Breyten Breytenbach

Article Bio Works Merits
crossroads:
apartheid, exile
genre(subgenre):
Visual Arts (painting)
Written and spoken word (essay, novel, poem)
region:
Africa, Southern, Europe, Western
country/territory:
South Africa, France
city:
Paris
created on:
May 13, 2003
last changed on:
Please note: This page has not been updated since December 15, 2010. We decided to keep it online because we think the information is still valuable.
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Breyten Breytenbach
Breyten Breytenbach

Article

The albino terrrorist

Breyten Breytenbach (born in 1939) is considered the finest Afrikaner poet. After an early emigration to Europe he experienced his first success in poetry, for which he was awarded numerous prestigious awards in South Africa. Breytenbach became increasingly involved in anti-apartheid activities. In 1975 he was arrested on an illegal trip to South Africa and sentenced to nine years imprisonment for terrorist activities. After his release he returned to his exile in Paris. Breytenbach published numerous essays and novels, which are mostly written in English. After the end of apartheid Breytenbach remains sceptical about the "New South Africa´s" political perspectives. Breytenbach is also a painter who has gained his reputation in various one-man exhibitions. He divides his time between Paris and South Africa.
Breyten Breytenbach was born as one of five children on 16 September 1939 into a distinguished, but poor farmer family in Bonnievale/Cape province, South Africa. Breytenbach grew up in the small-town of Wellington, where the Breytenbachs settled in the 1940s. In 1958 he started to study Arts and Literature at Cape Town University. To escape the increasingly repressive climate of apartheid Breytenbach opted to go abroad in 1959. After various odd jobs in Portugal, England, Norway, and France he finally settled in Paris in 1961. There he taught English, began painting, and wrote his first poems in Afrikaans, his native language. The first African friends he made in Paris were exiled members of the African National Congress (ANC). After the ANC had been banned Breytenbach decided not to return to South Africa and to stay in Paris.

In 1962 he married Yolande Hoang Lien, a French woman of Vietnamese origin. Therefore a return to South Africa remained impossible because this "mixed marriage" represented a violation of apartheid´s Immorality Act. In 1964 he showed his pictures in his first exhibition at the Galerie Espace in Amsterdam. In the same year his prose collection “Katastrofes” (”Catastrophes”) appeared as well as a volume of poetry “Die ysterkoi moet sweet” (”The Iron Cow Must Sweat”), which brought him recognition in South Africa. Stylistically inclined towards European surrealism the motives of his poems circled around his status as being cut off from his "volk" and his language and showed his feelings of distance and ambiguity about his belonging to the “master race” in the social framework of apartheid.

In 1964 he was awarded the Afrikaanse-Pers-Boekhandel prize for literature. The South African authorities refused entry for both him and his wife, which further radicalised his political views and attitudes.

He joined the literary group “Sestiger” (“Sixties”) who sought to combine literature and political commitment and to guide Afrikaans literature out of its irrelevance. The group published some of his poems in its literary journal. Although Afrikaans is identified by Breytenbach with the 317 apartheid laws he continues to write in his “tainted language” which he appreciates for its other aspects, its influences from Creole, Dutch, Portuguese, Malay, Khoi, Arabic and Zulu. Back home his poems were so successful, that he was awarded the prestigious Afrikaans Corps Prize in 1965.

The poetic force in his poems won him the reputation as the “Afrikaner Dante” in South Africa, still he was perceived as aggressive and irritating due to his fierce attacks in poetry collections such as “Skrit” (1972) and in his political prose, which up until now Breytenbach continues to write in English. He also became deeper involved in anti-apartheid activities and co-founded the oppositional Okehela (“Spark” in Zulu), which was to co-ordinate the political struggle outside South Africa. In 1973 he unexpectedly obtained a visa for South Africa for himself and his wife. At Cape Town University he delivered a well received speech in which he strongly criticised the Afrikaner establishment.

Two years later he travelled to South Africa on a false passport to set up contacts for Okehela. He was arrested and sentenced to nine years imprisonment for terrorist activities. He spent the first two years in solitary confinement in Pretoria´s maximum-security prison and was only released in 1982 after continuous international protests. He refers to his experiences in prison in his half-fictional novel “Mouroir: Bespieelende notas van ´n roman” (“Mouroir: Mirror-notes of a Novel”, 1983), a collection of texts which were written during his time in gaol as is also the case for “The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist” (1985), which is regarded as his most famous book. In these texts he seeks to approach and finalise his experiences from different angles, as a report, a consideration or dream vision; which line up persons, events, details and motifs in various contexts.

