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.
— Gale Encyclopedia of Biography
RENCONTRE AVEC L’ECRIVAIN SUD-AFRICAIN
BREYTEN BREYTENBACH AU SILA
"ON NE QUITTE JAMAIS SA TERRE NATALE"
Le SILA a eu l’immense plaisir d’accueillir, jeudi dernier, l’écrivain Breyten Breytenbach connu mondialement pour son engagement politique et littéraire contre l’apartheid. L’auteur qui a plusieurs cordes à son arc est un homme d’opinion et un parfait romancier, poète, essayiste et dramaturge, il s’est distingué par ses idées politiques en faveur de la libération de l’Afrique du Sud de l’oppression d’un régime ségrégationniste qui avait brimé pendant des siècles les droits des africains au point où il s’est vu emprisonné pendant sept ans dans les geôles africaines.
Dans une conférence animée par l’universitaire Louisa Aït Hammou qui a rappelé à l’assistance le parcours de cette éminente personnalité même si l’auteur dans son extrême modestie se défend d’être un personnage important, les principales caractéristiques de la vie et du cheminement de la pensée et de l’engagement politique de l’auteur ont été évoquées. La modératrice a rappelé le contexte dans lequel a évolué l’auteur dans les années 1960 avec les massacres commis par la police sud-africaine sur les foules de manifestants qui a provoqué l’exil d’un bon nombre d’hommes de lettres dont notre auteur qui s’installe dans les années 1961 à Paris et épouse une ressortissante française d’origine vietnamienne.
Ne pouvant rentrer en Afrique en 1966 en raison de son mariage interracial, on lui refuse le visa, il écrit alors son premier recueil de poèmes où il exprime sa position claire et ferme contre l’apartheid. En 1975, il crée avec d’autres opposants à Paris « Oukéla », une organisation qui milite en faveur des africains et qui regroupe en son sein des personnalités du monde de la culture qui partage ses idées.
Il rentre ensuite avec un faux passeport en Afrique du sud et est arrêté dans une prison pour détenus politiques. Cette expérience physique traumatisante le pousse dans la voie de l’écriture, il publie après sa sortie Les confessions terroristes d’un albinos et combien même il ne sort pas indemne de son long séjour pénitencier, il conserve intact son engagement et soutient la cause palestinienne dans le Parlement international des écrivains. En gardant à l’esprit le courage de ses opinions contre les vérités toutes faites et la mystification, il adresse alors une lettre ouverte à Nelson Mandela où il y dénonce l’injustice, la corruption et la violence.
Breyten Breytenbach qui a écrit plus de 20 ouvrages entres romans et récits autobiographiques s’est dit au cours de cette rencontre satisfait de « ce premier pas de rapprochement entre les deux pays qui ont beaucoup de similitudes en raison d’un profond bouleversement qui a modifié la structure sociale avec cette acculturation du fait colonial puis de la libération » et a proposé la création d’une « commission culturelle bipartite, débarrassé des lourdeurs administratives » en vue d’un rapprochement salutaire entre les hommes de culture sud-africains et les algériens.
Il a par ailleurs montré que comment, nous autres, africains étions dans un processus de métamorphoses et que nous sommes actuellement entrain d’enrichir un héritage culturel en questionnant notre identité, notre mémoire, notre éthique et nos racines dans un processus de changement. Tout en soulignant qu’il y a beaucoup de chose à rattraper, il dira que «Nous restons très sourcilleux de notre indépendance et nous ne supportons pas les critiques».
L’Algérie qui a été au centre, dans les années 70, du panafricanisme et du tiers-mondisme est dans une voie d’échange culturel qui permet aux africains d’essayer de se connaître mieux. En nous montrant son anthologie poétique Imagine l’Afrique dont l’épigraphe comporte un texte de l’écrivain et journaliste Tahar Djaout extrait de son roman L’Invention du désert, l’écrivain expliquera comment les jeunes Africains d’aujourd’hui sont en perpétuelle quête de valeurs et imaginent leur propres points de repères car dira-t-il « Il ya quelque chose qui est entrain de se passer dans le continent » avant d’ajouter toutefois : «Il faut faire attention à ne pas se conforter dans une forme de révolte, il ya des possibilités de se confirmer avec notre part d’ombre. Ce qui est important, c’est la capacité de s’imaginer en tant qu’être humains pour mieux comprendre nos difficultés.».
Breyten Breytenbach qui a dû quitter l’Afrique parce qu’il ne supportait l’injustice dira au sujet de son parcours «Quand on a vécu si longtemps, je doute qu’il y ait une seule conscience qui traverse éternellement les décennies, je crois qu’il y a un processus qui n’est jamais interrompu. On ne quitte jamais sa terre natale, on pense s’affranchir de ses racines mais ça vous revient avec vengeance plus tard.».
"At the dark heart of global insecurity we will find poverty, endemic and grinding and growing worse [...] At the heart of our barbaric new age, however much dollied up by the gadgets of modernism, we find fundamentalists exterminating one another [...] At the whitewashed heart of our so-called enlightened world we still find the same obdurate and institutionalized discrimination against women". Breyten Breytenbach on global inequality and the predicament of Africa.
In this month of July, 2005, two images haunt me. They are not related and perhaps they only gesture indirectly towards issues looming large in the contemporary world we inhabit –barbarism, terrorism, imperialism, impoverishment, plagues, the absence of ethical codes and a hierarchy of values, mad materialism, intellectual and artistic narcissism... Yet, both of these images illustrate to me the raw fault line where "private" and "public" meet.
The first is that of the so-called "Piano Man". On the stormy night of April 7, a young white male is found wandering the streets along the beach of Sheerness in Kent. His elegant dark suit is soaked, all nametags have been carefully removed, he has no papers. Apparently he has also lost his memory and, with that, his identity. If you forget how others saw you, you no longer exist. The man is taken to the Medway Maritime Hospital. The National Centre for Disappeared Persons is alerted. Nobody comes forward to claim him. Over the next weeks there will be thousands of reactions, speculations, theories, and false identifications aired over the Internet, all to no avail (the web is a vast echo chamber for the deluded and the conspiratorial), and then interest will subside. The man is traumatized by fear: when someone enters the room where he is kept he cowers in a corner. After a few days he draws a concert piano on a sheet of paper. He is taken to a grand piano, sits down and starts playing exquisitely for hours on end. Only while playing does he relax. The blonde young alien with the melancholic and fearful eyes responds to no question, seems not to know any language, draws or writes nothing else, but composes music; he is obviously an accomplished concert pianist and has to be torn away from the instrument. He clutches the folder with his compositions to his chest.
The second image arises or rather tumbles from the sky like some Icarus. A severed human leg falls on the roof of Pam Hearne's house, about 9 kilometres from JFK Airport in New York. When it lands, further limbs and crushed body parts will be found in the landing-gear space of a South African Airways flight from Johannesburg with stopover in Dakar. Again, no nametags and no identity papers. Pam Hearne says at first she thought the noise was caused by a neighbour loading his truck nearby. "I'm glad I live where I live so that I didn't have to run for my life as that man apparently did", she declares. And the authorities announce: "At no stage was there any danger for the passengers on board".
It is fair to say there has been a deterioration in the international environment, both physically and morally. All along the bright thread of human consciousness, there exists an awareness of the deleterious implications for groups of the human family when differences are settled through conflict, and concomitantly there seems always to have been a valorization of and a search for peace – for attenuating tensions, for moderation and compromise, for codifying justice so that conflicting interests could be settled in accepted ways to obviate the futility of bloodletting. But "peace" is only the temporary suspension of violence. Without going into man's never-ending propensity and predilection for making war, and thus without any pretence at understanding why this "way of life" appears to be fatal and inevitable (if killing one's neighbour could be described as a way of life), and thus also without daring to assess the viability of age-old counter movements toward pacification – I think it is clear and reasonable to argue that over the last decade or two we have seen an increase in collective killing and a growing numbness to its implications.
We now fatalistically accept – sometimes we even seem to condone – what would have been too horrible to contemplate not so long ago. The world was revolted by Nazi attempts to eliminate Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals in the raging insanity of a "final solution" – even if some of the resistance came late and was perhaps self-interested. And yet, by and large the world seems to be assisting passively while the state of Israel commits repeated acts of state terrorism against the Palestinians – assassinating their leaders, destroying their structures, brutalizing their children, humiliating their women, stealing their land, and in effect depriving them of a future. Why? Is this indifference? Fatigue? Cynicism? Acquiescence? [...]