THE SESTIGERS ("sixties") were a school of Afrikaans writers in South Africa whom some critics identified with the Russian dissidents and who even -- when censorship became too oppressive -- produced a little of their own samizdat (privately circulated) literature. Breyten Breytenbach belonged spiritually to them, although he had left South Africa in 1959, aged 20, to work as a painter and poet in Paris.
In 1964, Breytenbach was awarded a major South African literary prize for his Afrikaans poetry (a Dutch-derived language, the language of the country's rulers). But by then he had married a Vietnamese woman, Hoang Lien Ngo (known as Yolande), who was classified as nonwhite under South Africa's race laws and who was refused a visa to accompany her husband to Johannesburg.
Six years later, the South African authorities relented and allowed Breytenbach to take his petite, dark-skinned wife on a three-months visit to his mother country. A Season in Paradise is the product of that visit: an intensely personal narrative, nostalgic and bitter at the same time, more a painter's impressionistic sweeps of the brush than a clinical analysis.
Breytenbach is in jail in South Africa now, serving a nine-year sentence under the terrorism act. He had returned from Paris in 1975 in disguise -- he was wearing different spectacles, his hair was cut short and he had shaved off his beard. He had a French passport in the name of Christian Galaska. The lurid charge sheet presented against him in court alleged that he, and others overseas, had formed an underground organization called Okhela, or Atlas to be a white wing of the banned African National Congress. The aim of the organization was to bring about revolutionary change in South Africa, overthrow the white government, and replace it with a black government.
A more unlikely revolutionary than Breytenbach it would be difficult to imagine. He was tailed by the security police apparently from the day of his arrival in the country, and they knew exactly whom he was seeing. When they arrested him, they detained about a dozen coconspirators (all whites) as well. As his friend, Professor Andre Brink, (author of Rumors of Rain and A Dry White Season) writes in the introduction, he did not do much to cover his tracks. There were rumors that political rivals sold him out to the police. It was all very murky.
It is a sad story. During the trial, Breytenbach wrote a poem, which he dedicated to the security police colonel in charge of his case: The patch of sky above the high window. So blue, so pure that you cannot plumb its depths So deep that it could only be the moving seam Off the prince's mantle: And at eventide, when the trees melt, He will wrap it in black velvet And softly knock on the window of his loved one: The knock is a moon: And where they lie together Her tears glisten like jewels in the folds . . .
Breytenbach pleaded guilty on the main charges, and both the attorney general and the defense counsel asked for a minimum sentence. They said Breytenbach had been merely a pawn in Okhela's hands. But the judge gave Breytenbach nine years, and in South Africa there is no remission of sentence for political offenses.
There is recurrent morbidity in A Season in Paradise. Describing his childhood, for example, Breytenbach says he fell out of a moving car in front of a farmers plowshares, which "sliced me up all over the place on my body, but particularly through my neck, so that my head was just left lying there loose to one side. Thus my blood-soaked little body was decapitated, lifeless." Breytenbach then goes on to fantasize a stirringly beautiful funeral service.
The images of South Africa -- of friends and familiar places -- are vivid. He gazes upon everything with the heightened perception of the artist and leaves the reader to make what he can of it. The facts of Breytenbach's journey, as Brink notes, are no more than a point of departure for the real voyage undertaken through landscapes of the mind and memory and fantasy, and through virtuoso flights of fancy in the realms of linguistics and literary allusion.
Brink says Breytenbach's handling of Afrikaans is a pyrotechnical performance involving the use of metaphors and figurative constructions in a new literal sense, turning idioms inside out, forming stunning neologisms, compounds, composites, agglutinations, employing children's rhymes, biblical sayings and folk songs in radically new situations.
As Breytenbach nears the end of his narrative, he writes:
"We South Africans, we will go on haunting the world forever. We are, all of us, slightly nuts, there is a bleeding crack running through each of us. At the most unexpected moments we give in, the flaw comes to light. We are victims of history and hostages of our own fears. We whiter ones are the scum of civilization based upon injustices. We are alienated and we have alienated the blacks, we are mad, all of us, with rigid faces . . . We keep revolvers in our wardrobes and bottles of liquor in the drawers of our desks. We eat peppermints to sweeten our breaths and write letters to newspapers under pseudonyms. We pray and hang people. We are maimed, we are only half human, but we know it, we are mad and realize that we are mad, and we never get away from our land."