Breyten Breytenbach was born in 1939 as son of a Boer family in Bonnievale in the South African Cape Province and grew up in the small town of Wellington. He broke off his studies in the fine arts and literature which he started in Cape Town because the politics of Apartheid in his country were no longer bearable for him. In 1961 he settled in Paris and worked as an English teacher, started to paint and wrote his first poems in his mother tongue, Afrikaans. When the ANC was banned, Breytenbach decided to stay in Paris. He was co-founder of the opposition group »Okehela« which co-ordinated resistance outside South Africa. His marriage with a Vietnamese woman was declared as invalid by the South African regime. In 1975 Breytenbach was arrested with a false passport in his home country and sentenced to nine years in prison and was only released in 1982 under international pressure. One year later he took on French citizenship. Today he lives in Paris, New York, Dakar and Johannesburg.
Breyten Breytenbach started his writing with poems, with loose rhythmic verses which link, in their nervous imagery, mythic religious narratives with the rough South African present day. These poems are very down to earth, weaved with slang and specialist language, interspersed with neologisms and grammar from political speeches. Here Breytenbach’s texts meet his works as an artist which sometimes appear as visual poetry.
His years in prison which he vociferously described with an exact view for the repressive structures in the novel »The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist« (1984) is only a fragment of the personal experience from which Breytenbach’s texts come.
His picture of South Africa is pessimistic: even the end of the Apartheid regime can’t hide the miserable social relationships. Yet his most recent books are characterized by a basic motif: the return to South Africa. One of these, which came out in 1993, is called »Return to Paradise«. This travel journal, the rhythm of which is characterized by countless encounters and journeys, reflects the peace process and the violence, memories of a personal past and the atrocity of Apartheid. Feverish and polemic, pessimistic and yet sometimes, in a hidden way, loving, this book is as equally a lament as the prose collection which came out in 1996 »The Memory of Birds in Times of Revolution« in which Breytenbach lays bare the contradictions of exile. Behind the self-reflection, a network of destruction of the 20th century can be recognized in his texts, ranging from the National Socialist camps to the death cells of the Apartheid regime, to the War in Bosnia. In his book which came out in 1999, »Dog Heart«, Breyten Breytenbach expands the sombre perspective through a precise and compassionate view on rural South Africa, on the many eccentrics and drinkers, on the hard living people and their language rich in nuances.
Breyten Breytenbach has also gained reputation internationally as a painter. His foremost surrealist paintings were exhibited in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Hongkong, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Paris, Brussels, Edinburgh, and New York, among other cities.
© international literature festival berlin