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In the quasi-fictional Mouroir (p. 363), Breytenbach offered the writing he did while a seven-year political prisoner in South Africa (two years in solitary confinement); as described here, those Mouroir pieces were written literally in the dark--""There is the splashing of the darkness, the twirled sense. Since you cannot re-read what you've written a certain continuity is imposed on you. You have to let go. You must follow. . . Repetitions, rhythms, structures, these will be nearly biological. . . You write on in an attempt to erase."" In contrast, this new memoir was dictated after Breytenbach's release from jail--and it's a more generous account, even a lyrical one, of his nearly ten years of hellish treatment. The narrative begins just before Breytenbach's arrest in 1975, when he was working to recruit white operatives for an anti-apartheid group called Okhela. Then comes the trial, which featured Breytenbach's gung-ho, white-supremacist brother as an ace-in-the-hole witness for the prosecution, and the barbarous sentence. Breytenbach's first impressions of prison follow: the deeply ingrained racism (blacks receiving a diet dramatically inferior to that of whites and coloureds); the sadism and insecurity of the guards. Later on, he evokes the increasing centrality of his sense of hearing: ""Your ears lead you up blind alieys--they do not interpret. The noises confuse you. They are the exteriorization of your confusion. You want to shout to identify yourself, to pin yourself down. What is this? Where am I? Am I awake? Your silence is sucked through the bars. You fight for sense."" And after a portrait of the prison society--its social strata, politics, economy, all related to the extraordinary fear of the guards--Breytenbach finally comes to his release. (""Not many of the people who were in Maximum Security when I arrived were still alive. They had been executed in the meantime. I was saved. Priapus, the god of gardens and birds and of thieves, no doubt wanted me to survive so as to be able to confess to you, my dear dead I."") Unlike Solzhenitsyn's testamental Gulag memoirs, or Jacobo Timerman's blanchingly terse account of Argentine imprisonment, Breytenbach's chronicle is almost ingenuous: the political naivetÉ that brought him such horror, it seems, also allows him to relate the fierce specifics of his nightmare with a strange innocence and openness. And, while lacking the grave universality of the strongest prison-memoirs, this disturbing book has one remarkable feature: the fact that Breytenbach's resilient soul seems to remain youthful, uncalcified, despite all its trials.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1984
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux