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Breyten Breytenbach made his reputation in South Africa first as a member of the Sestiger movement of the 1960’s, which sought to modernize both the language and the themes of Afrikaner poetry. Until this point, Afrikaans authors had loyally celebrated the historical, puritan virtues of Die Volk and left more...

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Breyten Breytenbach made his reputation in South Africa first as a member of the Sestiger movement of the 1960’s, which sought to modernize both the language and the themes of Afrikaner poetry. Until this point, Afrikaans authors had loyally celebrated the historical, puritan virtues of Die Volk and left more controversial commentary to English-language writers.

Breytenbach spoke against the political and racial injustices in South Africa, enraging the traditionalist Afrikaners while exciting their radical young. His literary achievement and his linguistic verve were admired, even while his denunciations were condemned. The fact that he used Afrikaans for his writing limited his audience until his work was translated. Later he decided to write in English. The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist was his first work to receive international acclaim.

The genesis of this book is political. Breytenbach became a member of the banned African National Congress and was driven into exile. He chose Paris, where he worked as a painter. He wedded a Vietnamese woman, an act deemed miscegenation under the Race Relations Act of his country, which forbade interracial marriage. In spite of academic invitations, his marriage prevented his legal return. In 1975, he chose to enter South Africa on a forged French passport, intending to set up a new white revolutionary organization to be called Okhela. It is clear that he had passionate political convictions, but he proved an inept revolutionary.

Breytenbach was immediately recognized and followed by the police throughout his stay. On his attempted departure he was detained, arrested, and charged with “terrorism”—a blanket accusation in South Africa. He was unskillfully defended by lawyers, themselves fearful of being tainted with the stigma of being terrorist sympathizers. Since he refused, out of loyalty, to name the friends who might have testified for him in the witness box, he was, not surprisingly, found guilty. The judge, calling him “dangerous,” imposed a prison sentence of nine years, a term longer than even the prosecution had demanded.

The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist is a record of Breytenbach’s experiences, from his arrest at the airport to his release and return to Paris in 1982. Soon after Breytenbach’s arrest, a security officer, believing that the prisoner was a Russian agent, demanded that he write the story of his life, hoping that evidence of his treasonous behavior would surface. Breytenbach’s hesitant attempts were regularly torn up, since his refusal to pen a simple confession indicated to the police a lack of honesty in his self-assessment. He was repeatedly forced to rewrite his diary. Later, when Breytenbach came to write of the events in retrospect, he imposed a literary structure on what would otherwise have been simply reportage. This work thus reaches a depth of psychological understanding beyond a relation of events.

Ostensibly, the structure of the book is chronological. There are fifteen chapters. Chapter 1 begins with Breytenbach’s arrest at the airport in Johannesburg. Subsequent chapters deal with his trial and his experiences in the different jails where he was imprisoned and where he suffered various degrees of hardship. The last chapter describes the happiness of his release, when, after urgent appeals by his international literary and diplomatic friends and advocates, the last two years of his sentence were waived, provided he accept permanent exile—a repudiation of South Africa that he ardently desired.

At the end of each chapter, Breytenbach interposes “inserts,” in which reminiscence and introspection combine to survey the circumstances within his upbringing and education that brought about his radical commitment and subsequent capture. At the conclusion of this personal history, he adds an extended appendix in the form of brief essays which comment separately and somewhat randomly on general topics: interrogation tactics, the state of South African prisons, evidence of police torture, the nature of Afrikaans, and the future of Azania, as free South Africa will be called. He reprints the Okhela Manifesto, which he openly and injudiciously took with him to South Africa. This document, demanding militant resistance against the state, became the basis for the charges of terrorism made against him. There are also thirteen poems composed in prison. Their tone is more intellectual than accusatory. Breytenbach’s writing remains consistently introspective and personal in tone even when his subject is urgently political, and the poems speak of his love for his wife and his ardent desire for freedom.

The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist

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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 resistance: “Resistance,” he writes, “if that is what you want to call survival, is made up of a million little compromises and humiliations, so subtle that the human eye cannot perceive them.” Belief in the justice and eventual success of the struggle plays a far smaller role in sustaining him than does Buddhism, which undermines the very notion of a firm, politically coherent self. You must learn, Breytenbach says, that you are nothing. Give up the sum of attributes by which you think of yourself, he counsels, and participate in the putting down of the I.

Along with the effort to extinguish his self, what sustains him most is his writing. Breytenbach is at his best when he is writing about writing—a natural subject when the physical act of inscribing, preserving, and distributing one’s words is so difficult, and when it is nearly all he is allowed to do. Nevertheless, the very fact that he is allowed to write, although prison regulations ban any professional or lucrative activity, is a sign of the ambiguity of writing and of his identity as a writer. In prison, as he says, every word he writes will be read by his enemies over his shoulder. Yet even out of prison, he does not escape this contradiction: Writing in Afrikaans means addressing a community which is revolted by every opinion he expresses. Thus, the act of writing itself is tainted with antagonism toward the reader. In The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, an unfocused, unanalyzed hostility burns through the mode of address. Page by page, Breytenbach reminds both the reader and himself that his words are being read by one “Mr. Investigator.” Sometimes this mysterious figure seems to represent a version of himself; one of the pseudonyms of Mr. Investigator is “I.” At another point, Mr. Investigator is “my dark mirror-brother,” a representative of black revolutionaries, from whom the Okhela group split off, and Breytenbach’s hostility toward his hearer becomes an image of his fears for South Africa’s future. “We must launch a dialogue. I must warn you that the system by which we’re trying to replace the present one will grind us down, me and you, as inexorably. I must tell you that I cannot hold my criticism, my disaffection, in abeyance; that I cannot condone your (our) agreements and compromises—not even tactically. I love you too bitterly for that. I hear you chuckling, you who are Black .” If this book is revenge for what he has suffered, it is also a repetition of that suffering, a continuing of the interrogations to which he was subjected by the police, and an extension of those interrogations to fellow opponents of apartheid.