Back in Paris he became a French citizen in 1983. In the 1980s he took to extensive travelling all over Africa and organised a meeting of black and white South African writers with ANC-representatives in Dakar, Senegal in 1987. In 1989 together with friends and colleagues he founded the Gorée-Foundation, a cultural centre on the former slave island of Gorée in Senegal.

Since 1983 Breytenbach´s paintings were to be seen in various one-man exhibitions in Europe and South Africa. Painting remains a second focus of his artistic activities. His pictures, which are somewhat an extension of his texts, can be seen as visual poems, where the painter merges with the poet. "I don´t ever intend painting in code," he declared in his exhibition in Durban Art Gallery in 1998. “Painting for me is a language, and I´m talking about the vocabulary of painting - the colours, the textures, the rhythms, the spaces, the dissonances, the silences.”

In 1991 he went back for the first time to South Africa after his imprisonment. His view of the evolving “New South Africa” remains sceptical as revealed in his book “A Return to Paradise. An African Journal” (1993). In the journal, he relates his encounters during a trip in 1991, at the start of the transitional period. Breytenbach assesses that the trenches between the haves and have-nots can hardly be bridged in the near future. In “The Memory of Birds in Times of Revolution” (1997) he expresses his critique of the formation of South Africa´s new political forces from a position of “critical loyalty”. He sees yesterday´s authorities retaining their key positions in the “New South-Africa”. In his book “Dog Heart” Breytenbach paints a rather sombre perspective of South Africa´s future prospects.

Breyten Breytenbach was co-founder of the centre for creative arts at the University of Natal in 1995. He divides his time between Paris and South Africa.

Author: Michael von Assel 

Bio

Breyten Breytenbach was born on 16 September 1939 in a distinguished, old, but poor Afrikaner family in Bonnievale/Cape province, South Africa and grew up in the small-town of Wellington. In 1958 he started to study Arts and Literature at Cape Town University. After staying in Portugal, England, Norway and France, he settled in Paris in 1961. In 1962 he married Yolande Hoang Lien, a French woman of Vietnamese origin. In 1964 his prose collection "Katastrofes" ("Catastrophes") appeared as well as a volume of poetry "Die ysterkoi moet sweet" ("The Iron Cow Must Sweat") appeared, which brought him recognition in South Africa. In 1964 he was awarded the "Afrikaanse-Pers-Boekhandell" prize for literature and in 1965 the prestigious "Afrikaans Corps Prize". He co-founded the oppositional "Okehela", which was to co-ordinate the political struggle outside South Africa. In 1975 he travelled to South Africa on a false passport to set up contacts for "Okehela", was arrested, sentenced and only released in 1982. He refers to his experiences in prison in his half-fictional novel "Mouroir: Bespieelende notas van ´n roman"("Mouroir: Mirror-notes of a Novel" (1983), and in "The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist" (1985). He became a French citizen in 1983. In the 1980s he took to extensive travelling all over Africa. In 1989 he founded the cultural centre "Gorée-Foundation" in Senegal. Since 1983 Breytenbach´s paintings were exhibited in various one-man shows in Europe and South Africa. In 1991 he went back for the first time to South Africa and describes this trip in his book "A Return to Paradise: An African Journal" (1993). In "The Memory of Birds in Times of Revolution" (1997) he expresses his critique of the formation of South Africa´s new political forces. In "Dog Heart" he paints a rather sombre perspective of South Africa´s future prospects. Breytenbach has been co-founder of the centre for creative arts at the University of Natal in 1995. In 1995 lectureship at the University of Natal. He divides his time between Paris and South Africa.

