Human & Rousseau

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Author Focus

Breyten Breytenbach

Biographical info

Photo by Cloete Breytenbach

Breyten Breytenbach is considered one of the greatest living poets in Afrikaans. He was born on 16 September 1939 in Bonnievale. He matriculated in 1957 at the Hugenot High School in Wellington and studied at the University of Cape Town. His first poems appeared in the student newspaper Groote Schuur in 1959. He left South Africa and went to Paris in the 1960s. He made his debut with the innovative volume Die ysterkoei moet sweet in 1964, and in the same year Katastrofes, a prose work, appeared.

After his marriage to Yolande Ngo Thi Hoang Lien (which means "Yellow Lotus"), a French woman of Vietnamese origin, he couldn't return to South Africa because of the Mixed Marriages Act. In 1973 a special visa was granted to him and Yolande and they returned, amid extensive media coverage, to South Africa for a writers' congress at the University of Cape Town. During a visit to South Africa in 1975 under a false passport, he was arrested on a charge of terrorism and sentenced to nine years' imprisonment. After seven years he was finally released. He received the Hertzog Prize for poetry in 1984 for Yk, but refused to accept it.

Breytenbach's work includes poetry, novels, plays and essays, most of which are in Afrikaans and a number originally published in English. Most of his books are translated into several languages. He is also known for his artwork. Exhibitions of his paintings and prints have been held in various cities including Amsterdam, Stockholm, Paris, Edinburgh and New York. He received the Hertzog Prize for poetry in 1999 for en Oorblyfsels and Papierblom. His most recent collection of poetry, Die windvanger (2007), has been awarded the University of Johannesburg Prize for Creative Writing, the Hertzog Prize as well as the WA Hofmeyr Prize.

He currently divides his time between Europe (he is a French citizen), Africa and America. He is involved with the Gorée Institute in Dakar, Senegal and the Columbia University in New York where he lectures in creative writing.

Did you know?

  • His two brothers are Jan Breytenbach, founder of 32 Battalion and 1 Reconnaissance Regiment, and the war correspondent and famous photographer Cloete Breytenbach.
  • In France he was a founding member of Okhela, a resistance group fighting apartheid in exile.
  • His pseudonym for the volume Lotus, Jan Blom, was chosen to suit the volume: a 'janblom' is a large rain frog.
  • Breyten also is the subject of films, like the German Prison mailbag X4 South Africa, a letter to Breyten Breytenbach that was shown on German television in 1983 and was made by Jobst Grapow.
  • His first art exhibition in South Africa took place in 1993 in Cape Town. Its title was Painting the eye.
  • He was elected to the World Council of the International Parliament of Writers in 1993, with the likes of Jacques Derrida, Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie as president.
  • In 1998 he was honoured as world citizen by the car manufacturer Volkswagen AG in Hannover, Germany.
  • Breyten and his ’n Seisoen in die paradys were the subject of several films in 1997 – among others one in English directed by the Swede Richard Dindo and one in French.
  • Breyten's much discussed play Boklied premièred in 1998 during the KKNK and received the De Kat Herrie Prize. It also roped in eight FNB Vita Regional Theatre Awards for 1997/1998, for among others best production.
  • In February 2007 Breyten's parental home in Wellington was opened as the Breytenbach Centre.


He has used the pseudonyms Jan Blom (Lotus), Jan Afrika (Papierblom) and B.B. Lasarus (’n Seisoen in die paradys). Then there are also a number of BB names that Breytenbach has given himself in his poetry: Bullebach, Braakinpag, Buffalo Bill, Broer Bebe, Bangai Bird.

Banned books

In June 1975 his volume Skryt is banned by the Publications Control Board – three years after it appeared. In 1979 another volume with translations of Breyten's poems appeared titled And death as white as words. It was, however, banned by the South African Board of Censors.

