Bretyenbach, Breyten (1936–) By Viljoen, Hein
Breyten Breytenbach is the foremost poet among the ”Sestigers,” a prolific painter, and also a controversial public figure. He was born in Bonnievale, South Africa, studied in Cape Town and went into voluntary exile in Paris after marrying Ngo Thi Huang Lien, a Vietnamese woman (also known as Yolande). To date he has published nineteen volumes of poetry, several collections of essays, seven parts of an autobiography, two highly controversial plays, and two novels. His surrealist-type work is inspired by a Zen-Buddhist sense of the mindful continuity underlying mutable existence. An uncanny ability to transform and permutate words and to bend language to his own will characterises his work.
After studying at the Michaelis School of Art at the University of Cape Town, Breytenbach travelled to Europe, working in different places before settling as a painter in Paris in 1962. He lived in voluntary exile in Paris, as the South African government refused to give his “non-white” wife a visa.
He made his debut in 1964 with the poetry collection Die ysterkoei moet sweet [The Iron Cow Must Sweat] and a collection of uncannily flavored short prose works, Katastrofes [Catastrophes] (both awarded the APB Prize in 1966). These works were highly original and innovative, and made use of surrealist techniques to depict a reaching out towards Zen satori.