It is a sad comment on the times to note how many of the most memorable titles of the latter half of the twentieth century have belonged to books which describe an individual’s struggle against the tyranny and terror of vicious political systems. The Argentinian Jacobo Timerman’s Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number (1980), the Italian Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table (1975), the Cuban Armando Valladares’ Against All Hope (1985), and the Russian Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle (1968) and The Gulag Archipelago (1973-1975) are all the work of men who have been incarcerated because of their refusal to comply with the demands of a social system which they considered an illegal infringement upon the universally acknowledged rights of man. In each case, their imprisonment has also been a consequence of their determination to speak directly against a tyrannical government. Levi and Timerman have returned from prison to see the emergence of genuine democratic reforms in their countries, and although Solzhenitsyn and Valladares have had to accept exile in the refuge of the United States, their work stands as a continuing testament to the endurance and resilience of the human spirit, offering some kind of encouragement to all of their countrymen continuing the struggle and some kind of consolation to the citizens of the world who might just as easily give in to despair upon consideration of the percentage of the human race that lives now—and has always lived—under some form of tyranny.
The South African writer and painter Breyten Breytenbach—Afrikaner by birth, exile in Paris for ten years by choice, self-described in mid-life as a “Whitish Afrikaans-speaking South African African”—felt compelled to return from Europe in 1975 to help organize resistance among members of the “white tribe” to the diabolical system of Apartheid (Breytenbach always capitalizes the term). Entering his country under an alias, he was arrested and convicted for treason, and he spent seven years in jail, two in solitary confinement. His account of those days, The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (1985), has been described as both “defiantly unesthetic” and “modest and refreshing,” an indication of the singularity of his voice and stance. It brought Breytenbach almost immediate celebrity among writers in the Western world, a somewhat ironic occurrence since his work as a poet was previously invisible beyond his home country and visible there only to members of a closed audience of a culture he was attacking. Partly as a result of this fame, Breytenbach has accepted the opportunity to publish End Papers, a series of occasional, personal, casual, and polemical essays, political addresses, poems, and fragments that defy characterization. Aside from his understandable eagerness to reach a wider audience concerning his convictions about Apartheid and the political situation in South Africa, Breytenbach candidly confesses that he is pleased to publish an accumulation of varied material so that he can “get it over and done with” and move on to new territory in his work.
It is this combination of artistic ambition with a sense of the developing self as an aesthetic construct and a total commitment to work toward the political evolution of his homeland that makes Breytenbach, at his best, such an intriguing writer. The connections between his political activity and creative endeavors stem from his conviction that it is not possible to write truthfully in the service of or in collusion with a system that denies freedom to its subjects. His central contention is that by enslaving the black majority of its people, the minority white tribe which rules South Africa (his “people,” the Afrikaans) has enslaved itself as well. Both the jailer and prisoner are enchained by the moral corruption that is the primary product of Apartheid.
End Papers, because of the diverse nature of its contents, its political and its artistic focus, has been organized by two directing precepts in order to give it more than a random structure. The first one is chronological, leading Breytenbach to arrange his thoughts and remarks in roughly the order in which they were written, but they are preceded by a section called “Pretext,” which is an introduction designed to prepare the reader for what is to follow: to establish a context for perception. Following the chronologically arranged material, there is a final section called “End Notes,” which gives the author another opportunity to comment on and extend the insights and arguments of the twenty years between the mid-1960’s and the mid-1980’s from the perspective of the sensibility that has been formed by the experience of those decades. The second precept is an important aspect of Breytenbach’s aesthetic credo. Because it is important for the author to reinforce and expand his sense of himself as an author of imaginative literature (he has been called the “leading poet” of the Afrikaner language and has translated some of his own work for End Papers), Breytenbach is at work throughout the book to develop a distinct “voice” and an original angle of vision. By using experimental forms, multiple narratives, and several versions of “language,” and by his shifts between polemical-ideological and poetic styles of expression, he has tried to fuse the fragments of a wide-ranging and often engaging intelligence into a coherent, if not completely unified, construct.
In an attempt to deflect the glare of his sudden celebrity, the “Pretext” is deliberately mysterious at its inception, an oblique introduction that offers moments from the flow of a writer’s consciousness. The first lines are a quatrain attributed to Sesson Yubai. In “End Notes,” the reader learns that Yubai, a Japanese Zen monk of the thirteenth century, composed four poems by using each line of an older poem as a separate starting place. Almost incidentally, Breytenbach also notes that the poems were written in jail when Yubai was imprisoned by the Mongols and facing death....
(The entire section is 2505 words.)