Breyten Breytenbach, A Monologue in Two Voices by Sandra Saayman, Reviewed by Karabo Kgoleng

I knew Breyten Breytenbach artistically as a writer first: one of the members of the literary movement of the 1960’s - Die Sestigers, along with Ingrid Jonker, Andre Brink and Etienne le Roux. It was born in France, they were Afrikaners whose work would invariably get them into trouble with the Apartheid regime because their focus was on freedom for everyone, expressed through art. This was interestingly problematic because they were the children of the volk.

During the early 1960s a new literary movement, known as the Sestigers, or the generation of the sixties, embraced secularization, modernity, racial tolerance and sexual freedom, and used modern literary techniques and subject matter to explore these themes… This literature helped to change the political imagination of the Afrikaans reading public in subtle yet profound ways. They offered a new conceptualization of the Afrikaners and their history that differed starkly from the image the political leaders and cultural leadership tried to project of the Afrikaners as a people determined to crush all threats to their survival.
- Hermann Giliomee, prominent historian and author of Afrikaners: A Biographyand co-editor of New History of South Africa.

Ironically, it was also during this era that France had a revolution of her own, and Breytenbach was there when the last public executions took place on 12 March 1963.
This is how Sandra Saayman’s book on Breytenbach begins – exploring the theme of his work around capital punishment. He was imprisoned in South Africa in the 1970’s and Saayman uses this period to explore his artistic expression using poetry, essays, fiction, drawing, painting and print. The ‘Two Voices’ in the book’s title refers to the visual and literary art forms employed by Breyten Breytenbach.

The study itself is indicative of the author’s scholarly and emotional attachments to Breytenbach’s body of work. It is an ambitious enterprise – a description and interpretation of a complex artist who works in multiple languages – Afrikaans, French, English. There is also a Breytenbach ‘code’ that Saayman decodes and explains – titles of paintings and drawings, and the word games the poet employs frequently.

Colour in Breyten Breytenbach’s artistic history also gets a treatment, particularly the washing out of colour that is indicative of the artist’s time in prison. Saayman raises ideas around the choice of colour in describing a situation devoid of colour – the drabness of prison, a metaphor for prison stripping life of its colour.

Sandra Saayman’s bold, but relatively brief exploration of how Breytenbach’s visual and literary works relate and in some cases, converse with each other is important in that it forces the viewer / reader to engage in different ways because of the various ‘languages’. The book also presents nine drawings by Breytenbach for the first time in print.

‘Breyten Breytenbach, A Monologue in Two Voices’ is the ideal reader for students of visual and literary arts, as well as Breytenbach lovers. It is not always easy to read – particularly on the visual art front – because such work is meant to be experienced directly as opposed to via an interpretation.

Download this review as a PDF here

Book Title: Breyten Breytenbach, A Monologue in Two Voices
Author: Sandra Saayman
Publisher: Fourthwall Books
Publish Date: 2014
Reviewer: Karabo Kgoleng

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