I’ve known the name Breyten Breytenbach for a long time but never pursued it, content to leave it in a folder labeled “South Africa: Afrikaner: anti-apartheid.” Now he is the recipient of the Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award. Normally, prizes are worthy only of being ignored. Exhibit A: the Nobel Prize for Literature, a shameful annual burlesque. But I’ll give a second look at an honor that bears the Polish poet’s name. In his interview with the prize-givers, Breytenbach sounds like a serious fellow:
“It would be wonderful if someone were to say – you know, let’s forget about the masks, the games, we’re all in this terrible thing called life, which is the only boat we know about. I don't know where we are going, I don’t know what the destination is, I don’t even know which port we sailed from, not sure there will be a place we will actually arrive at . . . let us share some experience of that.”
That might be Herbert himself, who always spoke as a Pole, of course, as a veteran of the worst the twentieth century could dish out (Nazism, Communism), but also as a human being, as a typical representative of our species (something every great writer does). His poems and essays are about and for us – a rare gift among writers today.
Last week I interviewed a graduate student from South Africa, a brilliant kid who grew up speaking Afrikaans and only later, in grade school, learned English. He is one of those preternaturally articulate people who take little or no pride in being articulate, and think of it merely as a form of respect we owe to others and ourselves. He spoke without “likes” or “ums” or “you knows,” and without euphemism. He talked without self-pity about the burden of being South African, and how his country lives with an ugly past, as all of us must. Here is how Breytenbach has come to understand his own past and his country’s, when the formerly oppressed become the next generation of oppressors (this, too, is typically human):
“It’s a little bit like Victor Serge, and a little later in his life Aleksander Wat – you never lose the essential reasons why you feel a deep sense of fraternity with people, but you hate the immediate appearance of corruption that comes with the acquisition of power. The stultification, the crystallisation of privilege, this elitism that comes with it, as if they are the legitimate spokespeople of this sense of fraternity.”
Breytenbach reminded me of my debt to Polish writers – Conrad, Kapuściński, Schulz, Gombrowicz, Szymborska, Miłosz and, of course, Herbert (from one foreigner’s point of view, the greatest of them all). Breytenbach, who may have met Herbert at a poetry festival in the nineteen-sixties, says: “It is like a password among poets, people who have a real passion for poetry, always ask: ‘Have you read Herbert? You should really read Herbert.’”