Authors: Breyten Breytenbach

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

South African poet and social critic

Author Works


Die ysterkoei moet sweet, 1964

Die huis van die dowe, 1967

Kouevuur, 1969

Lotus, 1970

Oorblyfsels: Uit die pelgrim se verse na ’n tydelike, 1970

Skryt: Om’n sinkende skip blou te verg, 1972 (Sinking Ship Blues, 1977)

Met ander woorde: Vrugte van die droomvan stilte, 1973

’N Seisoen in die paradys, 1976 (poetry and prose; A Season in Paradise, 1980)

Voetskrif, 1976

Blomskryf, 1977

In Africa Even the Flies Are Happy: Selected Poems, 1964-1977, 1978

And Death as White as Words: An Anthology of the Poetry of Breyten Breytenbach, 1978 (A. J. Coetzee, editor)

Eklips: Die Derde bundel van die ongedanste dans, 1983

YK, 1984

Buffalo Bill: Panem et circenses, 1984

Soos die so, 1990

Nege landskappe van ons tye bemaak aan ’n beminde, 1993

Lady One: 99 Liefdesgedigte, 2000 (Lady One: Of Love and Other Poems, 2002)

Die toneelstuk: ’N belydenis in twee bedrywe, 2001

Ysterkoei-blues: Versamelde gedigte, 1964-1975, 2001

Long Fiction:

Mouroir: Bespieëlende notas van ’n roman, 1983 (Mouroir: Mirrornotes of a Novel, 1984)

Memory of Snow and Dust, 1989

Short Fiction:

Katastrofes, 1964

Om te vlieg ’n opstel in vyf ledemate en ‘n ode, 1971

De boom achter de maan, 1974

Die miernes swel op, 1980


The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, 1983

End Papers: Essays, Letters, Articles of Faith, Workbook Notes, 1986

Boek: Dryfpunt, 1987

Terugkeer naar het paradijs: Een afrikaans dagboek, 1993 (Return to Paradise, 1993)

The Memory of Birds in Times of Revolution, 1996

Dog Heart: A Memoir, 1999


Judas Eye and Self-Portrait/Deathwatch, 1988


Breyten Breytenbach (BRI-tehn-bahk) is one of the foremost Afrikaner critics of South Africa’s former system of apartheid and the country’s most experimental poet, essayist, and novelist. The son of Oubaas Breytenbach, a laborer, farmer, and miner, and his wife Ounooi, Breytenbach came of age in Wellington. He studied painting at Michael’s School of Art in Cape Town, and while attending the University of Cape Town he began writing experimental poetry in his native Afrikaans. In 1959 he left South Africa by freighter for Europe; after working in a factory in England and, later, as a cook on a private yacht off the southern coast of France as well as at other temporary jobs, he settled in Paris in 1961, where he continued to paint and to write poems and short stories. That same year he met and married a Vietnamese woman, Ngo Thi Hoang Lien Yolande Bubi. For the next ten years Breytenbach’s paintings appeared in European exhibitions in Paris, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Brussels, and, in the United States, in Minneapolis. His simultaneous recognition as a poet and prose writer came rapidly; he won the Afrikaans Press prize in 1964 for his poems in Die ysterkoei moet sweet (the iron cow must sweat) and for his stories in Katastrofes (catastrophes). Influenced by his polylingual access to other literatures, Breytenbach’s poetry of this period evoked the political subversion of such poets as Osip Mandelstam, François Villon, and Federico García Lorca; the rich pathos of love such as that found in Pablo Neruda and George Seferis; and the visual imagery of the fantastic such as seen in the French Symbolists, especially Arthur Rimbaud, and in the forerunners of Surrealism, notably Isidore Ducasse (also known as the Comte de Lautréamont).{$I[AN]9810001145}{$I[A]Breytenbach, Breyten}{$I[geo]SOUTH AFRICA;Breytenbach, Breyten}{$I[geo]FRANCE;Breytenbach, Breyten}{$I[tim]1939;Breytenbach, Breyten}

Breyten Breytenbach

(© Jerry Bauer)

Breytenbach, who was repeatedly denied a visa to return to South Africa because of his racially mixed marriage, continued to garner praise, even in his own country, for his avant-garde poetry, which mingled autobiographical revulsion at apartheid policies with reverence for the beauty of the South African landscape and its peoples. The three collections of poems Die huis van die dowe (the house of the deaf), Kouevuur (gangrene; literally, cold fire), and Lotus were all awarded the prestigious South African Central News Agency Prize when they appeared. As his international reputation began to grow through translations into Dutch and German, he published Oorblyfsels: Uit die pelgrim se verse na ’n tydelike (remnants from the pilgrim’s verses after [or toward] a temporary), Sinking Ship Blues and Met ander woorde: Vrugte van die droomvan stilte (in other words: fruits of the dreams of stillness). These works showed an increasingly fractured syntax, a propensity for neologism, and a dispassionate introspection. Tempering subdued Buddhist meditation with the deprivations of exile, Breytenbach’s wordplay bridged the gulf between his readers’ distant knowledge of political suffering and the direct, physical experience of those actually suffering. Images of imprisonment, despair, starvation, torture, and death disoriented readers by substituting mixed metaphors, wit, and humor, and abruptly juxtaposed tones in near parodies of documentary reportage. The realities of South African apartheid, he suggested, were beyond direct communication in any language.

