A leading Afrikaner poet, as well as a painter, Breyten Breytenbach emigrated to Europe in the late 1960’s. There he established his literary reputation, married a Vietnamese woman—thus providing a further reason for his exile in the eyes of South African law—and became active in the antiapartheid movement. In 1975 he returned to South Africa, disguised as a Frenchman, in order to help organize a network of white resistance to the government. Arrested at the Johannesburg airport as he tried to leave, he was convicted of terrorism and sentenced to nine years in prison. After serving seven of those years, including two in solitary confinement, he was released and returned to Europe. This book, dictated into a tape recorder during his first months of freedom, is an account of his time in prison.
Although the issues at the base of the book are African race relations and the history of the struggle against apartheid, there is little about South African political groups or about race itself. This is not surprising, however, when one considers that the material for this book arose in large part from Breytenbach’s experiences in solitary confinement—in a country in which even the prisons are segregated. In prison, other races were largely invisible to Breytenbach. With a few exceptions, he was aware of blacks only when he heard them singing—in defiance of prison regulations—on the nights before one of their number was to be executed. Though Breytenbach is a hero of the struggle, it is not with the struggle that he is most concerned; it is with prison life itself: the terrible fight, day by day, week by week, month by month, to stay sane under insane conditions.
Necessarily, perhaps, the book resembles other examples of the genre that has been called, with casual cruelty, “prison literature.” Its detail is the detail of prison routine: eating, cleaning up, exercise, tricks to make time pass. Its surprises, like the decorating of artificial teeth with filed-down bits of colored glass or hearsay about ritual murders committed by prison gangs, are almost predictable. Its main events are the (too few) departures from routine: visits, letters, anything smuggled in or out, conversations with the guards, an injured wood-pigeon that flies over the wall and is tamed by Breytenbach, and then—while Breytenbach is enjoying a visit from his wife—is eaten by the jailers’ cat. (Under the circumstances, it is difficult to avoid perceiving allegory in even the most ordinary events.) The book’s characters are the prison staff and inmates. In the light of Breytenbach’s extraordinary poetic sensibility, the cast flashes into vivid life, but only intermittently. It is the cruel fact of prison literature, as of prison life, that there can be no “rounded” or “developed” characters when so little contact between people is permitted.
The narrative of Breytenbach’s mission, capture, interrogation, and imprisonment should perhaps be the most gripping part of the book, but it is not. Okhela, the white left-wing splinter group that Breytenbach helped found and on whose behalf he made the ill-fated trip to South Africa, has one real political accomplishment to its credit: It stole documents proving West German cooperation in South Africa’s attempt to develop the capacity to produce nuclear weapons. Yet Breytenbach’s mission was harebrained from the start, and its execution was inept; ultimately it succeeded only in getting the people he contacted into trouble. As a political thriller, this section of the book comes uncomfortably close to absurdist comedy. Nor does the political line become more coherent thereafter. According to Breytenbach, the authorities agreed to lighten his sentence in return for his agreement not to “politicize” the trial. The trial was not politicized, but his sentence was not reduced.
In a sense, Breytenbach’s time in prison is hardly more politicized than his trial. Because South Africa is a totalitarian state, the regimentation and surveillance of life in prison might be seen as a microcosm of its “ordinary” life, but this is not Breytenbach’s purpose in describing it. The real political strength of the book lies in its attention to the state of mind of the boere—the derogatory prison term for policemen and warders and, by extension, for whites. It is because Breytenbach himself belongs to this extended category, though with an unease marked by the word “albino” in his title, that he has so much insight. (Had he been black, he might well have been murdered rather than jailed.) From the beginning of his mission, he has wondered whether his own exclusive clandestinity does not mirror that of the police. He himself is not tortured; as a famous Afrikaner poet and the brother of a military hero, he is treated with a strange mixture of harshness and indulgence. Yet the people with whom he deals are torturers. Breytenbach conveys this without showing them simply as monsters. At some risk to his own moral and political position, and even to his sanity, he forces himself to understand how torturers think. The reader sees their anti-Semitism combined with their admiration for Israel, their flaunting of power that is most deadly at moments when compassion, even love, surface yet are frustrated by the prisoners’ “obstinacy.” Breytenbach’s portrait refuses to deny the humanity of the enemy; it neither surrenders its indignation nor falls into the slothful categories of “them” and “us.”
Yet it is not his political convictions that uphold Breytenbach in his isolation. Prison does not confer on him a new political identity by teaching him to see his time as a form of...