THE MEMORY OF BIRDS IN TIMES OF REVOLUTION: Essays by Breyten Breytenbaeh

THE MEMORY OF BIRDS IN TIMES OF REVOLUTION: Essays

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KIRKUS REVIEW

An outdated, awkward collection of essays on art and politics from one of South Africa's great gadflies. Afrikaans poet, activist, former prisoner, and exile, Breytenbach (Return to Paradise, 1993, etc.) plunges into the cauldron of South African politics with brave abandon, criticizing both left and right, Mandela and De Klerk with equal, brutal honesty. His several ""Open Letters to Nelson Mandela""--though they have a faint odor of self-importance and self-righteousness--are blunt and scrupulous warnings about the seductions and corruptions of power. In other, less political essays, Breytenbach steps back to consider the grand old hallmarks of the artist, at least as defined by Joyce: silence, exile, and cunning. But even here politics obtrude, as does language. While he may be a past master in verse (the few interpolated poems here are among the volume's bright spots), Breytenbach's prose is a real stumbling block, an unhealthy combination of French lit-crit abstraction and Afrikaner earthiness: ""No wonder that so many writers have withdrawn to the campuses, there like alienated baboons to deconstruct, to eviscerate and sniff at the innards of our art-the phonemes and the signifiers."" Nor are Breytenbach's ideas startlingly original; they are a bland stew of third-world liberationist posturings, sauced with obscurantist theory, Buddhist blatherings, and overused quotes about art from the usual suspects. Because most of these essays were written in the early 1990s, when apartheid was still in place, their critiques are almost painfully out of date. And while the essays' honesty and courage are to be commended, they lack the saving humanism and insight of, for example, Orwell's essays from the '30s, qualities that would have kept them otherwise readable and trenchant.

Pub Date: Feb. 12th, 1996
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Harcourt Brace