, returned to South Africa in 1986 to accept the Rapport Prize for Literature from Rapport, an Afrikaans newspaper, for his volume of poetry YK (1985). He returned again in 1991, a journey chronicled in the 1993 memoir Return to Paradise. In it he describes the national turmoil during the transitional period following the fall of the white-controlled government of F.W. De Klerk. The work met with mixed reviews, praised for its narrative, rhythm, and passion, but criticized as unoriginal in its analysis and uninspired in its reporting.

In 1992, Breytenbach co-founded a cultural center in Senegal, the Gorée institute. He co-founded the University of Natal's Center for Creative Arts in 1995. In 1996, a collection of Breytenbach's talks on South Africa, apartheid, and writing was published as The Memory of Birds in Times of Revolution. Criticism was again varied. Some felt it was outdated, lacking in insight, clichéd and didactic; others called it another important contribution to his body of work and commented on its admirable sentiments. The 1989 novel Memory of Snow and Dust portrayed a semiautobiographical account of Breytenbach's arrest to illuminate his personal struggle between spiritual hunger and his need to be politically useful.

In Dog Heart: A Memoir (1999), Breytenbach told about a post-apartheid visit to Bonnieville, his hometown, and his attempts to reconcile his childhood memories with the reality of South African life after apartheid. He did this with a fractured narrative that incorporated snippets of his own personal history, ruminations on the nation's history, pieces of folk tales, and lists of past and present atrocities artfully woven together and beautifully written. In 2000, Breytenbach published Lady One: Of Love and Other Poems, a collection of poems for his wife that includes images of east Asia, southern Africa, and Morocco. The combination of the personal and the global in the poems reflects a marriage that, because it was considered taboo under South African apartheid laws, led to the poet's original exile. A dramatic piece, The Play, premiered in his homeland in the spring of 2001.

In addition to writing, Breytenbach was an award-winning painter. Many of his paintings depict surreal humans and animals, often in captivity. He first exhibited his visual art in 1962 in Edinburgh and exhibited in 34 solo shows and several group exhibitions in numerous countries, including Belgium, France, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, Scotland, and South Africa. He received honorary doctorates from the University of Cape Town and the University of Natal, Durban. He taught as a visiting professor at both institutions, as well as at Princeton University in New Jersey. He became a global distinguished professor of creative writing at New York University.

Despite the deprivation he suffered from his willingness to speak out against injustice, Breytenbach continued to voice his outrage at matters that stirred his indignation. In 2002, he was one of a number of prominent social, cultural, and political leaders, including Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, who chastised the Israeli government for its occupation of Palestine, calling it disturbingly similar to apartheid South Africa.


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