The overall structure of this book is conceived as an extended series of conversations with “Mr. Investigator.” The presence of this formidable, nebulous, almost abstract personality seems intended to symbolize a kind of mythic spirit of ultimate authority to which all thinkers must address their innermost thoughts and by so doing justify their convictions. He is clearly not one of the actual police interrogators. In fact, on one occasion during an extended monologue, Breytenbach apologizes for having accidentally called the investigator “Interrogator.” The actual military interrogators are designated by name and title.
The Investigator is assumed to be seeking not only to control illegal activities but also to examine the thought processes that allow them to occur. Like the torturer in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), he can confidently defend his own depraved version of moral truth. In contrast to the real tormentors, he is depicted as a man of rational if immoral understanding. Although ultimately he is committed to the side opposite to decency and truth, he is not an unimaginable monster; he functions within the same ambit as the author and is assumed to be capable of debating issues in the open and logical manner of normal intellectual discourse. The Investigator becomes a receptive sounding board for ideas, a kind of alter ego with whom Breytenbach argues and to whom he appeals in tones of modest reason rather than belligerent confrontation. Within this dialogue one sees how Breytenbach is attempting to resolve the tensions and contradictions within his own actions and examine the complex patterns of belief that he has used to justify them. Thus, the book is not only a passionate denunciation of the regime that has imprisoned Breytenbach but also a work of introspection, an examination of the principles at stake and the personality that finds confrontation at the moral level unavoidable.
Everywhere he saw the disintegration of human dignity. Among his fellow prisoners, decency melted into an inevitable violence that is directed not toward warders but toward one another. Stuffed socks made brutal coshes. Spoon handles were so regularly sharpened into daggers that the angry authorities eventually made convicts feed themselves with their hands. Violence turned inward; suicides were common. Homosexuality was rampant. The presence of those awaiting execution put a pall over the entire institution. Breytenbach records the dozen nationalities that were found within the South African prison system. Most European countries were represented, from France to Yugoslavia. Apartheid ruled inside as well as outside the prison walls. Japanese were classed as “white,” Chinese as “coloured” under the spectrum of the system. Breytenbach’s stress on the fate of these members of diverse nations indicates his sense of the universal nature of the affront that South African policy imposes, a cruelty that stretches far beyond the penalizing of its own citizens.
By some standards, his own treatment was scarcely inhumane. His penalties had few of the...
(The entire section is 1268 words.)