Books still in print

vyf-en-veertig skemeraandgesange uit die eenbeendanser se werkruimte, Human & Rousseau (2014)
Die beginsel van stof, Human & Rousseau (2011)
Oorblyfsel/Voice Over, Human & Rousseau (2010)
A Veil of Footsteps (Memoir of a Nomadic Fictional Character)
, Human & Rousseau (2008)
Die windvanger, Human & Rousseau (2007)
Die ongedanste dans: Gevangenisgedigte 1975-1983, Human & Rousseau (2005)
Ysterkoei-blues, Human & Rousseau (2001) Oorblyfsel/Voice Over, Human & Rousseau (2010)


A.P.B. Prize (1965) – Die ysterkoei moet sweet and Katastrofes
CNA Prize (1967) – Die huis van die dowe
Reina Prinsen Geerligs-prijs voor Zuid-Afrika (1968) – Die huis van die dowe
CNA Prize (1969) – Kouevuur
CNA Prize (1970) – Lotus
Lucy B en CW van der Hoogt-prijs (1972) – Lotus
Prix des Septs (1977) – All his literary work
Perskor Prize (1977) – Voetskrif
Special award from the Jan Camper foundation (1983)
CNA Prize (1983) – Yk
Hertzog Prize (1984) – Yk (refused)
Rapport Prize (1986) – Yk
CNA Prize (1989) – Memory of snow and dust
Helgaard Steyn Prize (1996) – Nege landskappe van ons tye bemaak aan 'n beminde
Sunday Times / Alan Paton Prize for non fiction (1994) – Return to paradise
Hertzog Prize (1999) – Oorblyfsels: ’n roudig and Papierblom
De Kat-Herrie Prize at the KKNK (1998) – Boklied
W.A. Hofmeyr Prize (2008) – Die windvanger
University of Johannesburg Prize for creative writing (2008) – Die windvanger
Hertzog Prize (2008) – Die windvanger
Max Jacob Prize (2010) – Outre Voix/Voice Over (published by Actes Sud)
Mahmoud Darwish Prize – Oorblyfsel/Voice Over
Protea Poetry Prize (2010)

List of titles

1964 Die ysterkoei moet sweet
1967 Die huis van die dowe
1969 Kouevuur
1970 Lotus (under the pseudonym Jan Blom)
1972 Skryt. Om 'n sinkende skip blou te verf
1973 Met ander woorde
1967 Voetskrif
1977 Sinking Ship Blues
1978 And Death White as Words. An Anthology
1978 In Africa even the flies are happy
1979 Blomskryf
1983 Eklips
1983 Yk
1984 Buffalo Bill
1985 Lewendood
1989 Judas Eye
1990 Soos die so
1993 Nege landskappe van ons tye bemaak aan ’n beminde
1995 Die hand vol vere
1997 Oorblyfsels, 'n Roudig
1998 Papierblom
2000 Lady One (Love poem compilations) 2001 Ysterkoei-blues (Versamelde gedigte 1964-1975)*
2002 Lady One: Of Love and other Poems
2005 Die Ongedanste Dans (Gevangenisgedigte 1976-1983)**
2007 Die windvanger
2010 Oorblyfsel/Voice Over
2011 Die beginsel van stof 2014 vyf-en-veertig skemeraandgesange uit die eenbeendanser se werkruimte

1964 Katastrofes (short stories)
1971 Om te vlieg (novel)
1974 De boom achter de maan
1980 Die miernes swel op ... (stories)
1980 A Season in Paradise (Een seizoen in het paradijs) (Novel)
1983 Mouroir: Mirror Notes of a Novel
1983 The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist
1984 Spiegeldood
1985 End Papers (essays)
1987 Memory of Snow and of Dust (novel)
1987 Boek. Deel een (essays)
1989 All One Horse. Fiction and Images
1991 Hart-Lam (essays)
1992 Return to Paradise. An African journal
1996 Memory of Birds in Times of Revolution (essays)
1998 Dog Heart. A travel memoir
1999 Woordwerk
2008 A Veil of Footsteps

2001 Mondmusiek
2002 Lady One

*Die Ysterkoei-blues: Die ysterkoei moet sweet, Katastrofes, Die huis van die dowe, Kouevuur, Lotus, Oorblyfsels, Skryt, om 'n sinkende skip blou te verf, Met ander woorde, Vrugte van die droom van stilte, Plakboek and Seisoen in die paradys and some unpublished verses.

** Die ongedanste dans: Voetskrif, Lewendood, Buffalo Bill, Eklips , Yk en Boek , "Die glimlag", a long poem published for the first time.


Die ysterkoei moet sweet

  • The Iron Cow must Sweat


  • 1976 Footscript


  • Translated into French in 1976 by Georges-Marie Lory as Feu Froid.
  • Translated from French into English, Arabic and Polish.

