Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 405

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Unhappily, in the twentieth century a new genre of autobiographical writing— the prison diary—has come into being. On all continents, provocative and innovative writers have been incarcerated for their principles and have suffered the torments devised by oppressive regimes. Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka (1972) is another example of books in this mode. Breytenbach’s work fits this pattern as he describes his years of internment in South Africa. It brings together two complementary themes that are of wide international concern: the denunciation of dictatorial atrocities—by governments of both the Left and the Right—and, specifically, the condemnation of South African racism.

The South African situation has been described in innumerable studies, scholarly and anecdotal, statistical and literary. Breytenbach’s book is a powerful expose of the degraded system and addresses fundamental issues of the century. By deliberately calling himself an albino, he proclaims that he is white only on his outside skin; in his heart he identifies with black people, the oppressed and the dispossessed. In this way he links himself with the revolutionary proletariat. Overall, however, the book is a very personal and human record. Breytenbach does not strike any calculated political pose. His moral convictions are based on humanistic decency rather than political principles. Thus, he lacks the coherent intellectual creed that has helped to sustain Communist as well as Christian prisoners in similar circumstances. Breytenbach has only an inner conviction of the immorality of his country’s government: “I believe, more than ever, that the system existing in South Africa is against the grain of everything that is beautiful and hopeful and dignified in human history. . . . It is totally corrupt and corrupting.”

The harsh experience of Breytenbach’s prison days made him more fully aware of his own nature, the spiritual essentials by which he chooses to conduct his life. He learns from his deprivation the intensity of his need for beauty, even in its humblest forms. His confinement allows intellectual purgation, permitting him to see more clearly the reasons for which he has chosen to reject his country and seek, at the cost of a cultural schism, an exile that provides at least a physical freedom. In this way his work links to the profound statements made by many Soviet “refuseniks,” who have sought the resolution of their own intellectual impasses in a departure that is no less painful for being emotionally essential.