Works

Voice Over: A Nomadic Conversation with Mahmoud Darwish

Published Written,
2010
Archipelago Books: Brooklyn

Notes from the Middle World

Published Written,
2009
Haymarket Books: Chicago

Die Windvanger

Published Written,
2007
Afrikaans Edition. Human & Rousseau (Pty) Ltd: Cape Town

Windcatcher: New & Selected Poems 1964-2006

Published Written,
2007
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Orlando

Ysterkoei-Blues

Published Written,
2001
Afrikaans Edition. Human & Rousseau (Pty) Ltd: Cape Town

Mondmusiek

Published Written,
2001
Afrikaans Edition. Human & Rousseau (Pty) Ltd: Cape Town

Lady One of Love

Published Written,
2000
Poems. Meulenhoff: Amsterdam

Dog Heart

Published Written,
1999
Travel memoir. Faber and Faber: San Diego

The Memory of Birds in Time of Revolution

Published Written,
1996
Essays. Human & Rousseau: Cape Town

A Season in Paradise

Published Written,
1994
Novel. Harcourt Brace & Co: San Diego

Return to Paradise

Published Written,
1993
Essays. Faber and Faber: London

Nege landskape van ons tye bemaak aan ´n beminde

Published Written,
1993

Hart-Lam. ´n leerboek

Published Written,
1991

Memory of Snow and of Dust

Published Written,
1990
Novel. Faber and Faber: London

All One Horse

Published Written,
1990
Stories and pictures. Faber and Faber: London

General

Published Written,
1990

Soos die so Toktokkie se nagregister

Published Written,
1990

Judas Eye and Self-Portrait / Deathwatch

Published Written,
1988
Not stated. Faber and Faber: London

Boek (deel een): dryfpunkt

Published Written,
1987

End Papers

Published Written,
1986
Essays. Faber and Faber: London

Lewendood. Die eerste bundel van die ´ongedanste dans´

Published Written,
1985

They shoot writers, don´t they?

Published Written,
1984
Not stated. Faber and Faber: London

Mouroir

Published Written,
1984
Not stated. Faber and Faber: London

Yk. Die vierde bundel van die ´ongedanste dans´

Published Written,
1984

Buffalo Bill. Die tweede bundel van die ´ongedanste dans´

Published Written,
1984

The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist

Published Written,
1984
Not stated. Faber and Faber: London

Eklyps. Die derde bundel van die ´ongedanste dans´

Published Written,
1983

And Death White as Words

Published Written,
1978
Poems. Collings: London

In Africa Even The Flies Are Happy

Published Written,
1978
Poems. Calder: London

Sinking Ship Blues

Published Written,
1977
Poems. Oasis: Toronto

Voetskrif

Published Written,
1976

De boom achter de maan

Published Written,
1974

Met ander woorde. Vrugte van die droom van stilte

Published Written,
1973

Skryt. Om ´n sinkende skip blouw te verf. Verse en tekeninge

Published Written,
1972

Om te vlieg. ´n opstel in vyf ledemate en ´n ode

Published Written,
1971

Lotus

Published Written,
1970

Oorblyfsels. Uit die pelgrim se verse na ´n tydelike

Published Written,
1970

Kouevuur

Published Written,
1969

Die huis van die dowe

Published Written,
1967

Die ysterkoei moet sweet

Published Written,
1964

Katastrofes

Published Written,
1964

Merits

Afrikaanse-Pers-Boekhandel - literature prize, (1964)
Afrikaans-Corps-prize, (1965)
Van-der-Hoogt-prize for Skryt (1972)
Poetry International Award, (1977)
Special prize from the Jan Campert Foundation (1983)
CNA Prize (1983)
Hertzog-Prize, (1984; refused)
Premio Pasolini di Poesia (1985)
Literary award of the Sunday paper "Rapport" (1986)
Honorary doctor of the University of the Western Cape (1988)
CNA-Prize (1989)
Alan-Paton-literature prize of the Johannesburg "Sunday Times" (1994)
Hertzog Prize for Poetry (1999)
CNA Prize – Memory of snow and dust (1989)
Helgaard Steyn Prize – Nege landskappe van ons tye bemaak aan ´n beminde (1996)
Sunday Times / Alan Paton Prize for non fiction – Return to paradise (1994)
Hertzog Prize – Oorblyfsels: ’n roudig and Papierblom (1999)
De Kat-Herrie Prize at the KKNK (1998) – Boklied
W.A. Hofmeyr Prize – Die windvanger (2008)
University of Johannesburg Prize for creative writing Die windvanger (2008)
Hertzog Prize for Die windvanger (2008)
Max Jacob Prize for Outre Voix/Voice Over (2010)
Mahmoud Darwish Prize – Oorblyfsel/Voice Over
Protea Poetry Prize (2010)