Skryt, om 'n sinkende skip blou te verf: verse en tekeninge:

  • 1977 English translation by A. Brink, R. Leigh-Loohuizen and D. Hirson
  • 1983 Dutch translation by Adriaan van Dis

Met ander woorde: vrugte van die boom van stilte

  • 1977 Dutch (Dutch title: Met andere woorden: gedichten 1970-1975)

De boom achter de maan: verhalen

  • 1974 Translated from Afrikaans by Adriaan van Dis and Jan Louter – mainly from Katastrofes

’n Seisoen in die paradys

  • 1980, 1985 English translation by Rike Vaughan
  • 1983 German translation by Arnold Blumer
  • 1984 Dutch translation by Adriaan van Dis and Hans Ester
  • 1986 French translation by Jean Guiloineau
  • 1986 Swedish translation by G. Peterson

Kreuz des Südens Schwartzer Brand: Gedichte und Prosa

  • 1977 Compiled by Pieter Zandee – translated into Afrikaans and Dutch by Rosi Bussink

And Death White as Words: An Anthology of Poetry of Breyten Breytenbach

  • 1978 Translated from Afrikaans by several translators.
  • The collection was also translated into Portugese, Spanish, French, German, Italian and Dutch.

In Africa even the Flies are Happy: Selected Poems 1964–1977

  • 1978 Translated by Denis Hirson

Vingermaan: tekeningen uit Pretoria

  • 1980 With contributions from among others Lucebert

Mouroir: bespieëlde notas van 'n roman

  • 1983 French translation by Jean Guiloineau
  • 1984, 1985, 1994 English (Londen & New York)
  • 1985 Danish translation by Lars Bonnevie
  • 1985 Dutch translation by G. de Blaauw
  • 1986 Basque translation by Felipe Juaristi
  • 1987, 1989 German translation by U. Wiltmann

The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist

  • 1984 Danish translation by Mogens Boisen
  • 1984 German translation by D. Haug & S Oberlies
  • 1984 French translation by Jean Guiloineau
  • 1984 Dutch translation by G. de Blaauw en Adriaan van Dis
  • 1985 Portugese (Brazil) translation by MP Fereira
  • 1985 Swedish translation by T. Preis
  • 1986 Spanish translation by J.F. Felta
  • 1987 Portugese translation by W. Ramos
  • 1989 Italian translation by Maria Teresa Carbone

End Papers: Esssays, Letters, Articles of Faith, Workbook Notes

  • 1986 German translation by M. Müller as Schlussakte Südafrika
  • 1986 Dutch translation by G. de Blaauw and M. Polman as De andere kant van de vrijheid
  • 1986 French translation by Jean Guiloineau

Judas Eye; and, Self-portrait / Deathwatch

  • 1988 Translated by author and Denis Hirson

Memory of Snow and Dust

  • 1989 French translation by Jean Guiloineau

All One Horse: Fictions and Images

  • 1990 French translation by Jean Guiloineau

Nege landskappe van ons tye bemaak aan 'n beminde

  • 1995 Dutch translation by Adriaan van Dis

Return to Paradise

  • 1993 Dutch translation by Mea Flothuis

Dog Heart: a Travel Memoir

  • 1999 Dutch translation by Ellen Beek

Lady One: 99 liefdesgedigte

  • 2000 Translated into English and Dutch

Die windvanger (2007)

  • 2007 The Wind Catcher


A Veil of Footsteps stays with you, creeps into your brain where it sings beautiful bird songs.” – Fred de Vries, The Weekender (2008)

A Veil of Footsteps is a highly readable travelogue written by a man in the autumn of his life, who gazes at the beauty, contradictions, death and destruction around him. Sometimes it fills him with rage, other times he revels in ecstasy, and occasionally he experiences a “powerless nostalgia”. He does this in a language of such beauty that it now and again makes you gasp for air.” – Fred de Vries, The Weekender (2008)

“Nomadic and polyglot, Breytenbach writes lyrically and — despite or because of the unorthodoxy — with hypnotic appeal, of experiences and encounters in Europe, Africa, America and the mysterious territories of the mind.” – Moira Lovell, The Witness (2008)

“Breytenbach’s is a strong voice and there is much of interest to read of a life lived with intensity, curiosity and perspicacity wherever in the world he has found himself.” – Moira Lovell, The Witness (2008)

Sources: LitNet, Media24 newspapers

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