The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist

by Breyten Breytenbach
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1268

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 gross cruelties he observed being inflicted on the black prisoners in this radically segregated environment. Perhaps this relatively easy fate allowed a certain dispassion and ironic vision to flourish in his writing. His descriptions of the warders are of twisted personalities, petty, silly men reminding one of Hannah Arendt’s recognition of “the banality of evil.” These creatures are not dramatic enough to be villains, though their willing acceptance of their degrading duties does make them evil. Sometimes it is the sheer absurdity of the system that provokes his derision, more the stuff of Franz Kafka than of the gulag. Breytenbach, by extrapolation, demonstrates how apartheid imprisons even those who are privileged within the South African society.

Breytenbach’s account is animated by a tension between his pride in his radical service and the humiliating consequences of his arrest. In a sense his capture could be considered a triumphant result of his activism: The police have regarded his intervention as sufficiently serious to require severe penalty. On the other hand, Breytenbach resents the consequences that follow from his dabbling in the coming revolution. He seems to need to have it both ways. He condemns, on grounds of moral justice, the sentence imposed upon him by a regime known to be despotic and its attendant courts, assumed to be biased. But to the extent that he demands a verdict of “innocent of the charges,” and argues a legal defense in the courtroom, it is difficult to see how he can maintain his status as a terrorist, unquestionably guilty for intending, by his own admission, violently to bring down the regime that condemns him for the destructive intention of which he openly boasts. His situation is unlike that of many other contemporary prisoners who are incarcerated without accusation, trial, proof, and sometimes even reason, who spend their time in their cells trying to imagine for what reason they were brought to their present state.

Indeed, Breytenbach exhibits a sublime innocence that makes the idea of his being a genuine revolutionary absurd. The international appeals for his release were based on the improbability that such a person could be considered a dangerous and efficient terrorist. Breytenbach was not sure that he approved of this evasive line of self-defense, since it diminished his sense of radical commitment. His carefully composed manifesto for Okhela might be considered treasonous even in countries much less restrictive than South Africa. It is based on the fundamental proposition that no political change can possibly occur unless it is enforced through total and violent social uprising. Only deliberate acts of violence will shatter allegiance to the continuing political oppression and wrest power from the hands of those who enjoy the opportunities that segregation and discrimination provide. Breytenbach in essence is a man of letters who is condemned by his spiritual sympathies to become directly engaged in the political struggle. This obligation satisfies his intellectual convictions, but he would surely serve the cause better as its articulate spokesman than as an active soldier. Like many liberal thinkers, Breytenbach discovers that when revolutionary theories are put into practice, the results may be antagonistic to his gentler inner nature as a man of letters.

The mixed tone of the writing exactly reflects the psychological ambivalence of Breytenbach’s position. It rarely has the documentary directness that one might expect from his situation. The eleven-line subtitle of part 1 seems a parody of the quaint wit of an eighteenth century novelist: “Being the veritable account in words and in breaks of how a foolish fellow got caught. . . .” Even as irony this is a curious tone in which to record his circumstance, for it mocks the seriousness of his fate. The book itself ranges across two levels of diction. There are sections in which with blunt accuracy and directness he describes his experiences and the suffering he observes. Occasionally he employs a deliberately tough rhetoric. Yet philosophical and speculative ideas always intrude, necessitating a more complex and eloquent form. This change of tone is especially noticeable in the “insert” sections that terminate the chapters; these sections are virtually prose poems.

The thirteen poems composed in prison exhibit the same instinctive concentration on the analysis of his own nature rather than that of the regime. He dreams and writes of the outside world, quite colloquially reminiscing about his wife, delighting in her letters. He is eloquent about the prospects of freedom, detailing the pleasures that the streets and restaurants of Paris will bring. The subject is hard but the feeling is eager and positive, so that in the last couplet he can write, “Burn, burn with me, love—to hell with decay/ to live is to live, and while alive to die anyway.”

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