This is another way of communicating that the book is self-consciously self-destructive. He writes, Breytenbach says, not so as to preserve his experiences but so as to erase them. This need to purge himself stems from disgust at his compromises with his enemies. In order to get a volume of his poems published, he had to agree to dedicate it to Colonel Huntingdon, the chief investigator. (He also had to permit it to be censored. One complete poem was deleted; its title was “Help,” and the full text consisted of the single word “Help!”) More important, the old theme of unwilling complicity between torturer and tortured, jailer and prisoner, is compounded by the special circumstances of the Afrikaans author. Despite his political stand, Breytenbach remained the darling of the Afrikaans literary world. On a brief trip home in 1973, two years before his arrest, he was lionized; for the Afrikaners, who associate their threatened language with their threatened ownership of the land, the fact that Breytenbach had raised their language to such literary prominence made him a hero despite himself, and even a de facto defender of their right to South African soil.

What he was to his Afrikaner readers was decidedly different from what he was to himself. Thus Breytenbach had every reason to problematize the theme of identity, one of the richest motifs in the book. In an extraordinary section called “Detainee and Interrogator,” he writes:The self-disgust of the prisoner comes from the alienation he has been brought to. That in which he participated (because the mortification lies in that he is forced to participate in his own undoing) will play havoc with his conception of himself and it will forever modulate his contact with other people. He will have the leftover knowledge that he has been used as a tool, that he was coldly and expertly manipulated, that he was confronted with his own weakness. Worse, far worse, that he ended up looking upon his tormentor as a confessor, as a friend even. This development is so profoundly unnatural that it makes him sick of himself.

Examining himself with great courage, Breytenbach declares that the self-divisive damage he has suffered is permanent. In an interview just before his release, he tells the authorities that after five years in prison any man is no longer a man. When people ask him how he survived, he answers that he did not survive. In the modernist authors from whom Breytenbach has learned the most, this paradox is familiar: As one reads, the “I” whose actions and sufferings are described in the past is superseded by the “I” who must have survived in order to be describing them in the present. Yet here, for once, it is hard not to take these words at face value. Breytenbach did not survive. A fine poet and dedicated activist was incarcerated; the man who was released seven years later was still a fine poet, but his attention had been driven inward, on himself. He is no turncoat, but his voice is not that of someone who remains politically active.

There is a heroic myth which reflects that suffering in a just cause is ennobling. Willfully and also perhaps unconsciously, Breytenbach demystifies this consoling notion. Repeatedly he insists that he did not survive. He reminds his reader that he made no political statements and that he agreed with the authorities when he thought he could win points by doing so. Being in prison, he says, is never worth it. Unfortunately, the reader is obliged to believe him. The self who writes can take credit for these words; the self who acts and suffers demonstrates their sad truth. The book has a powerful but dispiriting moral: To go to prison for a cause can remove one from that cause. One must act without believing that action is worthwhile.

Little by little, Breytenbach’s attractive modesty about his own political unimportance shades off into thoughts which are apolitical, nihilistic, merely individual. There are many political sentiments expressed here which will make Breytenbach’s allies wince, and even perhaps a few that will bring a smile to the faces of his enemies. The activists of the European antiapartheid movement are portrayed quite unpleasantly. Those, on the other hand, who are bred within the system cannot be expected to change it significantly, he declares; only violence from without can shake it. Yet violence will inevitably be blind—and in conclusion he assures his readers that no cause can sanction the destruction of human life. This logic does not leave much hope for changing the lives of the people of Soweto. Accusing the African National Congress of antidemocratic and authoritarian practices, Breytenbach prophesies darkly that its victory would merely replace a racist totalitarianism with a nonracist totalitarianism. Such statements may explain why the South African government has decided to permit The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist to be published in South Africa.

During the last five years of his imprisonment, Breytenbach was kept at Pollsmoor Prison in suburban Cape Town, the most recent home of Nelson Mandela. The two men crossed paths in the same jail, but they lived in different worlds. To mention Mandela’s name is to be reminded that it is possible to “survive” in prison, and that regardless of whether one does, the cause for which one was imprisoned goes on. Still, the bitter honesty with which Breytenbach records his failure to survive has its own value. Even if it finally proves to be only a passing moment in his career, Breytenbach has done well to define and preserve it.


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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 146

Sources for Further Study

Commentary. LXXX, October, 1985, p. 71.

Cope, Jack. The Adversary Within: Dissident Writers in Afrikaans, 1982.

Des Pres, Terrence. “Rimbaud’s Nephew,” in Parnassus. XI (Fall/Winter, 1983, Spring/Summer, 1984), pp. 83-102.

Foreign Affairs. LXIII, Summer, 1985, p. 1133.

Kirkus Reviews. LII, December 15, 1984, p. 1177.

Library Journal. CX, March 1, 1985, p. 83.

Moore, Gerald. “The Martian Descends: The Poetry of Breyten Breytenbach,” in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature. XVI (April, 1985), pp. 3-12.

The New Republic. CXCII, March 11, 1985, p. 29.

The New York Review of Books. XXXII, July 18, 1985, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, February 10, 1985, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, December 21, 1984, p. 79.

Roberts, Sheila. “South African Prison Literature,” in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature. XVI (April, 1985), pp. 61-73.

van Der Merwe, P.P. “Breyten Breytenbach and the Poet Revolutionary,” in Theoria. LVI (May, 1981), pp. 51-72.

Washington Post Book World. XV, May 5, 1985, p. 5.

World Literature Today. LIX, Spring, 1985, p. 311.

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