Breyten Breytenbach - World Literature

World Literature

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. Breytenbach, Breyten, photograph. © Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission.



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 nonpolitical 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 interracial 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 Breytenbach 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 Franyois 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 homeland. 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.

In 1998, Breytenbach scandalized Afrikaner audiences with his three-hour-long play Boklied: ‘n Vermaaklik- heid 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.



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.


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.’’



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.


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. Breytenbach’s forte’’ but declared the book to be ‘‘protean, funny, bitchy, beautifully written and searingly bleak.’’


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: Andre 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.