Outside the country of his birth, the Afrikaans poet Breyten Breytenbach is best known for his remarkable account of imprisonment in The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist. Reception of Breytenbach abroad has, at the expense of the full breadth of his writing, emphasized heavily the price that he paid for his opposition to apartheid.
In South Africa, scholarship on Breytenbach has been quietly growing. Although some of the most important work addresses his politics and public persona, over the past fifteen years a theoretically sophisticated body of criticism has kept pace with all aspects of his prolific output. a.k.a, the first comprehensive volume of writings on Breytenbach, assembles the best of it. Drawing on Bakhtin, Barthes, Derrida, and Lacan, the fourteen pieces in a.k.a richly illuminate Breytenbach's poetry, prison writings, travel memoirs and critical essays, as well as his drama and painting.
The premise of the collection, signaled by its title, is that "Breyten Breytenbach" is no single stable entity—as biographical exposé assumes—but a shifting "I," a mutating set of personae that emerge from his texts, in which pseudonyms and doubles multiply. Several of the contributors relate this instability to Breytenbach's embrace of Zen Buddhism, from which he adopts and elaborates the idea of a boundless self. That this idea leads to a radical reciprocity opposed to apartheid thinking does not mean that details of Breytenbach's textualization of the self are exempt from criticism. Indeed, in a.k.a, they are subjected to rigorous scrutiny by more than one of the authors: Andries Visagie, for example, discerns an unexamined heterosexism running all through Breytenbach's poetry and prose.
a.k.a. includes sophisticated analyses of Breytenbach's poetry by Louise Viljoen and the late Lisbé Smuts.Generously quoting poems from Die ysterkoei moet sweet, Lotus, and more recent collections, in the Afrikaans original with English translations, the book also reprints J. M. Coetzee's essay on the relationship between Breytenbach's poetry and prison writing. Links between the poetry and painting are informatively explored by Marilet Sienaert, and her interview with [End Page 209] Breytenbach on the subject is a welcome bonus. The collection is adventurous, containing, in addition to lively academic essays, Judith Lütge Coullie's playful A–Z of Breytenbach's critical writing, a detailed mapping of this fertile but fragmentary area of the writer's corpus.
Some of the most interesting writing in a.k.a. treats Breytenbach's representations of Africa. Essays by J. U. Jacobs and Tim Trengove Jones, respectively, survey the image of Africa from his early poetry through the travel trilogy (A Season in Paradise, Return to Paradise, Dog Heart), and the association of Africa with metamorphosis and hybridity—Breytenbach's emphasis, particularly after 1990, on andersmaak (other-making) as an antidote to all politicization of identity, whether in Afrikaner- or any other form of nationalism.
These and the other pieces in a.k.a. provide a unique and timely overview of the career of a writer who, far from regarding the most difficult and demanding poetry as incompatible with political struggle, has viewed the intricate workings of the verbal imagination as essential to it.