Mouroir, Breyten Breytenbach. Archipelago Press. 280pp, $15.00.
Imprisoned for sedition, Breyten Breytenbach found himself mirroring Samuel Beckett’s Molloy. After managing to make it back home in order to die, Molloy tells his story on manuscript pages that are snatched from his grasp as soon as he fills them. Breytenbach, who had been living in exile in France, returned to his native South Africa in 1975. He traveled in disguise and under a bogus passport as an agent of Okhela, a group he co-founded in Europe with the objective of toppling the apartheid regime. But the security forces were on to Breytenbach’s secret mission even before he set foot again on South African soil. He was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to nine years in prison. The intercession of President François Mitterand led to the release of the author (who became a French citizen), after seven years of confinement, two of them in solitary.
In 1985, Breytenbach published The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, a memoir of his inept attempt at insurrection and his subsequent incarceration. In it, he explains that, though he was an accomplished visual artist, the penal authorities barred him from painting. However, he was also a leading Afrikaans poet, and he was permitted to write, under the condition that he not try to smuggle anything beyond the prison walls and that he surrender each day’s text to his guards. Breytenbach was an enemy of the racist state, and his betrayal especially rankled authorities because of his deep Afrikaner roots and the fact that his brother Jan commanded the South African Special Forces. By marrying a woman of Vietnamese descent, he had also defied his country’s miscegenation laws. Though assured that all of his manuscripts would be returned upon his release, Breytenbach had reason to fear he would never live to see his work again. He sensed that he had been consigned to what the French call a mouroir, a place where the living are left to die.
Mouroir: Mirrornotes of a Novel consists of the texts that were returned to their author when he finally emerged alive from Pollsmoor, the notorious maximum-security prison located outside Cape Town. The circumstances of its composition help explain the distinctive qualities of this book. In contrast to The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, written from a single, retrospective vantage point, Mouroir comprises thirty-eight discrete sections—stories, parables, dreams, meditations—of varying lengths and styles that were each removed from Breytenbach’s cell as soon as he had written them. The material includes observations on prison and prisoners as well as memories and fantasies of other times and other places. One of the most chilling sections, “The Double Dying of an Ordinary Criminal,” is a dispassionate, detailed account of the procedures culminating in an execution by hanging. However, whereas the memoir is a relatively straightforward, linear narrative, Mouroir is, for the most part, forbiddingly dense, allusive, and elliptical, a collection that bears a stronger resemblance to Surrealist prose poetry than to anything in the canon of prison literature by Boethius, John Bunyan, the Marquis de Sade, Antonio Gramsci, Eldridge Cleaver, or Jack Henry Abbott.
Many books, even by free citizens, were banned by the rulers of South Africa, but verbosity and obscurity could be effective strategies in thwarting censorship. “Should one be bothered by the desperate and farfetched babbling of the condemned?” asks Breytenbach in one of the inmate’s literary effusions. It is not hard to conceive the exasperation of security officials inspecting each day’s haul for something incriminating, or at least revealing. What Mouroir does reveal is an imagination that—like the characters in Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman and Don DeLillo’s Mao II—soars beyond stone walls and iron bars. It is literature as wish-fulfillment. One section, “The Key,” tells of a prisoner who finds a simple way to open the lock to his cell and then walk away, and another, “The Break,” tells of a condemned man who jumps off the truck carrying him to his execution. “I am the writer: I can do what I want!” Breytenbach proclaims, mocking both his jailer and his own practical impotence. Composed out of the pride, shame, and guilt of a cultural celebrity on a quixotic mission of liberation, the book possesses the peculiar intimacy of a man writing for two pairs of eyes, his own and those of his warder, his scourge, son semblable, son frère.
Mouroir was first published in 1984, a year after it appeared in Afrikaans as Mouroir: Bespieëlende notas van ‘n roman, but neither the first English edition, by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, nor the new reissue, by Archipelago, provides any indication that the volume is a translation or reconception, presumably by Breytenbach himself. I have no basis for judging the accuracy of the American text, but, in an essay he published in 1985, J. M. Coetzee, who is fluent in Afrikaans, pointed to “the recurrence of idiosyncratic mistranslations” that are in part “nothing short of inept” in Doubling the Point. At the very least, the oddness of phrases Coetzee points to such as “sucking black” (instead of “pitch-black”) and “a sentence of grass” (instead of “a strip of grass”) compounds the difficulty of reading this astonishing book. It demands the kind of laser concentration targeted by a prisoner in solitary confinement.
“Birds all over,” writes Breytenbach in his maximum-security cage, “a flock -a-flap of birds, a chirring and a chirping and a cheep-cheeping and a chattering and a chopping of bills and fluted tones; birds in the branches, in the dust baths of the plot of ground, on the roof ridge and the chimneypot, on stoep and windowsills—a constant up and down and fluttering of wings as if old blue bedcovers are ripped in fist-sized strips.” Images of birds and butterflies, icons of ephemerality, flit through the pages of Mouroir, whose title plays on mourir (to die) and miroir (mirror). The book holds a mirror up to the buried writer, fully aware that reflections are both imperfect and impermanent. Emphasizing the fluidity of identity, Breytenbach uses protagonists and personae with names as varied and wacky as Juan T. Bird, Don Espejuelo, Tuchverderber, Galgenvogel, Nefesj, Levedi Tjeling, and Ganesh. Though with scant resemblance to a vermin, someone named Gregor Samsa shows up, as does someone who spells his name Braytenbach and whom the author describes as “quite a harmless old maniac with the most ridiculous fancies and conceits.”
These disparate scribblings are a reminder that: “Truth, after all, has more faces than a polished crystal.” A painter and an author, in Afrikaans, English, and French, Breytenbach is a man of many parts, but those parts became undone in the botched role of activist. The fractured Spanish appended as epigraph to one of the sections of Mouroir—“Quien mucho abarco [sic] poco aprieta”—cautions that those who reach for much end up with little in their grasp. Yet, twenty-five years later, Breytenbach’s prison writing continues to hold a mirror up to how a restless mind confronts confinement, even as it reflects the movements of the imagination in the hospice, le mouroir, that is this life.
Steven G. Kellman is the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (Norton), the editor of M. E. Ravage’s 1917 memoir An American in the Making (Rutgers), and a professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
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