In 1973 the Breytenbachs were permitted a three-month visa to visit South Africa. At a conference of Afrikaans writers in Cape Town, he exhorted those present to attack apartheid for its self-isolating, self-destructive consequences to all South Africans. His first volume of memoirs, A Season in Paradise, recounted this journey both in his internal integration of childhood, youth, and exile and in the awe for the beautiful but varied landscape. The nightmarish mythologies of bigotry and brutality pervaded the linguistic constructions, drawing on biblical allusions, children’s rhymes, folk sayings, and compound words to create a text in which the psychological symbols of heaven and hell were reversed. The literal journey became, in effect, a celebration of death in order to clear the way for new life in South Africa. Two years after Breytenbach’s return to Paris, he entered South Africa again, but in disguise on a false passport. Arrested three months later, in November, 1975, under the Terrorist Act, he admitted an attempt to form a white wing of the African National Congress, Okhela (Zulu for “spark”), which espoused the armed, revolutionary overthrow of the apartheid government. Sentenced to nine years in prison, he was to serve seven years before his release. While in prison, the poems in Voetskrif (footscript) were smuggled out and published. Even during his two years of solitary confinement, however, Breytenbach continued to win European literary prizes and have his paintings exhibited in major cites. Blomskryf (flower writing), containing new and selected poems, was his last poetry to be published in South Africa while he remained in prison. Ironically, with the publication of two collections of poems in English, And Death as White as Words and In Africa Even the Flies Are Happy, Breytenbach’s international audience grew significantly, despite his having been utterly isolated from the world.

After Breytenbach’s release in 1983 he vowed to stop writing in Afrikaans, preferring instead to dictate and then rework his texts in English. Blurring the genres of autobiography, fiction, poetry, and essay, many of his subsequent writings demonstrate, often with intermingled poems, the search not only for new language but also for a renewed commitment to the destruction of apartheid. In his second book of memoirs, The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, at the end of which he appended the Okhela manifesto he had written, he examined realistically the penal system, recalling his experiences in vivid details while arguing implicitly that political oppression is grounded in the degradation of an individual’s body. In Mouroir he portrays imagistically the effects of imprisonment on his own psyche in surrealistic prose that is marked by abrupt entries and disappearances of characters, by scenes of confusion and desolation, and by minute attention to the details of torture and hangings.

His third volume of memoirs, Return to Paradise, was written after he and his wife spent three months in South Africa in 1991 as apartheid was ending. Bleak but brilliantly written and often funny, Return to Paradise again displays Breytenbach’s profound cynicism regarding politics and politicians and his continuing struggle to feel hope rather than despair. The Memory of Birds in Time of Revolution, appearing three years later, collected essays and speeches that address writing and politics, especially politics in South Africa. Although the writing is often abstract and tinged with uncertainty, Breytenbach calls his readers to remember that suffering brings pain, not nobility.

After the end of apartheid in South Africa, Breytenbach and his wife continued to live mostly in Paris and New York, frequently visiting Spain and Senegal, where he became cofounder of an institute to promote cultural and political development in Africa.

His exploration of the paradoxes of South African life, amplified by his innovative techniques, earned him universal attention and eventually a position as one of South Africa’s most important writers, if from exile. Consistently moving from the quiet center of Buddhist meditation (particularly Zen), his intent has been to embrace the tensions between love and terror, life and death, tenderness and brutality, Africa and Europe, and creation and decay. His South African critics have sometimes found him too ambitious, too radical, too romantic, too blasphemous, and too difficult; many critics, however, including André Brink, one of South Africa’s leading Afrikaner novelists, have concluded that both his passionate commitment to human rights and his complex aesthetics will endure. In 2002, Breytenbach made musical recordings of his love poems from Lady One, accompanied by dub, post-rock, and Afro-jazz musicians. Both the collection and the musical adaptations express not only Breytenbach’s love for his wife but also his love of his native southern Africa. Commenting on the musical recording, the iconoclastic Breytenbach expressed, with thinly veiled irony, the apolitical stance he now takes toward his native land: “I deliberately steer away from trying to make dramatic statements–as I used to–about the state of the nations. . . . I have no idea where the nation is! I haven’t been able to find it; it got mislaid somewhere.” Nevertheless, these poems remain inherently concerned with the struggles of his native land and the world at large, evoking passions that are political as well as personal.

BibliographyBreytenbach, 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.Golz, Hans-Georg. Staring at Variations: The Concept of “Self” in Breyten Breytenbach’s “Mouroir: Mirrornotes of a Novel.” New York: P. Lang, 1995. Analyzes Mouroir.Gordimer, Nadine. “New Notes from Underground.” The Atlantic Monthly, July, 1984. A suggestive introduction to Breytenbach’s pyrotechnic aesthetics.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. Examines violence in the context of apartheid and colonialism and the representation of pain and suffering in narrative form. Includes an introduction to the critical issues of South African literature. Includes bibliographic references.Sanders, Mark. Complicities: The Intellectual and Apartheid. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002. A literary and historical exploration of the role of intellectuals in South African apartheid, including Breytenbach, and argues that to some degree, ideological complicity on the part of intellectuals is unavoidable. Also looks at Jacques Derrida, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Frantz Fanon in analyzing political writings.Schalkwyk, David. “Confession and Solidarity in the Prison Writing of Breyten Breytenbach and Jeremy Cronin.” Research in African Literatures 25, no. 1 (Spring, 1994). A discussion of The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist.Weschler, Lawrence. Calamities of Exile: Three Nonfiction Novellas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. Includes a brief biography of Breytenbach.
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