Breyten Breytenbach has accumulated many honourable distinctions over his 45-year career. The Western Cape-born author, campaigner and artist has put out dozens of prose works and collections of verse, both in Afrikaans and English. He founded Okhela, a resistance group formed to oppose apartheid. This got him jailed: the poet served seven years for high treason, and turned the experience into an indispensable memoir, The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist. At apartheid's height in the early Eighties, the British satirical TV programme Spitting Image singled Breytenbach out as the one exception to a dismal rule in the song I've Never Met a Nice South African ("Yes he's quite a nice South African/And he's hardly ever killed anyone," ran the relevant codicil; "That's why they put him prison.")
Most recently Breytenbach was picked from among more than 100 international writers to give the opening address at the first Dubai International Poetry Festival which concludes on Tuesday. Indeed, you can also catch him reading his work at 8.30pm tomorrow, at a special poetry soirée held at the Dubai World Trade Centre. With any luck he'll continue revealing the fruits of his "dialogues" with the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, a taste of which he offered in his speech on Wednesday, before an audience including His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid al Maktoum as well as poets from 45 countries. Breytenbach has been reworking sections from Darwish's poems and embedding them in works of his own in order, as he puts it, to "continue the conversation" which was broken off by Darwish's death last August. "We shall be a people, if we will," he read last week, "when we know that evil is not the exclusive dominion of the other."
Not the least of Breytenbach's many distinctions is his long friendship with Darwish, the poet who has become a figurehead for the people of the occupied territories. Darwish's reputation has only solidified in the months since his death: a shrine has been built to his memory outside Ramallah's Palace of Culture. The possibility of including a couple of his poems on Israeli school curricula has once again surfaced, following Ehud Barak's rather nervous dismissal of the plan in 2000. In Dubai, the first Emirates Airline Festival of Literature concluded with a set of readings dedicated to him. And yesterday, the DIPF held a Mahmoud Darwish evening, in a single stroke commemorating the author and helping to inaugurate the Dubai House of Poetry, a new performance venue and library situated beside the Heritage Village. Throughout the second half of Darwish's career, Breytenbach was able to witness his struggles in politics and art.
I meet Breytenbach amid the bonhomous confusion of the festival's first-night soirée. He's a burly, capable-seeming chap with a neat white beard and wry expression. Though nearly 70, he seems a good 10 or 15 years younger, an impression heightened by his forceful sense of humour. The German poet and translator Joachim Sartorius first invited him to the DIPF. "I've known him for many years," says Breytenbach genially, "and I like him and I trust him, though I'm going to beat him up before the end of the week." He grins enigmatically.
I ask him how he first befriended Darwish. "These are people who you end up knowing very well," he says, "although you only see them very occasionally. In the case of Mahmoud it goes back to the early 1970s when we were both at an international poetry festival in Rotterdam, and they'd asked me to organise an evening of what was then called political poetry. I insisted he should be part of it." This was at a period, Breytenbach says, when post-war anxieties meant that the Dutch tended to take a pro-Israel stance. "I thought it was very brave of him to come and to read and hold his own," he says.
Their friendship rested in large measure on literary shop talk: "We always talked very widely, both about craft and, shall we say, poetry gossip," Breytenbach explains. "Who was doing what, what was happening where. He was very much aware He was living in several worlds at the same time." Still, as the experience of the Rotterdam conference showed, it wasn't always an easy set of worlds to inhabit. "I was always immensely impressed by this incredibly difficult thing he kept on trying to do," says Breytenbach; "Knowing that, whether he wants to or not, he's going to be the voice of a people and of a struggle, and at the same time, as much as possible hewing to the line of being a pure poet."
This sense that Darwish had been forced by destiny to serve as an advocate for his cause is perhaps one that Breytenbach can share. His travails under apartheid, which began in earnest when he married a Vietnamese Frenchwoman and was barred under South African race laws from re-entering his homeland, prepared him for a lifetime of speaking truth to power. He has been an outspoken opponent of the US Bush administration, and has vociferously attacked Israel, accusing it of "state terrorism" and of attempting to exterminate the Palestinian people. Speaking at the DIPF launch, he offered a reminder of the dangers of an art which is supine in the face of evil: poetry, he warned, is "used to praise power, to promote patriotism, to attack, to judge, to criticise, sometimes even to exclude".
Over the decades of his friendship with Darwish, however, he had numerous opportunities - at readings and during various literary protests the pair took part in - to measure his own political burden against that of the Palestinian poet. During our conversation he mentions "a kind of recognition of similarity of questions that we were struggling with," and elaborates: "How does one make sense of poetry when, as Bertolt Brecht said, it is not the time perhaps, to be writing poetry?"
Breytenbach may have found himself less trapped in the expectations that came with his spokesman status than Darwish did. He tells a story of a holiday the pair once took in Ramallah. They were put out to find that they were expected to have an audience with Yasser Arafat. "We were not interested in that," says Breytenbach. "We didn't want to be recuperated And also we couldn't see what poetry we would be talking about when we talked to Arafat." But despite his unwillingness, circumstances seem to have forced Darwish to give in. "Very early one morning in the hotel we were staying in, he came, Mahmoud came and talked to us and said: 'I couldn't get out of it. I promised him ' So he was doing a little bit of carrying and fetching He was not a totally cut-off rebel."
Indeed, one of the facets of Darwish that Breytenbach singles out for special praise is the way in which the man and the monument are brought into an uneasy dialogue in the work. "He had this hard gift," says Breytenbach, "of somehow being both private and very public in the same poem, to the extent that I think one can really see the poet at work, struggling with his own private demons... At the same time I don't think he ever extrapolated from there. He's not trying to imagine that whatever was ailing him was kind of an incarnation or a representation emblematic of the larger cause - or the other way around, for that matter."
Searching for parallels for Darwish's blend of the public and the personal, Breytenbach hits on the great Chilean lyric poet Pablo Neruda. "I was thinking also perhaps of Lorca," he says, "whom Darwish loved, but I think there's more of a formal privacy. But Neruda would be a good example... Where a man is both developing an ethos and a craft which is entirely founded and justified in poetic terms, and at the same time it keeps on echoing the outside course, the larger environment."
The echoing of the outside course is perhaps the mark of a great private poet - just as a hint of flexible humanity is what elevates public verse. Darwish's work can be heard echoing in Breytenbach's next book, Voice Over, the record of his poetic interactions with his late friend. It comes out in April, published by Archipelago. "This had been for me something quite new that I had never done," he says. "I don't normally translate, or try to translate, and in this particular case it's doubly hard because I don't know Arabic, so you have to work either from French or from English." This needn't be an insuperable obstacle, of course. "He's very beautifully translated by quite a number of people in both French and in English, as far as I can judge and as far as he said... But I didn't set out to translate. I set out literally to appropriate, and to get into his poem, or to bring him into mine. To get that kind of dialogue." It should be a fascinating conversation to hear played out.